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Filling the Empty Battlefield

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Posted on Apr 23, 2013
Nation Books

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

As Scahill also shows, they were often remarkably successful at eliminating the figures on their “kill list” of targeted enemies from Osama bin Laden on down: Bin Laden himself in Pakistan, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, Aden Hashi Ayro in Somalia, Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, as well as various “lieutenants” of top al-Qaeda figures and allied groups.  And yet, as those on the kill lists died, thanks to the CIA’s drones and JSOC’s raiders, so did others.  Often enough, they were innocent civilians—and in quantity.  People who shouldn’t have ever had their doors kicked in, their sons arrested or their pregnant wives shot down, and who bitterly resented what they experienced.  And so before Washington knew it, the kill list was growing larger, not smaller, and its wars were becoming more, not less, intense and spreading to other lands.  The battlefield, copiously prepared, was filling with enemies.

A Perpetual Motion Machine for the Destabilization of the Planet

As Washington launched its post-9/11 adventures, the neoconservative allies of the Bush administration, believing the wind in their sails, eyed the vast area from North Africa to the Central Asian border of China (aka “the Greater Middle East”) that they liked to call the “arc of instability.”  The job of the U.S., they imagined, was to bring stability to that “arc” by using America’s overwhelming military power to create a Pax Americana in the region.  They were, in other words, fundamentalists and the U.S. military was their born-again religion.  They believed that its techno-power would trump every other form of power on the planet, hands down.

In the wake of the American withdrawal from Iraq and in light of the ongoing disastrous war in Afghanistan, if you look at the Greater Middle East today—from Pakistan to Syria, Afghanistan to Mali—you’ll know what instability is really all about.  Twelve years later, much of the region has been destabilized to one degree or another, which might pass as the definition for Washington of short-term success and long-term failure.

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In reality, they should have known better from the start.  After all, behind the global war launched by the Bush administration and carried on by Obama was a twenty-first-century replay of a brutal flop of a strategy in Washington’s failed war in Vietnam.  The phrase that went with it back then was “the crossover point,” the supposedly crucial moment in what was bluntly thought of as a “war of attrition.”  

The idea was simple enough.  The staggering firepower available to Washington would be brought to bear on the Vietnamese enemy with the obvious, expectable result: sooner or later, a moment would be reached in which the U.S. would be killing more of that enemy than could be replaced by recruitment in South Vietnam or the infiltration of reinforcements from the North.  At that moment, Washington would “crossover” into victory.  We know just where that led—to the infamous body count (which the Bush administration tried desperately to avoid in Iraq and Afghanistan), to slaughter on a staggering scale, and to defeat when the prodigious number of enemies killed somehow never resulted in the U.S. crossing over.

And here’s the ironic thing.  Like his father who, as the first Gulf War ended in 1991, spoke ecstatically of having “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” George W. Bush and his top officials had an overwhelming allergy to the memory of Vietnam.  Yet they still managed to launch a global war of attrition against a range of groups they defined as “terrorists.” They were clearly planning to kill them, one by one if possible, or in “signature” groups if necessary, until some crossover point was reached, until the enemy was losing more members than could be replaced and victory came into sight. As in Vietnam, of course, that crossover point never arrived and it’s increasingly clear that it never will.  Scahill’s reporting couldn’t be more incisive on the subject.

Dirty Wars is really the secret history of how Washington launched a series of undeclared wars in the backlands of the planet and killed its way to something that ever more closely resembled an actual global war, creating a world of enemies out of next to nothing.  Think of it as a bizarre form of unconscious wish fulfillment and the results—they came!—as a field of nightmares.

What was created in the process now seems more like a perpetual motion machine for the destabilization of the planet.  Just follow the spread of drone bases and of JSOC’s raiders, and you can actually watch the backlands of the globe destabilizing before your eyes, or read Scahill’s book and get a superb blow-by-blow account of just how it happened.  The process is now well underway in Africa where destabilization seems to be heading south from Libya via Mali.

Reread Blowback 13 years later and it’s hard to believe that anyone was so ahead of his times, given the human predilection for being unable to foresee much of anything.  Perhaps the saddest thing that can be said about Dirty Wars is that, the way things look, 13 years from now Scahill’s book, too, may seem as fresh as last night’s news.  He has laid out a style of off-the-books war-making that seems destined to be perpetuated, no matter what administration is in power.

Much remains unknown when it comes to our recent non-war wars.  Thirteen years from now we may know far more about what JSOC, the CIA, and others were really doing in these years.  None of that, however, is likely to change the pattern Scahill has set down for us.


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