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Why Washington Can’t Stop
Posted on Oct 24, 2013
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
For the planet’s sole superpower, this, of all things, should be a slam dunk. At least the Iraqi government had a certain strength of its own (and the country’s oil wealth to back it up). If there is a government on Earth that qualifies for the term “puppet,” it should be the Afghan one of President Hamid Karzai. After all, at least 80% (and possibly 90%) of that government’s expenses are covered by the U.S. and its allies, and its security forces are considered incapable of carrying on the fight against the Taliban and other insurgent outfits without U.S. support and aid. If Washington were to withdraw totally (including its financial support), it’s hard to imagine that any successor to the Karzai government would last long.
How, then, to explain the fact that Karzai has refused to sign a future bilateral security pact long in the process of being hammered out? Instead, he recently denounced U.S. actions in Afghanistan, as he had repeatedly done in the past, claimed that he simply would not ink the agreement, and began bargaining with U.S. officials as if he were the leader of the planet’s other superpower.
A frustrated Washington had to dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry on a sudden mission to Kabul for some top-level face-to-face negotiations. The result, a reported 24-hour marathon of talks and meetings, was hailed as a success: problem(s) solved. Oops, all but one. As it turned out, it was the very same one on which the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq stumbled—Washington’s demand for legal immunity from local law for its troops. In the end, Kerry flew out without an assured agreement.
Making Sense of War in the Twenty-First Century
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Whether the U.S. military does or doesn’t last a few more years in Afghanistan, the blunt fact is this: the president of one of the poorest and weakest countries on the planet, himself relatively powerless, is essentially dictating terms to Washington—and who’s to say that, in the end, as in Iraq, U.S. troops won’t be forced to leave there as well?
Once again, military strength has not carried the day. Yet military power, advanced weaponry, force, and destruction as tools of policy, as ways to create a world in your own image or to your own taste, have worked plenty well in the past. Ask those Mongols, or the European imperial powers from Spain in the sixteenth century to Britain in the nineteenth century, which took their empires by force and successfully maintained them over long periods.
What planet are we now on? Why is it that military power, the mightiest imaginable, can’t overcome, pacify, or simply destroy weak powers, less than impressive insurgency movements, or the ragged groups of (often tribal) peoples we label as “terrorists”? Why is such military power no longer transformative or even reasonably effective? Is it, to reach for an analogy, like antibiotics? If used for too long in too many situations, does a kind of immunity build up against it?
Let’s be clear here: such a military remains a powerful potential instrument of destruction, death, and destabilization. For all we know—it’s not something we’ve seen anything of in these years—it might also be a powerful instrument for genuine defense. But if recent history is any guide, what it clearly cannot be in the twenty-first century is a policymaking instrument, a means of altering the world to fit a scheme developed in Washington. The planet itself and people just about anywhere on it seem increasingly resistant in ways that take the military off the table as an effective superpower instrument of state.
Washington’s military plans and tactics since 9/11 have been a spectacular train wreck. When you look back, counterinsurgency doctrine, resuscitated from the ashes of America’s defeat in Vietnam, is once again on the scrap heap of history. (Who today even remembers its key organizing phrase—“clear, hold, and build”—which now looks like the punch line for some malign joke?) “Surges,” once hailed as brilliant military strategy, have already disappeared into the mists. “Nation-building,” once a term of tradecraft in Washington, is in the doghouse. “Boots on the ground,” of which the U.S. had enormous numbers and still has 51,000 in Afghanistan, are now a no-no. The American public is, everyone universally agrees, “exhausted” with war. Major American armies arriving to fight anywhere on the Eurasian continent in the foreseeable future? Don’t count on it.
But lessons learned from the collapse of war policy? Don’t count on that, either. It’s clear enough that Washington still can’t fully absorb what’s happened. Its faith in war remains remarkably unbroken in a century in which military power has become the American political equivalent of a state religion. Our leaders are still high on the counterterrorism wars of the future, even as they drown in their military efforts of the present. Their urge is still to rejigger and reimagine what a deliverable military solution would be.
Now the message is: skip those boots en masse—in fact, cut down on their numbers in the age of the sequester—and go for the counterterrorism package. No more spilling of (American) blood. Get the “bad guys,” one or a few at a time, using the president’s private army, the Special Operations forces, or his private air force, the CIA’s drones. Build new barebones micro-bases globally. Move those aircraft carrier battle groups off the coast of whatever country you want to intimidate.
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