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Milestones (Or What Passes for Them in Washington)
A Multi-Trillion-Dollar Bridge to Nowhere in the Greater Middle East
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We have it on highest authority: the recent killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan marks “an important milestone.” So the president of the United States has declared, with that claim duly echoed and implicitly endorsed by media commentary — the New York Times reporting, for example, that Mansour’s death leaves the Taliban leadership “shocked” and “shaken.”

But a question remains: A milestone toward what exactly?

Toward victory? Peace? Reconciliation? At the very least, toward the prospect of the violence abating? Merely posing the question is to imply that U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world serve some larger purpose.

Yet for years now that has not been the case. The assassination of Mansour instead joins a long list of previous milestones, turning points, and landmarks briefly heralded as significant achievements only to prove much less than advertised.

One imagines that Obama himself understands this perfectly well. Just shy of five years ago, he was urging Americans to “take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding.” In Iraq and Afghanistan, the president insisted, “the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance.”

“These long wars,” he promised, were finally coming to a “responsible end.” We were, that is, finding a way out of Washington’s dead-end conflicts in the Greater Middle East.

Who can doubt Obama’s sincerity, or question his oft-expressed wish to turn away from war and focus instead on unattended needs here at home? But wishing is the easy part. Reality has remained defiant. Even today, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that George W. Bush bequeathed to Obama show no sign of ending.

Like Bush, Obama will bequeath to his successor wars he failed to finish. Less remarked upon, he will also pass along to President Clinton or President Trump new wars that are his own handiwork. In Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and several other violence-wracked African nations, the Obama legacy is one of ever-deepening U.S. military involvement. The almost certain prospect of a further accumulation of briefly celebrated and quickly forgotten “milestones” beckons.

During the Obama era, the tide of war has not receded. Instead, Washington finds itself drawn ever deeper into conflicts that, once begun, become interminable — wars for which the vaunted U.S. military has yet to devise a plausible solution.

The Oldest (Also Latest) Solution: Bombs Away

Once upon a time, during the brief, if heady, interval between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 when the United States ostensibly reigned supreme as the world’s “sole superpower,” Pentagon field manuals credited U.S. forces with the ability to achieve “quick, decisive victory — on and off the battlefield — anywhere in the world and under virtually any conditions.” Bold indeed (if not utterly delusional) would be the staff officer willing to pen such words today.

To be sure, the United States military routinely demonstrates astonishing technical prowess — putting a pair of Hellfire missiles through the roof of the taxi in which Mansour was riding, for example. Yet if winning — that is, ending wars on conditions favorable to our side — offers the measure of merit by which to judge a nation’s military forces, then when put to the test ours have been found wanting.

Not for lack of trying, of course. In their quest for a formula that might actually accomplish the mission, those charged with directing U.S. military efforts in the Greater Middle East have demonstrated notable flexibility. They have employed overwhelming force and “shock-and awe.” They have tried regime change (bumping off Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, for example) and “decapitation” (assassinating Mansour and a host of other militant leaders, including Osama Bin Laden). They have invaded and occupied countries, even giving military-style nation-building a whirl. They have experimented with counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention, retaliatory strikes and preventive war. They have operated overtly, covertly, and through proxies. They have equipped, trained, and advised — and when the beneficiaries of these exertions have folded in the face of the enemy, they have equipped, trained, and advised some more. They have converted American reservists into quasi-regulars, subject to repeated combat tours. In imitation of the corporate world, they have outsourced as well, handing over to profit-oriented “private security” firms functions traditionally performed by soldiers. In short, they have labored doggedly to translate American military power into desired political outcomes.

In this one respect at least, an endless parade of three- and four-star generals exercising command in various theaters over the past several decades have earned high marks. In terms of effort, they deserve an A.

As measured by outcomes, however, they fall well short of a passing grade. However commendable their willingness to cast about for some method that might actually work, they have ended up waging a war of attrition. Strip away the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel reassurances regularly heard at Pentagon press briefings or in testimony presented on Capitol Hill and America’s War for the Greater Middle East proceeds on this unspoken assumption: if we kill enough people for a long enough period of time, the other side will eventually give in.

On that score, the prevailing Washington gripe directed at Commander-in-Chief Obama is that he has not been willing to kill enough. Take, for example, a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed penned by that literary odd couple, retired General David Petraeus and Brookings Institution analyst Michael O’Hanlon, that appeared under the pugnacious headline “Take the Gloves Off Against the Taliban.” To turn around the longest war in American history, Petraeus and O’Hanlon argue, the United States just needs to drop more bombs.

The rules of engagement currently governing air operations in Afghanistan are, in their view, needlessly restrictive. Air power “represents an asymmetric Western advantage, relatively safe to apply, and very effective.” (The piece omits any mention of incidents such as the October 2015 destruction of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz by a U.S. Air Force gunship.) More ordnance will surely produce “some version of victory.” The path ahead is clear. “Simply waging the Afghanistan air-power campaign with the vigor we are employing in Iraq and Syria,” the authors write with easy assurance, should do the trick.

When armchair generals cite the ongoing U.S. campaign in Iraq and Syria as a model of effectiveness, you know that things must be getting desperate.

Granted, Petraeus and O’Hanlon are on solid ground in noting that as the number of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan has decreased, so, too, has the number of air strikes targeting the Taliban. Back when more allied boots were on the ground, more allied planes were, of course, overhead. And yet the 100,000 close-air-support sorties flown between 2011 and 2015 — that’s more than one sortie per Taliban fighter — did not, alas, yield “some version of victory.” In short, we’ve already tried the Petraeus-O’Hanlon take-the-gloves-off approach to defeating the Taliban. It didn’t work. With the Afghanistan War’s 15th anniversary now just around the corner, to suggest that we can bomb our way to victory there is towering nonsense.

In Washington, Big Thinking and Small

Petraeus and O’Hanlon characterize Afghanistan as “the eastern bulwark in our broader Middle East fight.” Eastern sinkhole might be a more apt description. Note, by the way, that they have nothing useful to say about the “broader fight” to which they allude. Yet that broader fight — undertaken out of the conviction, still firmly in place today, that American military assertiveness can somehow repair the Greater Middle East — is far more deserving of attention than how to employ very expensive airplanes against insurgents armed with inexpensive Kalashnikovs.

To be fair, in silently passing over the broader fight, Petraeus and O’Hanlon are hardly alone. On this subject no one has much to say — not other stalwarts of the onward-to-victory school, nor officials presently charged with formulating U.S. national security policy, nor members of the Washington commentariat eager to pontificate about almost anything. Worst of all, the subject is one on which each of the prospective candidates for the presidency is mum.

From Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford on down to the lowliest blogger, opinions about how best to wage a particular campaign in that broader fight are readily available. Need a plan for rolling back the Islamic State? Glad you asked. Concerned about that new ISIS franchise in Libya? Got you covered. Boko Haram? Here’s what you need to know. Losing sleep over Al-Shabab? Take heart — big thinkers are on the case.

As to the broader fight itself, however, no one has a clue. Indeed, it seems fair to say that merely defining our aims in that broader fight, much less specifying the means to achieve them, heads the list of issues that people in Washington studiously avoid. Instead, they prattle endlessly about the Taliban and ISIS and Boko Haram and al-Shabab.

Here’s the one thing you need to know about the broader fight: there is no strategy. None. Zilch. We’re on a multi-trillion-dollar bridge to nowhere, with members of the national security establishment more or less content to see where it leads.

May I suggest that we find ourselves today in what might be called a Khe Sanh moment? Older readers will recall that back in late 1967 and early 1968 in the midst of the Vietnam War, one particular question gripped the national security establishment and those paid to attend to its doings: Can Khe Sanh hold?

Now almost totally forgotten, Khe Sanh was then a battlefield as well known to Americans as Fallujah was to become in our own day. Located in the northern part of South Vietnam, it was the site of a besieged and outnumbered Marine garrison, surrounded by two full enemy divisions. In the eyes of some observers, the outcome of the Vietnam War appeared to hinge on the ability of the Marines there to hold out — to avoid the fate that had befallen the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu slightly more than a decade earlier. For France, the fall of Dien Bien Phu had indeed spelled final defeat in Indochina.

Was history about to repeat itself at Khe Sanh? As it turned out, no… and yes.

The Marines did hold — a milestone! — and the United States lost the war anyway.

In retrospect, it seems pretty clear that those responsible for formulating U.S. policy back then fundamentally misconstrued the problem at hand. Rather than worrying about the fate of Khe Sanh, they ought to have been asking questions like these: Is the Vietnam War winnable? Does it even make sense? If not, why are we there? And above all, does no alternative exist to simply pressing on with a policy that shows no signs of success?

Today the United States finds itself in a comparable situation. What to do about the Taliban or ISIS is not a trivial question. Much the same can be said regarding the various other militant organizations with which U.S. forces are engaged in a variety of countries — many now failing states — across the Greater Middle East.

But the question of how to take out organization X or put country Y back together pales in comparison with the other questions that should by now have come to the fore but haven’t. Among the most salient are these: Does waging war across a large swath of the Islamic world make sense? When will this broader fight end? What will it cost? Short of reducing large parts of the Middle East to rubble, is that fight winnable in any meaningful sense? Above all, does the world’s most powerful nation have no other choice but to persist in pursuing a manifestly futile endeavor?

Try this thought experiment. Imagine the opposing candidates in a presidential campaign each refusing to accept war as the new normal. Imagine them actually taking stock of the broader fight that’s been ongoing for decades now. Imagine them offering alternatives to armed conflicts that just drag on and on. Now that would be a milestone.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, American Military, ISIS 
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  1. And there are still people who say Sanders platform is unaffordable??? Just a fraction of what is spent on the war machine would do the job.

    • Replies: @gdpbull
  2. War for Blair Mountain [AKA "Groovy Battle for Blair Mountain"] says:

    What would happen if:

    During Giants….Knicks….Jets….Ranger….Games……Marine Corp drill instructors were allowed to go into the sports stadiums and arenas of these professional sports teams and picke out 100 White Male sports fans in the seats and throw them onto a bus waiting outside to take these sports fans down to Marine Corp basic training down at Camp Le June….after which these sports fans would be sent for a tour of duty in Afghanistan or Irag..or Syria.

    Do this for every game….grab a hundred….bus em down to Camp Le June….

    So it would go something like this….The announcer at the sports stadium-arena would announce over the PA system:”LET’S HEAR IT FOR OUR TROOPS WHO ARE PROTECTING OUR FREEDOM!!!!!….SHOW YOUR SUPPORT FOR OUR TROOPS RANGER FANS BY HAVING A BUD!!!!!….a huge sports fan “YEEAAAAHHHHH!” erupts at high decibel……moments later….Camp Lejune Marine Corp drill instructors flood the stadium-arena grabbing White Male Sports Fans out of the seats and scream in their faces:”YOU SUPPORT THE TROOPS DON’T YOU?…WELL NOW YA GONNA SUPPORT THEM BY SERVING IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN….

    What would be the response of the White Male Sports Fan at a Rangers game as he is being yanked out his seat by a large Marine Corp Drill Instructor at the Garden and-or Giant Stadium?…something like this:”BUT MARINE CORP BOOT CAMP IS NOT MY CAREER CHOICE….I HAVE OTHER PLANS….THOSE YOUNG MEN AND WOMEN SERVING IN THE US MARINE CORP MADE A CAREER CHOICE TO PROTECT OUR FREEDOMS!!!!…MIKE FRANCESSA SAID THIS THE OTHER DAY ON THE FAN…SOMEBODY HELP ME”….high pitched girly boy squeals as the Camp Lejune boot camp bus travels down I-95…

    Now suppose this occurs in every sports stadium and arena across our GLORIOUS ‘WE ARE NUMBER ONE AMERICA”….100 White Male Sports Fans yanked out of their seats at every game packed off on a bus down to Camp Le Jeune for Marine Corp basic training….

  3. Rehmat says:

    Barack Obama’s “Milestone” in Afghanistan is as much propaganda lie as was Dubya Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq in Afghanistan in 2004. US-NATO invasion/occupation has failed in both countries costing US taxpayers over $3 trillion and death of over 6,000 soldier while destroying two Muslim-nation which didn’t pose a security threat to United States. In fact, it’s been proven that both invasions were Israel’s proxy war against Muslims.

    Ironically, both Iraq and Afghanistan have come more closure to Israel’s No.1 enemy Iran than they’re before 2001.

    In August 2010, Newsweek’s editor and CNN’s talk-show host Fareed Zakaria, interviewed Pakistan’s late top spy, Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul. In fact, General is no stranger to Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria has interviewed the General several times before, and his views on 9/11, Mumbai terrorist attack, Israel, India and the US are well-known and have always irked the Zionist evildoers.

    Lt. General Hamid Gul headed Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI) during Afghans Jihad against the Russian occupation and was in contact with the US, British and Saudi intelligence agencies on regular basis. He believes that only Taliban rule could control violence and insecurity in Afghanistan.

    The General told Fareed Zakaria: “The US-led war in Afghanistan is a “lost cause”. The United States needs to negotiate with Taliban leader Mullah Omer. “You have to talk to him, and I’m sure it will work out very well”.

    https://rehmat1.com/2010/08/16/hamid-gul-afghanistan-war-lost-cause/

  4. Dr. X says:

    Who can doubt Obama’s sincerity, or question his oft-expressed wish to turn away from war and focus instead on unattended needs here at home?

    Oh, we can doubt his sincerity, all right. Obama needed those wars as to “blame Bush” for everything wrong with the world and convenient excuses as to why he could not fix it. And, in fact, Prof. Bacevich, you answer your own question in the next paragraph:

    Obama will bequeath to his successor wars he failed to finish. Less remarked upon, he will also pass along to President Clinton or President Trump new wars that are his own handiwork. In Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and several other violence-wracked African nations, the Obama legacy is one of ever-deepening U.S. military involvement.

    In other words, wars are just fine and dandy for Mr. Nobel Prize prize so long as they provide political advantage (e.g., “I killed Osama bin Laden”) without any of the political liabilities of Bush’s wars.

    Try this thought experiment. Imagine the opposing candidates in a presidential campaign each refusing to accept war as the new normal. Imagine them actually taking stock of the broader fight that’s been ongoing for decades now. Imagine them offering alternatives to armed conflicts that just drag on and on.

    One candidate has already done these things: Donald J. Trump.

  5. Antiwar7 says:

    What a sad, but true, commentary.

    It’s criminally negligent that our “leaders” can be so strategically clueless, and so careless about dispensing the hell on earth that war is.

    Back when Obama was running for President the first time, and he had said that Iraq was the wrong war, but Afghanistan was the right war, I told the canvassers at my door I wasn’t going to vote for a candidate promising a “surge to nowhere” in Afghanistan.

  6. Rurik says:

    there is no strategy. None. Zilch. We’re on a multi-trillion-dollar bridge to nowhere, with members of the national security establishment more or less content to see where it leads.

    ‘the strategy’ is to keep the multi-trillion dollars flowing to the war pigs like slop in a trough

    just like with Viet Nam, the whole purpose wasn’t a decisive victory, but keeping the $lop flowing for as long and as fulsomely as possible

    Does waging war across a large swath of the Islamic world make sense?

    yes, if you’re Bibi or AIPAC and/or one of the assorted ideological Zionists (Jewish supremacists) who like watching the stupid goyim getting killed while killing other stupid goyim (anti-Semites). That state of affairs amuses them to no end and bolsters Israel in the region. It’s a win/win for them.

    When will this broader fight end?

    when every last drop of goyim blood and treasure has been spilled in the desert sand and spent serving their betters – it is written.

    What will it cost?

    who cares? The more, the better

    “Once we squeeze all we can out of the United States, it can dry up and blow away.” ~ Netanyahu

    Short of reducing large parts of the Middle East to rubble, is that fight winnable in any meaningful sense?

    winning means reducing the gentile world to rubble – it is written

    Above all, does the world’s most powerful nation have no other choice but to persist in pursuing a manifestly futile endeavor?

    futile to the stupid goyim maybe, but manifestly necessary for the irrepressible destiny of greater Israel ! (Zio-boot on every goyim face on the planet, forever…)

    The politicians and the media in the West are controlled, (duh). and some of the trillions that go out to the MIC, find their way back to those politicians and media. So the circle of corruption is a continuum. The slop continues to flow, and that’s the whole point. It’s all about the slop, as far as the politicians and MIC are concerned. And then as far as the ideological “justification” for the slop, you have the likudniks (and “Christian” Zionists), for whom no amount of death and misery is ever enough to sate their old testament god of hatred and murder.

    candidates in a presidential campaign each refusing to accept war as the new normal. Imagine them actually taking stock of the broader fight that’s been ongoing for decades now. Imagine them offering alternatives to armed conflicts that just drag on and on. Now that would be a milestone.

    isn’t that exactly what Trump has been saying, as he points out he wants to cooperate with Putin and was against the (lied about) wars from the beginning? Isn’t that very much a huge part of his popularity with the war bedraggled American people? To the shock and horror of the GOP and little Billy Kristol?

    Good article.

  7. Wally says: • Website

    Obama and the Democrats had majority control of BOTH houses of Congress for TWO YEARS but did nothing to bring about ‘hope & change’.

    • Replies: @gmat
  8. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The assassination of Mansour was probably reflexively welcomed as being a good thing. He had the temerity to resist the American invasion of his land and therefore was an enemy. Osama bin Laden has been dead for years now and had been irrelevant for years prior. He was the reason officially given for going into Afghanistan so why have we been still conducting warfare over there to this day? The deep thinkers seem to hint they have some overall grand strategy but what is it, could they at least share it with the rest of us? The killing of Mansour and other Taliban leaders might actually end up being a bad thing. There’ve been reports of the emergence of an Afghan ISIS who are in competition with the Taliban and clashes have been reported. If true then weakening the Taliban could enable more radical types to fill in the vacuum. The extreme Pol Pot group were able to seize power under the conditions of destabilization and chaos brought about by the massive bombing of Cambodia by the US. Actions create reactions and unforeseen results oftentimes.

  9. FLgeezer says:

    Wonderful, incisive post Rurik. Thank you.

    • Replies: @Rurik
  10. gmat says:
    @Wally

    No, they only had control in the Senate (ie, they had the votes to close a filibuster) for about 7 months. From July 2009, when Franken was sworn in, until Feb 2010, when Scott Brown arrived.

  11. gdpbull says:
    @Andrew Nichols

    I’m one of them. Sanders platform would be much more than the $trillions we spend on wars. I’m against both the worthless wars that have nothing to do with our security and Sanders’ socialist utopia.

  12. Wally says: • Website

    Wrong.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/110th_United_States_Congress

    The Democratic Party controlled a majority in both chambers for the first time since the end of the 103rd Congress in 1995. Although the Democrats held fewer than 50 Senate seats, they had an operational majority because the two independent senators caucused with the Democrats for organizational purposes. No Democratic-held seats had fallen to the Republican Party in the 2006 elections.

  13. bunga says:

    Whether in the form of Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham, another al Qaeda-allied rebel group in Syria, this chameleon-like Sunni jihadist force collectively provides a useful pivot around which neocons and liberal interventionists alike can pursue interventionism and the continuance of “the American Century.” It also provides a valuable intersection between Israel and Gulf interests. As Lobe wryly notes, “the authors’ undisguised hostility toward Tehran pours forth with specific policy recommendations that, frankly, could have been written as a joint paper submitted by Saudi Arabia and Israel.”

    Will the report, like the neocon Project for the New American Century, to which it is perhaps conceived as a successor, come to form the basis of American foreign policy if a Democrat won the forthcoming election? Possibly, yes.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alastair-crooke/hillary-foreign-policy_b_10338608.html

  14. Beholding today’s so-called “American leaders” from his grave, General of the Army George C. Marshall, appalled, writhes in agony. So, too, writhes Ike who, in my opinion, was the last qualified, the last thoroughly decent and wise man to have been our president.

    Today’s “leaders” would not recognize strategy if in the form of a jihadi it rushed up to them as they lolled in their feathered beds, bellowed, “Allahu Akbar!” and detonated itself. Today’s “leaders” are corrupt, venal, Globalism-greed-addicted sellouts of our Constitution and of us Americans.

  15. dahoit says:

    Well,with the Taliban,the people of Afghanistan,why can’t we be just friends,like we were before 9-11,when the shrub invited a delegation to Texas.The whole Afghan disaster is suicide.
    IsUS,is just that,IsUS,and all we have to do to end its reign of terror,is cut the funding by the gulf states and or USzion.It is a regime change engine,and pushback by the idiots who destroyed Iraq,against Iranian influence,unleashed by thethe neolibcons,who care not one iota for the innocent victims of their depredation,only in eretz isroel.

  16. Rurik says:
    @FLgeezer

    thank you FLgeezer

    just call em as I see em 😉

  17. “At the outset of his remarks, General Cartwright shared an anecdote involving former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, where they asked a sergeant at a base in Savannah, Ga., what he thought of mobile.

    The sergeant said that he loved it. He would rather leave his rifle behind than a military-enabled smartphone. “I can call any help I need with it, it always works, and I don’t have to go to school for it,” Cartwright recounted the sergeant’s response.”
    http://radar.oreilly.com/2012/12/darpa-big-data-military-open-source-agile.html

    There’s no strategy and no rifles. The obsolete is growing.

  18. Sam J. says:

    You can have the Taliban(Pashtuns) run Afghanistan or you can deport all the Pashtuns to the other side of the mountains into Pakistan and guard the passes. One other solution is to deport the Pashtuns, do away with Afghanistan and then give all the territory to the countries around Afghanistan. Otherwise we might as well go home. Ethnic cleansing works.

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