Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished. Each spring he is a Teaching Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
Tomdispatch.com is the sideline that ate his life. Before that he worked as an editor at Pacific News Service in the early 1970s, and, these last three decades, as an editor in book publishing. For 15 years, he was Senior Editor at Pantheon Books where he edited and published award-winning works ranging from Art Spiegelman’s Maus and John Dower’s War Without Mercy to Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy. He is now Consulting Editor at Metropolitan Books, as well as co-founder and co-editor of Metropolitan’s The American Empire Project. Many of the authors whose books he has edited and published over the years now write for Tomdispatch.com. He is married to Nancy J. Garrity, a therapist, and has two children, Maggie and Will.
To find out more about Engelhardt and his background, check out:
Harry Kreisler’s interview, “Taking Back the Word”, on the Conversations with History website.
Julian Brookes’ interview, “Iraq, Bush, and Writing Long”, on the Mother Jones website.
Nick Turse’s two-part interview on the Tomdispatch website, “Reading the Imperial Press Front to Back” (part 1) and “On Not Packing Your Bag and Heading Home When Things Go Wrong” (part 2).
If you’ve just stumbled into Tomdispatch, wondering whether Tom Engelhardt is the “Tommy Engelhardt” you once knew, and you’re thinking of a boy 11 years old or younger, growing up in New York City, then you probably have the right guy.
If you’re in the mood, would you consider taking a walk with me and, while we’re at it, thinking a little about America’s wars? Nothing particularly ambitious, mind you, just — if you’re up for it — a stroll to the corner.
Now, admittedly, there’s a small catch here. Where exactly is that corner? I think the first time I heard about it might have been back in January 2004 and it was located somewhere in Iraq. That was, if you remember, just nine months after American troops triumphantly entered a burning Baghdad and the month after Iraq’s autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein was captured near his hometown, Tikrit. Yet despite President George W. Bush’s unforgettable May 1, 2003, “mission accomplished” moment when, from the deck of an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego, he declared “major combat operations in Iraq… ended,” the American war there somehow never actually stopped. An insurgency had already flared, U.S. bases were being periodically mortared, and American officials feared that some kind of civil war was in the offing between the country’s formerly reigning Sunni minority and its rising Shiite majority.
It was then that Major General Charles Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, mentioned that corner (and as you’ll gather from his comments, it wasn’t even the first time he’d brought the subject up). Here, as New York Times correspondent John Burns reported it, was Swannack’s assessment of the situation:
“The general, a large, imposing figure renowned among his troops for his no-nonsense ways, began his remarks by reminding the reporters that he had appeared in Baghdad six weeks ago, about the time of the insurgents’ Ramadan offensive, and had said he believed [troops] in his area were ‘turning the corner.’
“Now, he said, ‘I’m here to tell you that we’ve turned that corner. I can also tell you that we are on a glide path towards success, as attacks on our forces have declined by almost 60 percent over the past month.’”
As it happened, Americans would remain on the glide path to that corner of ultimate success for some time, not just in Iraq but in Washington, too. There, as Rowan Scarborough reported more than a year later, in March 2005, “in the privacy of their E-ring offices, senior Pentagon officials have begun to entertain thoughts that were unimaginable a year ago: Iraq is turning the corner. ‘This is still a tough fight. We don’t want anyone to think that it is not,’ said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a military analyst who strongly supports Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. ‘But the momentum is in our direction.’”
Here was the problem: every time American troops actually turned that corner, what they found there were insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other weaponry, sometimes even American-produced arms. In addition, the streets around that corner turned out to be pitted with half-buried improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, those same insurgents could build from instructions on the Internet and that could destroy the most well-armored Humvee for the price of a pizza. (Early on, in fact, some of the places down which American troops had to turn were already being given grimly sardonic names like “RPG Alley.”) There were, as it happened, so many corners to turn and yet, from 2003 on, seemingly nowhere to go.
I don’t doubt that those of you of a certain age preparing for our little walk are already thinking about a somewhat more perilous image from another war: the infamous “light at the end of the tunnel” that will forever be connected with Vietnam. That phrase was repeatedly used by Americans to describe the glide path to victory in that conflict and would long be associated with the commander of U.S. forces, General William Westmoreland. He used it to remarkable effect in 1967, a mere 10 weeks before the enemy launched its devastating Tet Offensive.
However, the general was anything but alone in his choice of imagery. That “tunnel” was also occupied by a range of top U.S. officials, from President Lyndon Johnson to National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. And it wasn’t the newest of images either. After all, General Henri Navarre had used it a decade and a half earlier in the French version of that losing war.
For those in the antiwar movement of the era, it was an image that always had a particularly ominous resonance, since you weren’t just heading for “the corner” but deep inside a dark tunnel where, just beyond the light glimmering at its end, it was easy enough to imagine a train bearing down on you. By the way, lest you think there’s anything especially original about the American military in the twenty-first century, Westmoreland also spoke with hope in 1967 (but assumedly before he found himself in that tunnel) of how the U.S. “had turned the corner in the war” and how its end had begun “to come into view.”
In Iraq, the light at the end of the corner would prove no more evident than it had been in that Vietnamese tunnel and, as a result, the corner itself simply disappeared. In fact, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2008, U.S. commander (and Iraq surge general) David Petraeus even admitted, however reluctantly, that “we haven’t turned any corners, we haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel.” And soon after that, corners of any sort were largely abandoned (at least as figures of speech). Or perhaps, thought of another way, the problem of finding a corner, no less any good news on the other side of it, would be solved by a change in tactics in the second iteration of Washington’s Iraq War in this century: the one against the Islamic State. From August 2014 on, the U.S. Air Force would be called in to play a major role in turning Iraq’s embattled cities, from Fallujah to Mosul, into so much rubble. No corners, no problems, you might say.
Now, I don’t want you to be disappointed. I was serious about that walk to the corner, just not in Iraq. Consider corner-less Iraq no more than background information for the real walk we’re going to take.
But before we leave Iraq, let me mention — and I hope you won’t consider me too much of an optimist for this — that I just might see a little light glimmering at the end of the rubble. Is it possible that, some 14 years late, America’s mission-accomplished moment is finally arriving? After all, the “caliphate” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is history and, in December, President Donald Trump even declared victory over ISIS. (“We’ve won in Iraq,” he said without hesitation or qualification.) No tunnel, no corner, no glimmers of light, just the whole shebang.
Now admittedly, while the so-called caliphate is gone and its militants driven out of the Iraqi and Syrian cities they had occupied, some of its fighters seem to be turning themselves back into guerrilla warriors and suicide bombers — the first post-caliphate bombings in Baghdad have evidently begun — and aren’t quite acting like they’re down for the count. Not yet anyway (and let’s not forget as well that, in the years leading to Washington’s “victory,” the Islamic State did somehow manage to turn itself into a global terror brand).
Still, give me a little leeway here. I’m just talking about glimmers, and… oh, wait, I should mention one more thing: in neighboring Syria, all a-glimmer itself these days, the U.S. is now seemingly on the brink of involvement in a whole new war between NATO ally Turkey and the Kurdish forces it’s still backing against ISIS and, talking about what’s glimmering in the distance, a possible future war with Iran also seems to be lurking just around the next turn of the Trumpian corner.
Still, let’s keep the good news in full view. U.S. troops are actually being drawn down in Iraq and a mere 14 years after that mission-accomplished moment, some of them are evidently being sent to the place where that corner-to-be-turned still evidently stands, where for America’s war-fighting generals and other key officials, there have always been corners to turn beyond compare.
“Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan”
So how about taking that little walk of ours somewhere in Afghanistan? After all, a mere 16 years after the Bush administration invaded and liberated that land — at the end of November 2017, to be exact — U.S. commander Army General John Nicholson, who had only recently been claiming that the fight against the Taliban (and a new branch of ISIS) was “still in a stalemate,” suddenly suggested… yes, you guessed it… that the by-now famous corner, so long sought after, was once again being turned. He managed to make the point by quoting a recent statement of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, saying, “Now, looking ahead to 2018, as President Ghani said, he believes we have turned the corner and I agree. The momentum is now with the Afghan Security Forces and the Taliban cannot win in the face of the pressures that I outlined. Again, their choices are to reconcile, live in irrelevance, or die.”
If, so many years later, General Nicholson were alone in such a conclusion, you might question his claim, given that the Taliban now control or contest more Afghan territory than at any time since they were driven from power in 2001; that President Ghani’s government seems shakier than any since the U.S. “liberated” the country; that the Afghan security forces have been taking a beating; and that the capital, Kabul, the heartland of government control, has been a veritable inferno of terror attacks. Still, here’s what gives Nicholson’s statement its power: he’s not alone. His conclusion has been backed by a remarkable array of knowledgeable officials since at least 2010.
Here’s just a partial list: U.S. Afghan commander General Stanley McChrystal in February 2010 (the U.S. had “turned the corner” in Helmand Province in the embattled poppy-producing southern heartland of the country); Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on June 7, 2011 (“I leave Afghanistan today with the belief that if we keep this momentum up, we will deliver a decisive blow to the enemy and turn the corner in this conflict”) and his boss President Barack Obama on the same day (“We’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum, trained Afghan security forces, and are now preparing to turn a corner in our efforts”); Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey in April 2012 (“In my opening months as chairman, I worked with the secretary of defense and the president to fashion a new defense strategy, guidance that would address the security paradox. This guidance is meant to help our military… turn the corner from a decade of focus on stability operations and find a new way forward to address that wider spectrum of threats”); and Gates’s successor, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in September 2012 (“We have turned the corner”); and so it’s gone in Afghanistan.
Or put another way, never have so many prospective corners been turned over so many years to so little effect. Nonetheless, if you’re game, let’s think about heading out in search of just such a corner one more time. Before we go, though, let me mention one other thing. Given the experiences of the British and the Soviets, among others, Afghanistan has long been called “the graveyard of empires.” However, for Afghans since 1979, when the first iteration of America’s wars there began, it has simply been a graveyard. This year, things have already gotten so bad in Kabul — from attacks on a major hotel and a military academy to a devastating bomb concealed inside an ambulance — that city dwellers have reportedly taken to carrying “in case I die” notes with them, lest their bodies be shredded and left unidentifiable by the latest Taliban or ISIS terror assault.
Across the country, in winter — usually a time of little fighting — the war(s) are simply being ratcheted up. The Trump administration and the Pentagon are sending in more troops (“advisers”), more planes, and more drones. The U.S. military has announced soaring numbers of air strikes, as well as more bombings (including record ones) than at any time since 2012 when 100,000, not 14,00-15,000, U.S. troops were in-country. And the U.S. air commander there, Air Force Major General James Hecker, recently threatened more of them, claiming that “the Taliban still has not felt the full brunt of American and Afghan air power.” And yet, according to both the Pentagon and a recent BBC study, the Taliban is now contesting more territory than at any time since 2002 and militants from the ISIS branch there have similarly been spreading to new parts of the country.
Yes, the U.S. military (in support of Afghan security forces) and the Taliban (as well as ISIS) are fighting each other, but functionally, when it comes to ordinary Afghans, they are colluding in killing striking numbers of civilians across the country. In other words, more than a decade and a half later, despite those corners, it all only seems to be getting worse with no end in sight.
After all, in these years, the two groups the Bush administration went after in 2001, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, have somehow morphed into “more than 20 terrorist and insurgent groups” on either side of the Afghani-Pakistani border. (And in case you doubt those figures, they’re straight out of a recent ill-titled Pentagon report, “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan.”) Beyond Afghanistan, in these years, the same process has been repeating itself, as the original al-Qaeda morphed into a whole range of groups (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and so on) and the same thing is now happening to ISIS.
In fact, I’m starting to wonder about almost any corner in much of the Greater Middle East and Africa, which means it’s true: I’m the one who’s hesitating now. I know what I promised you, but to be honest, I’m having my doubts about this walk of ours. I’m worried about what exactly will happen if we ever do get to that corner. Who, after all, wants to whistle past a graveyard.
So here’s my suggestion. Why don’t we just postpone our walk for a while? Bad as things are right now, experience tells us — or at least our military commanders swear to it — that they’ll get better sooner or later. What if we check back this fall, or maybe early next year, or perhaps sometime in 2020, or even 2021? By that time, there has to be at least one corner around which we could… well, you know what I’m about to say. Count on one thing: I’ll be in touch.
If you want to know something about life in America these days, consider how New York Times columnist David Leonhardt began his first piece of the year, “7 Wishes for 2018”: “Well, at least it’s not 2017 anymore. I expect that future historians will look back on it as one of the darker non-war years in the country’s history…”
Think about that for a moment: 2017, a “non-war year”? Tell that to the Afghans, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Yemenis, the Somalis, or for that matter the parents of the four American Green Berets who died in Niger last October. Still, let’s admit it, Leonhardt caught a deeper American reality of 2017, not to speak of the years before that, and undoubtedly this one, too.
“Launched in October 2001, what was once called the Global War on Terror—it even gained the grotesque acronym, GWOT—has never ended.”
Launched in October 2001, what was once called the Global War on Terror—it even gained the grotesque acronym, GWOT—has never ended. Instead, it’s morphed and spread over large parts of the planet. In all the intervening years, the United States has been in a state of permanent war that shows no sign of concluding in 2018. Its planes continue to drop a staggering tonnage of munitions; its drones continue to Hellfire-missile country after country; and, in recent years, its elite Special Operations forces, now a military-within-the-U.S.-military of about 70,000 personnel, have been deployed, as Nick Turse has long reported at this website, to almost every imaginable country on the planet. They train allied militaries and proxy forces, advise and sometimes fight with those forces in the field, conduct raids, and engage in what certainly looks like war.
The only catch in all this (and it’s surely what led Leonhardt to write those lines of his) is the American people. Long divorced from their all-volunteer military in a draft-less country, we have largely ignored the war on terror and gone about our business just as President George W. Bush urged us to do two weeks after the 9/11 attacks. (“Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”) As those distant conflicts expanded and terror groups spread and multiplied, Washington helped the “non-war” atmosphere along by perfecting a new kind of warfare in which ever fewer Americans would die. Half a century later, its quagmire qualities aside, the war on terror is largely the anti-Vietnam War: no body counts, few body bags, lots of proxy forces, armed robotic vehicles in the skies, and at the tip of the “spear” a vast, ever-more secretive military, those special ops guys. As a result, if you weren’t in that all-volunteer military or a family member of someone who was, it wasn’t too hard to live as if the country’s “forever wars” had nothing to do with us. It’s possible that never in our history, one filled with wars, have Americans been more deeply demobilized than in this era. When it comes to the war on terror, there’s neither been a wave of support nor, since 2003, a wave of protest.
In a sense, then, David Leonhardt was right on the mark. In so much of the world, 2017 was a grim year of war, displacement, and disaster. Here, however, it was, in so many ways, just another “non-war year.” In that context, let Nick Turse guide you in his latest piece, “Special Ops at War,” into the next “non-war year” and the “non-war” force, America’s special operators, who are likely to be at its heart.
Top photo: A cover detail from the Andrew Bacevich’s book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, published by Random House in 2016. (Image: Random House)
More than 16 years after an American invasion “liberated” Afghanistan, he was there to offer some good news to a U.S. troop contingent once again on the rise. Before a 40-foot American flag, addressing 500 American troops, Vice President Mike Pence praised them as “the world’s greatest force for good,” boasted that American air strikes had recently been “dramatically increased,” swore that their country was “here to stay,” and insisted that “victory is closer than ever before.” As an observer noted, however, the response of his audience was “subdued.” (“Several troops stood with their arms crossed or their hands folded behind their backs and listened, but did not applaud.”)
Think of this as but the latest episode in an upside down geopolitical fairy tale, a grim, rather than Grimm, story for our age that might begin: Once upon a time — in October 2001, to be exact — Washington launched its war on terror. There was then just one country targeted, the very one where, a little more than a decade earlier, the U.S. had ended a long proxy war against the Soviet Union during which it had financed, armed, or backed an extreme set of Islamic fundamentalist groups, including a rich young Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden.
By 2001, in the wake of that war, which helped send the Soviet Union down the path to implosion, Afghanistan was largely (but not completely) ruled by the Taliban. Osama bin Laden was there, too, with a relatively modest crew of cohorts. By early 2002, he had fled to Pakistan, leaving many of his companions dead and his organization, al-Qaeda, in a state of disarray. The Taliban, defeated, were pleading to be allowed to put down their arms and go back to their villages, an abortive process that Anand Gopal vividly described in his book, No Good Men Among the Living.
It was, it seemed, all over but the cheering and, of course, the planning for yet greater exploits across the region. The top officials in the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were geopolitical dreamers of the first order who couldn’t have had more expansive ideas about how to extend such success to — as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld indicated only days after the 9/11 attacks — terror or insurgent groups in more than 60 countries. It was a point President Bush would reemphasize nine months later in a triumphalist graduation speech at West Point. At that moment, the struggle they had quickly, if immodestly, dubbed the Global War on Terror was still a one-country affair. They were, however, already deep into preparations to extend it in ways more radical and devastating than they could ever have imagined with the invasion and occupation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the domination of the oil heartlands of the planet that they were sure would follow. (In a comment that caught the moment exactly, Newsweek quoted a British official “close to the Bush team” as saying, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”)
So many years later, perhaps it won’t surprise you — as it probably wouldn’t have surprised the hundreds of thousands of protesters who turned out in the streets of American cities and towns in early 2003 to oppose the invasion of Iraq — that this was one of those stories to which the adage “be careful what you wish for” applies.
And it’s a tale that’s not over yet. Not by a long shot. As a start, in the Trump era, the longest war in American history, the one in Afghanistan, is only getting longer. There are those U.S. troop levels on the rise; those air strikes ramping up; the Taliban in control of significant sections of the country; an Islamic State-branded terror group spreading ever more successfully in its eastern regions; and, according to the latest report from the Pentagon, “more than 20 terrorist or insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Think about that: 20 groups. In other words, so many years later, the war on terror should be seen as an endless exercise in the use of multiplication tables — and not just in Afghanistan either. More than a decade and a half after an American president spoke of 60 or more countries as potential targets, thanks to the invaluable work of a single dedicated group, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, we finally have a visual representation of the true extent of the war on terror. That we’ve had to wait so long should tell us something about the nature of this era of permanent war.
The Costs of War Project has produced not just a map of the war on terror, 2015-2017 (released at TomDispatch with this article), but the first map of its kind ever. It offers an astounding vision of Washington’s counterterror wars across the globe: their spread, the deployment of U.S. forces, the expanding missions to train foreign counterterror forces, the American bases that make them possible, the drone and other air strikes that are essential to them, and the U.S. combat troops helping to fight them. (Terror groups have, of course, morphed and expanded riotously as part and parcel of the same process.)
A glance at the map tells you that the war on terror, an increasingly complex set of intertwined conflicts, is now a remarkably global phenomenon. It stretches from the Philippines (with its own ISIS-branded group that just fought an almost five-month-long campaign that devastated Marawi, a city of 300,000) through South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and deep into West Africa where, only recently, four Green Berets died in an ambush in Niger.
No less stunning are the number of countries Washington’s war on terror has touched in some fashion. Once, of course, there was only one (or, if you want to include the United States, two). Now, the Costs of War Project identifies no less than 76 countries, 39% of those on the planet, as involved in that global conflict. That means places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya where U.S. drone or other air strikes are the norm and U.S. ground troops (often Special Operations forces) have been either directly or indirectly engaged in combat. It also means countries where U.S. advisers are training local militaries or even militias in counterterror tactics and those with bases crucial to this expanding set of conflicts. As the map makes clear, these categories often overlap.
Who could be surprised that such a “war” has been eating American taxpayer dollars at a rate that should stagger the imagination in a country whose infrastructure is now visibly crumbling? In a separate study, released in November, the Costs of War Project estimated that the price tag on the war on terror (with some future expenses included) had already reached an astronomical $5.6 trillion. Only recently, however, President Trump, now escalating those conflicts, tweeted an even more staggering figure: “After having foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is time to start rebuilding our country!” (This figure, too, seems to have come in some fashion from the Costs of War estimate that “future interest payments on borrowing for the wars will likely add more than $7.9 trillion to the national debt” by mid-century.)
It couldn’t have been a rarer comment from an American politician, as in these years assessments of both the monetary and human costs of war have largely been left to small groups of scholars and activists. The war on terror has, in fact, spread in the fashion today’s map lays out with almost no serious debate in this country about its costs or results. If the document produced by the Costs of War project is, in fact, a map from hell, it is also, I believe, the first full-scale map of this war ever produced.
Think about that for a moment. For the last 16 years, we, the American people, funding this complex set of conflicts to the tune of trillions of dollars, have lacked a single map of the war Washington has been fighting. Not one. Yes, parts of that morphing, spreading set of conflicts have been somewhere in the news regularly, though seldom (except when there were “lone wolf” terror attacks in the United States or Western Europe) in the headlines. In all those years, however, no American could see an image of this strange, perpetual conflict whose end is nowhere in sight.
Part of this can be explained by the nature of that “war.” There are no fronts, no armies advancing on Berlin, no armadas bearing down on the Japanese homeland. There hasn’t been, as in Korea in the early 1950s, even a parallel to cross or fight your way back to. In this war, there have been no obvious retreats and, after the triumphal entry into Baghdad in 2003, few advances either.
It was hard even to map its component parts and when you did — as in an August New York Times map of territories controlled by the Taliban in Afghanistan — the imagery was complex and of limited impact. Generally, however, we, the people, have been demobilized in almost every imaginable way in these years, even when it comes to simply following the endless set of wars and conflicts that go under the rubric of the war on terror.
Mapping 2018 and Beyond
Let me repeat this mantra: once, almost seventeen years ago, there was one; now, the count is 76 and rising. Meanwhile, great cities have been turned into rubble; tens of millions of human beings have been displaced from their homes; refugees by the millions continue to cross borders, unsettling ever more lands; terror groups have become brand names across significant parts of the planet; and our American world continues to be militarized.
This should be thought of as an entirely new kind of perpetual global war. So take one more look at that map. Click on it and then enlarge it to consider the map in full-screen mode. It’s important to try to imagine what’s been happening visually, since we’re facing a new kind of disaster, a planetary militarization of a sort we’ve never truly seen before. No matter the “successes” in Washington’s war, ranging from that invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to the taking of Baghdad in 2003 to the recent destruction of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq (or most of it anyway, since at this moment American planes are still dropping bombs and firing missiles in parts of Syria), the conflicts only seem to morph and tumble on.
We are now in an era in which the U.S. military is the leading edge — often the only edge — of what used to be called American “foreign policy” and the State Department is being radically downsized. American Special Operations forces were deployed to 149 countries in 2017 alone and the U.S. has so many troops on so many bases in so many places on Earth that the Pentagon can’t even account for the whereabouts of 44,000 of them. There may, in fact, be no way to truly map all of this, though the Costs of War Project’s illustration is a triumph of what can be seen.
Looking into the future, let’s pray for one thing: that the folks at that project have plenty of stamina, since it’s a given that, in the Trump years (and possibly well beyond), the costs of war will only rise. The first Pentagon budget of the Trump era, passed with bipartisan unanimity by Congress and signed by the president, is a staggering $700 billion. Meanwhile, America’s leading military men and the president, while escalating the country’s conflicts from Niger to Yemen, Somalia to Afghanistan, seem eternally in search of yet more wars to launch.
Pointing to Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, for instance, Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller recently told U.S. troops in Norway to expect a “bigass fight” in the future, adding, “I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a war coming.” In December, National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster similarly suggested that the possibility of a war (conceivably nuclear in nature) with Kim Jong-un’s North Korea was “increasing every day.” Meanwhile, in an administration packed with Iranophobes, President Trump seems to be preparing to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, possibly as early as this month.
In other words, in 2018 and beyond, maps of many creative kinds may be needed simply to begin to take in the latest in America’s wars. Consider, for instance, a recent report in the New York Times that about 2,000 employees of the Department of Homeland Security are already “deployed to more than 70 countries around the world,” largely to prevent terror attacks. And so it goes in the twenty-first century.
So welcome to 2018, another year of unending war, and while we’re on the subject, a small warning to our leaders: given the last 16 years, be careful what you wish for.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. The map in this piece was produced by the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as well as John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2018 Tom Engelhardt
This material was published by TomDispatch
It will have been replaced by an explosion of media coverage about some other nightmarish set of presidential tweets or comments. After all, it’s a pattern. I’m referring to President Trump’s recent retweeting of three videos of purported Islamic mayhem. They came from the Twitter feed of Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of a British ultranationalist group, Britain First, that had previously sparked its own terror incident, the stabbing to death of Labor parliamentarian Jo Cox by a man shouting “Britain First!” In 2016, Fransen herself was convicted of “religiously aggravated harassment” for abusing a Muslim woman in a hijab in front of her children. One of those videos of hers supposedly showed a “Muslim immigrant” in Holland beating up a boy on crutches. (The incident actually happened, but the attacker was neither a Muslim nor an immigrant.)
When criticized by British Prime Minister Theresa May for using the fraudulent materials of such an extremist group, our commander-in-tweet lashed out (initially tweeting the wrong Theresa May) and wouldn’t back down or even remove the videos from his Twitter feed. Fransen, who instantly gained 22,000 new Twitter followers for her fringe positions in England, thanked him fervently. (“God bless you Trump! God bless America!”) Meanwhile social media lit up with Islamophobic sentiments both in the U.S. and Great Britain.
Such events are regularly reported as uncontrollable presidential interruptions of other important events on the Trump agenda — that week, the Republican tax “reform” bill — which only frustrate his chief of staff, flummox his advisers, and generally distract the administration from everything that truly matters. Don’t believe it for a minute. There’s method, however intuitive, in Trump’s madness, in those endless tweetish controversies, in his regular immersion in conspiracies (think: birtherism), implosions that plunge the president and his 43.6 million Twitter followers into a deep, dark world alive with horror and terror, whether of the Muslim or even the football variety.
As TomDispatch regular John Feffer, author of the new book Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams, points out today, the “wild conspiracy theories” that go with this sort of politics have lifted not just Trump, but a whole raft of right-wing authoritarian types to power across Eastern Europe in recent years. This sort of thinking, especially with an Islamophobic edge, has helped drive Trump and a whole set of Trump-like Eastern European leaders to unimagined heights of success and has helped them remain there, too. So don’t expect the president’s outbursts, his Islamophobic tweets, or any of the rest of it to end soon. It rallies the base. It works and he knows it.
As Feffer explains today, those Eastern Europeans learned all of this long before Donald Trump hit the political stage. So what they’ve done and how they’ve lasted is worth taking a moment to contemplate as you consider Donald Trump’s future (and ours). Think of their examples as warnings not to sell him and the method in that madness of his short.
Top image: DonkeyHotey @flickr
As you read “Into the Afghan Abyss (Again)” by historian Alfred McCoy, author most recently of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, think of Afghanistan as the gateway drug for three Washington administrations. Within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush and his top officials had launched their invasion of that country and soon knocked off the Taliban (rather than simply going after Osama bin Laden and his followers). That “victory,” however ephemeral, acted as the policy equivalent of a drug high for the president and his crew of geopolitical dreamers who promptly turned their attention to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and nailing down the rest of the oil heartlands of the planet. (And you know just how well that went in mission-accomplished terms.)
In 2009-2010, Afghanistan (“the right war”) would prove the gateway drug for Barack Obama as he surged in 30,000 troops, along with mini-surges of contractors, CIA agents, Special Forces soldiers, and others. Before he was done, from Libya to Iraq, the Afghan War would be the least of his problems.
And finally, of course, there’s Donald Trump, who, in the years leading up to his election victory, spoke or tweeted as if he might take a different approach to Afghanistan, but then surrounded himself with three generals from America’s losing wars and once again decided to do the usual Afghan thing. Now, he, too, is hooked and, from Niger to Somalia and beyond, the results are already coming in.
Though seldom thought of that way (except perhaps by McCoy), Afghanistan is not just the longest war in American history but possibly the longest opium war in anyone’s history. And sixteen years later, here’s one thing we can take for granted about what’s likely to happen: in the end, it never goes well. If we know less than we should about how badly it’s going right now, part of that can be explained by the policies of those most deeply hooked on the war. When things go badly for them, they turn off the information spigot, as in 2015 when the American command in Afghanistan cut off all public release of material on “U.S.-taxpayer-funded efforts to build, train, equip, and sustain the Afghan National Security Forces.” That was, of course, at the point when almost $65 billion had already been poured into training and equipping those forces and they were failing nationwide.
Since then, we know that Afghan police and military casualties have soared, desertions have risen, “ghost soldiers” fill many units (with their commanders and others skimming off their salaries), and the Taliban has gained control of ever more of the country. In response, the U.S. command there has again “classified and restricted once-public information regarding the state of Afghan security forces, including ‘casualties, personnel strength, attrition, capability assessments, and operational readiness of equipment.’”
And so it goes in America’s drug war in South Asia. Someday, the high will truly wear off and then who knows where we’ll be. In the meantime, read McCoy and think about what this repetitive version of war making means so many years later.
Honestly, if there’s an afterlife, then the soul of Osama bin Laden, whose body was consigned to the waves by the U.S. Navy back in 2011, must be swimming happily with the dolphins and sharks. At the cost of the sort of spare change that Donald Trump recently offered aides and former campaign officials for their legal troubles in the Russia investigation (on which he’s unlikely to deliver) — a mere $400,000 to $500,000 — bin Laden managed to launch the American war on terror. He did so with little but a clever game plan, a few fanatical followers, and a remarkably intuitive sense of how this country works.
He had those 19 mostly Saudi hijackers, a scattering of supporters elsewhere in the world, and the “training camps” in Afghanistan, but his was a ragged and understaffed movement. And keep in mind that his sworn enemy was the country that then prided itself on being the last superpower, the final winner of the imperial sweepstakes that had gone on for five centuries until, in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded.
The question was: With such limited resources, what kind of self-destructive behavior could he goad a triumphalist Washington into? The key would be what might be called apocalyptic humiliation.
Looking back, 16 years later, it’s extraordinary how September 11, 2001, would set the pattern for everything that followed. Each further goading act, from Afghanistan to Libya, San Bernardino to Orlando, Iraq to Niger, each further humiliation would trigger yet more of the same behavior in Washington. After all, so many people and institutions — above all, the U.S. military and the rest of the national security state — came to have a vested interest in Osama bin Laden’s version of our world.
Grim as the 9/11 attacks were, with nearly 3,000 dead civilians, they would be but the start of bin Laden’s “success,” which has, in truth, never ended. The phrase of that moment — that 9/11 had “changed everything” — proved far more devastatingly accurate than we Americans imagined at the time. Among other things, it transformed the country in essential ways.
After all, Osama bin Laden managed to involve the United States in 16 years of fruitless wars, most now “generational” conflicts with no end in sight, which would only encourage the creation and spread of terror groups, the disintegration of order across significant parts of the planet, and the displacement of whole populations in staggering numbers. At the same time, he helped turn twenty-first-century Washington into a war machine of the first order that ate the rest of the government for lunch. He gave the national security state the means — the excuse, if you will — to rise to a kind of power, prominence, and funding that might otherwise have been inconceivable. In the process — undoubtedly fulfilling his wildest dreams — he helped speed up the decline of the very country that, since the Cold War ended, had been plugging itself as the greatest ever.
In other words, he may truly be the (malign) genius of our age. He created a terrorist version of call and response that still rules Donald Trump’s Washington in which the rubblized generals of America’s rubblized wars on an increasingly rubblized planet now reign supreme. In other words, The Donald, Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster were Osama bin Laden’s grim gift to the rest of us. Thanks to him, literally trillions of taxpayer dollars would go down the tubes in remarkably pointless wars and “reconstruction” scams abroad that now threaten to feed on each other to something like the end of (American) time.
Of course, he had a little luck in the process. As a start, no one, not even the 9/11 plotters themselves, could have imagined that those towers in Manhattan would collapse before the already omnipresent cameras of the age in a way that would create such classically apocalyptic imagery. As scholar Paul Boyer once argued, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans never stopped dreaming of a nuclear attack on this country. Our pop culture was filled with such imagery, such nightmares. On that September day, many Americans suddenly felt as if something like it had finally happened. It wasn’t happenstance that, within 24 hours, the area of downtown Manhattan where the shards of those towers lay would be dubbed “Ground Zero,” a term previously reserved for the spot where a nuclear explosion had taken place, or that Tom Brokaw, anchoring NBC’s non-stop news coverage, would claim that it was “like a nuclear winter in lower Manhattan.”
The sense of being sneak-attacked on an apocalyptic scale — hence the “new Pearl Harbor” and “Day of Infamy” headlines — proved overwhelming as the scenes of those towers falling in a near mushroom cloud of smoke and ash were endlessly replayed. Of course, no such apocalyptic attack had occurred. The weapons at hand weren’t even bombs or missiles, but our own airplanes filled with passengers. And yes, it was a horror, but not the horror Americans generally took it for. And yet, 16 years later, it’s still impossible to put 9/11 in any kind of reasonable context or perspective in this country, even after we’ve helped to rubblize major cities across the Middle East — most recently the Syrian city of Raqqa — and so aided in creating landscapes far more apocalyptic looking than 9/11 ever was.
As I wrote long ago, 9/11 “was not a nuclear attack. It was not apocalyptic. The cloud of smoke where the towers stood was no mushroom cloud. It was not potentially civilization ending. It did not endanger the existence of our country — or even of New York City. Spectacular as it looked and staggering as the casualty figures were, the operation was hardly more technologically advanced than the failed attack on a single tower of the World Trade Center in 1993 by Islamists using a rented Ryder truck packed with explosives.”
On the other hand, imagine where we’d be if Osama bin Laden had had just a little more luck that day; imagine if the fourth hijacked plane, the one that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, had actually reached its target in Washington and wiped out, say, the Capitol or the White House.
Bin Laden certainly chose his symbols of American power well — financial (the World Trade Center), military (the Pentagon), and political (some target in Washington) — in order to make the government and people of the self-proclaimed most exceptional nation on Earth feel the deepest possible sense of humiliation.
Short of wiping out the White House, bin Laden could hardly have hit a more American nerve or created a stronger sense that the country which felt it had everything was now left with nothing at all.
That it wasn’t true — not faintly — didn’t matter. And add in one more bit of bin Laden good luck. The administration in the White House at that moment had its own overblown dreams of how our world should work. As they emerged from the shock of those attacks, which sent Vice President Dick Cheney into a Cold-War-era underground nuclear bunker and President George W. Bush onto Air Force One — he was reading a children’s book, My Pet Goat, to school kids in Florida as the attacks occurred — and in flight away from Washington to Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana, they began to dream of their global moment. Like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the partially destroyed Pentagon, they instantly started thinking about taking out Iraq’s autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein and launching a project to create a Middle East and then a planet over which the United States alone would have dominion forever and ever.
As befitted those Pearl Harbor headlines, on the night of September 11th, the president was already speaking of “the war against terrorism.” Within a day, he had called it “the first war of the twenty-first century” and soon, because al-Qaeda was such a pathetically inadequate target, had added, “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there.”
It couldn’t have been stranger. The United States was “at war,” but not with a great power or even one of the regional “rogue states” that had been the focus of American military thinking in the 1990s. We were at war with a phenomenon — “terrorism” — on a global scale. As Rumsfeld would say only five days after 9/11, the new war on terror would be “a large multi-headed effort that probably spans 60 countries, including the United States.” In the phrase of the moment, they were going to “drain the swamp” globally.
Even setting aside that terrorism then had no real armies, no real territory, essentially nothing, this couldn’t have been more wildly out of proportion to what had actually happened or to the outfit that had caused it to happen. But anyone who suggested as much (or something as simple and unimpressive as a “police action” against bin Laden and crew) was promptly laughed out of the room or abused into silence. And so a call-and-response pattern that fit bin Laden’s wildest dreams would be established in which, whatever they did, the United States would always respond by militarily upping the ante.
In this way, Washington promptly found itself plunged into a Global War on Terror, or GWOT, that was essentially a figment of its own imagination. The Bush administration, not Osama bin Laden, then proceeded to turn it into a reality, starting with the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, from the passage of the Patriot Act to the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, a newly national-securitized Washington would be built up on a previously unheard of scale.
In other words, we were already entering Osama bin Laden’s America.
The War Lovers
In this way, long before Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson began downsizing the State Department, George W. Bush and his top officials (who, except for Colin Powell, had never been to war) committed themselves to the U.S. military as the option of choice for what had previously been called “foreign policy.” Fortunately for bin Laden, they would prove to be the ultimate fundamentalists when it came to that military. They had little doubt that they possessed a force beyond compare with the kind of power and technological resources guaranteed to sweep away everything before it. That military was, as the president boasted, “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” What, then, could possibly stop it from spearheading the establishment of a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere that would leave the Roman and British empires in the shade? (As it happened, they had absorbed nothing of the twentieth century history of insurrection, rebellion, and resistance in the former colonial world. If they had, none of what followed would have surprised them in the least.)
And so the wars would spread, states would begin to crumble, terror movements would multiply, and each little shiver of fear, each set of American deaths, whether by such movements or “lone wolves” in the U.S. and Europe, would call up just one response: more of the same.
Think of this as Osama bin Laden’s dream world, which we would create for him and his fellow jihadists.
I’ve been writing about this at TomDispatch year after year for a decade and a half now and nothing ever changes. Not really. It’s all so sadly predictable as, years after bin Laden was consigned to his watery grave, Washington continues to essentially do his bidding in a remarkably brainless fashion.
Think of it as a kind of feedback loop in which the interests of a domestic security and surveillance state, built to monumental proportions on a relatively minor fear (of terrorism), and a military eternally funded to the heavens on a remarkably bipartisan basis for its never-ending war on terror ensure that nothing ever truly changes. In twenty-first-century Washington, failure is the new success and repetition is the rule of the day, week, month, and year.
Take, for example, the recent events in Niger. Consider the pattern of call-and-response there. Almost no Americans (and it turned out, next to no senators) even knew that the U.S. had something like 900 troops deployed permanently to that West African country and two drone bases there (though it was no secret). Then, on October 4th, the first reports of the deaths of four American soldiers and the wounding of two others in a Green Beret unit on a “routine training mission” in the lawless Niger-Mali border area came out. The ambush, it seemed, had been set by an ISIS affiliate.
It was, in fact, such an obscure and distant event that, for almost two weeks, there was little reaction in Congress or media uproar of any sort. That ended, however, when President Trump, in response to questions about those dead soldiers, attacked Barack Obama and George W. Bush for not calling the parents of the American fallen (they had) and then got into a dispute with the widow of one of the Niger dead (as well as a Democratic congresswoman) over his condolence call to her. The head of the Joint Chiefs was soon forced to hold a news conference; former four-star Marine General and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, whose son had died in Afghanistan, felt called upon to go to the mat for his boss, falsely accuse that congresswoman, and essentially claim that the military was now an elite caste in this country. This certainly reflected the new highly militarized sense of power and worth that lay at the heart of bin Laden’s Washington.
It was only then that the event in distant Niger became another terrorist humiliation of the first order. Senators were suddenly outraged. Senator John McCain (one of the more warlike members of that body, famous in 2007 for jokingly singing, to the tune of an old Beach Boys song, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”) threatened to subpoena the administration for more Niger information. Meanwhile his friend Senator Lindsey Graham, another war hawk of the first order, issued a classic warning of this era: “We don’t want the next 9/11 to come from Niger!”
And suddenly U.S. Africa Command was highlighting its desire for more money from Congress; the military was moving to arm its Reaper drones in Niger with Hellfire missiles for future counterterrorism operations; and Secretary of Defense Mattis was assuring senators privately that the military would “expand” its “counterterrorism focus” in Africa. The military began to prepare to deploy Hellfire Missile-armed Reaper drones to Niger. “The war is morphing,” Graham insisted. “You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less; you’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less; you’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field.”
Rumors were soon floating around that, as the Washington Post reported, the administration might “loosen restrictions on the U.S. military’s ability to use lethal force in Niger” (as it already had done in the Trump era in places like Syria and Yemen). And so it expectably went, as events in Niger proceeded from utter obscurity to the near-apocalyptic, while — despite the strangeness of the Trumpian moment — the responses came in exactly as anyone reviewing the last 16 years might have imagined they would.
All of this will predictably make things in central Africa worse, not better, leading to… well, more than a decade and a half after 9/11, you know just as well as I do where it’s leading. And there are remarkably few brakes on the situation, especially with three generals of our losing wars ruling the roost in Washington and Donald Trump now lashed to the mast of his chief of staff.
Welcome to Osama bin Laden’s America.