The Terror Diaspora

Horn of Africa missionThe U.S. Military and the Unraveling of Africa By Nick Turse

The Gulf of Guinea. He said it without a hint of irony or embarrassment. This was one of U.S. Africa Command’s big success stories. The Gulf… of Guinea.

Never mind that most Americans couldn’t find it on a map and haven’t heard of the nations on its shores like Gabon, Benin, and Togo. Never mind that just five days before I talked with AFRICOM’s chief spokesman, the Economist had asked if the Gulf of Guinea was on the verge of becoming “another Somalia,” because piracy there had jumped 41% from 2011 to 2012 and was on track to be even worse in 2013.

The Gulf of Guinea was one of the primary areas in Africa where “stability,” the command spokesman assured me, had “improved significantly,” and the U.S. military had played a major role in bringing it about. But what did that say about so many other areas of the continent that, since AFRICOM was set up, had been wracked by coups, insurgencies, violence, and volatility?

A careful examination of the security situation in Africa suggests that it is in the process of becoming Ground Zero for a veritable terror diaspora set in motion in the wake of 9/11 that has only accelerated in the Obama years. Recent history indicates that as U.S. “stability” operations in Africa have increased, militancy has spread, insurgent groups have proliferated, allies have faltered or committed abuses, terrorism has increased, the number of failed states has risen, and the continent has become more unsettled.

The signal event in this tsunami of blowback was the U.S. participation in a war to fell Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi that helped send neighboring Mali, a U.S.-supported bulwark against regional terrorism, into a downward spiral, prompting the intervention of the French military with U.S. backing. The situation could still worsen as the U.S. armed forces grow ever more involved. They are already expanding air operations across the continent, engaging in spy missions for the French military, and utilizing other previously undisclosed sites in Africa.

The Terror Diaspora

In 2000, a report prepared under the auspices of the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute examined the “African security environment.” While it touched on “internal separatist or rebel movements” in “weak states,” as well as non-state actors like militias and “warlord armies,” it made no mention of Islamic extremism or major transnational terrorist threats. In fact, prior to 2001, the United States did not recognize any terrorist organizations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a senior Pentagon official claimed that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan might drive “terrorists” out of that country and into African nations. “Terrorists associated with al Qaeda and indigenous terrorist groups have been and continue to be a presence in this region,” he said. “These terrorists will, of course, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities.”

When pressed about actual transnational dangers, the official pointed to Somali militants but eventually admitted that even the most extreme Islamists there “really have not engaged in acts of terrorism outside Somalia.” Similarly, when questioned about connections between Osama bin Laden’s core al-Qaeda group and African extremists, he offered only the most tenuous links, like bin Laden’s “salute” to Somali militants who killed U.S. troops during the infamous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident.

Despite this, the U.S. dispatched personnel to Africa as part of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in 2002. The next year, CJTF-HOA took up residence at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where it resides to this day on the only officially avowed U.S. base in Africa.

As CJTF-HOA was starting up, the State Department launched a multi-million-dollar counterterrorism program, known as the Pan-Sahel Initiative, to bolster the militaries of Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania. In 2004, for example, Special Forces training teams were sent to Mali as part of the effort. In 2005, the program expanded to include Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and was renamed the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership.

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Schmidle noted that the program saw year-round deployments of Special Forces personnel “to train local armies at battling insurgencies and rebellions and to prevent bin Laden and his allies from expanding into the region.” The Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership and its Defense Department companion program, then known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans-Sahara, were, in turn, folded into U.S. Africa Command when it took over military responsibility for the continent in 2008.

As Schmidle noted, the effects of U.S. efforts in the region seemed at odds with AFRICOM’s stated goals. “Al Qaeda established sanctuaries in the Sahel, and in 2006 it acquired a North African franchise [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb],” he wrote. “Terrorist attacks in the region increased in both number and lethality.”

In fact, a look at the official State Department list of terrorist organizations indicates a steady increase in Islamic radical groups in Africa alongside the growth of U.S. counterterrorism efforts there — with the addition of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in 2004, Somalia’s al-Shabaab in 2008, and Mali’s Ansar al-Dine in 2013. In 2012, General Carter Ham, then AFRICOM’s chief, added the Islamist militants of Boko Haram in Nigeria to his own list of extremist threats.

The overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya by an interventionist coalition including the U.S., France, and Britain similarly empowered a host of new militant Islamist groups such as the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, which have since carried out multiple attacks on Western interests, and the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, whose fighters assaulted U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In fact, just prior to that attack, according to the New York Times, the CIA was tracking “an array of armed militant groups in and around” that one city alone.

According to Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on Libya, that country is now “fertile ground” for militants arriving from the Arabian Peninsula and other places in the Middle East as well as elsewhere in Africa to recruit fighters, receive training, and recuperate. “It’s really become a new hub,” he told me.

Obama’s Scramble for Africa

The U.S.-backed war in Libya and the CIA’s efforts in its aftermath are just two of the many operations that have proliferated across the continent under President Obama. These include a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, consisting of intelligence operations, a secret prison, helicopter attacks, drone strikes, and U.S. commando raids; a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony and his top commanders in the jungles of the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; a massive influx of funding for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; and, in just the last four years, hundreds of millions of dollars spent arming and training West African troops to serve as American proxies on the continent. From 2010-2012, AFRICOM itself burned through $836 million as it expanded its reach across the region, primarily via programs to mentor, advise, and tutor African militaries.

In recent years, the U.S. has trained and outfitted soldiers from Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya, among other nations, for missions like the hunt for Kony. They have also served as a proxy force for the U.S. in Somalia, part of the African Union Mission (AMISOM) protecting the U.S.-supported government in that country’s capital, Mogadishu. Since 2007, the State Department has anted up about $650 million in logistics support, equipment, and training for AMISOM troops. The Pentagon has kicked in an extra $100 million since 2011.

The U.S. also continues funding African armies through the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership and its Pentagon analog, now known as Operation Juniper Shield, with increased support flowing to Mauritania and Niger in the wake of Mali’s collapse. In 2012, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development poured approximately $52 million into the programs, while the Pentagon chipped in another $46 million.

In the Obama years, U.S. Africa Command has also built a sophisticated logistics system officially known as the AFRICOM Surface Distribution Network, but colloquially referred to as the “new spice route.” Its central nodes are in Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; Dire Dawa in Ethiopia; and the Pentagon’s showpiece African base, Camp Lemonnier.

In addition, the Pentagon has run a regional air campaign using drones and manned aircraft out of airports and bases across the continent including Camp Lemonnier, Arba Minch airport in Ethiopia, Niamey in Niger, and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, while private contractor-operated surveillance aircraft have flown missions out of Entebbe, Uganda. Recently, Foreign Policy reported on the existence of a possible drone base in Lamu, Kenya.

Another critical location is Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, home to a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment and the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative that, according to military documents, supports “high risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara. Lieutenant Colonel Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for Special Operations Command Africa, told me that the initiative provides “emergency casualty evacuation support to small team engagements with partner nations throughout the Sahel,” although official documents note that such actions have historically accounted for just 10% of monthly flight hours.

While Rawlinson demurred from discussing the scope of the program, citing operational security concerns, military documents indicate that it is expanding rapidly. Between March and December of last year, for example, the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative flew 233 sorties. In just the first three months of this year, it carried out 193.

AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson has confirmed to TomDispatch that U.S. air operations conducted from Base Aerienne 101 in Niamey, the capital of Niger, were providing “support for intelligence collection with French forces conducting operations in Mali and with other partners in the region.” Refusing to go into detail about mission specifics for reasons of “operational security,” he added that, “in partnership with Niger and other countries in the region, we are committed to supporting our allies… this decision allows for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations within the region.”

Benson also confirmed that the U.S. military has used Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Senegal for refueling stops as well as the “transportation of teams participating in security cooperation activities” like training missions. He confirmed a similar deal for the use of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia. All told, the U.S. military now has agreements to use 29 international airports in Africa as refueling centers.

Benson was more tight-lipped about air operations from Nzara Landing Zone in the Republic of South Sudan, the site of one of several shadowy forward operating posts (including another in Djema in the Central Africa Republic and a third in Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo) that have been used by U.S. Special Operations forces. “We don’t want Kony and his folks to know… what kind of planes to look out for,” he said. It’s no secret, however, that U.S. air assets over Africa and its coastal waters include Predator, Global Hawk and Scan Eagle drones, MQ-8 unmanned helicopters, EP-3 Orion aircraft, Pilatus planes, and E-8 Joint Stars aircraft.

Last year, in its ever-expanding operations, AFRICOM planned 14 major joint-training exercises on the continent, including in Morocco, Uganda, Botswana, Lesotho, Senegal, and Nigeria. One of them, an annual event known as Atlas Accord, saw members of the U.S. Special Forces travel to Mali to conduct training with local forces. “The participants were very attentive, and we were able to show them our tactics and see theirs as well,” said Captain Bob Luther, a team leader with the 19th Special Forces Group.

The Collapse of Mali

As the U.S.-backed war in Libya was taking down Qaddafi, nomadic Tuareg fighters in his service looted the regime’s extensive weapons caches, crossed the border into their native Mali, and began to take over the northern part of that country. Anger within the country’s armed forces over the democratically elected government’s ineffective response to the rebellion resulted in a military coup. It was led by Amadou Sanogo, an officer who had received extensive training in the U.S. between 2004 and 2010 as part of the Pan-Sahel Initiative. Having overthrown Malian democracy, he and his fellow officers proved even less effective in dealing with events in the north.

With the country in turmoil, the Tuareg fighters declared an independent state. Soon, however, heavily-armed Islamist rebels from homegrown Ansar al-Dine as well as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, among others, pushed out the Tuaregs, took over much of the north, instituted a harsh brand of Shariah law, and created a humanitarian crisis that caused widespread suffering, sending refugees streaming from their homes.

These developments raised serious questions about the efficacy of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. “This spectacular failure reveals that the U.S. probably underestimated the complex socio-cultural peculiarities of the region, and misread the realities of the terrain,” Berny Sèbe, an expert on North and West Africa at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, told me. “This led them to being grossly manipulated by local interests over which they had, in the end, very limited control.”

Following a further series of Islamist victories and widespread atrocities, the French military intervened at the head of a coalition of Chadian, Nigerian, and other African troops, with support from the U.S. and the British. The foreign-led forces beat back the Islamists, who then shifted from conventional to guerrilla tactics, including suicide bombings.

In April, after such an attack killed three Chadian soldiers, that country’s president announced that his forces, long supported by the U.S. through the Pan-Sahel Initiative, would withdraw from Mali. “Chad’s army has no ability to face the kind of guerrilla fighting that is emerging,” he said. In the meantime, the remnants of the U.S.-backed Malian military fighting alongside the French were cited for gross human rights violations in their bid to retake control of their country.

After the French intervention in January, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, “There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time.” Not long after, 10 U.S. military personnel were deployed to assist French and African forces, while 12 others were assigned to the embassy in the Malian capital, Bamako.

While he’s quick to point out that Mali’s downward spiral had much to do with its corrupt government, weak military, and rising levels of ethnic discontent, the Carnegie Endowment’s Wehrey notes that the war in Libya was “a seismic event for the Sahel and the Sahara.” Just back from a fact-finding trip to Libya, he added that the effects of the revolution are already rippling far beyond the porous borders of Mali.

Wehrey cited recent findings by the United Nations Security Council’s Group of Experts, which monitors an arms embargo imposed on Libya in 2011. “In the past 12 months,” the panel reported, “the proliferation of weapons from Libya has continued at a worrying rate and has spread into new territory: West Africa, the Levant [the Eastern Mediterranean region], and potentially even the Horn of Africa. Illicit flows [of arms] from the country are fueling existing conflicts in Africa and the Levant and enriching the arsenals of a range of non-state actors, including terrorist groups.”

Growing Instability

The collapse of Mali after a coup by an American-trained officer and Chad’s flight from the fight in that country are just two indicators of how post-9/11 U.S. military efforts in Africa have fared. “In two of the three other Sahelian states involved in the Pentagon’s pan-Sahelian initiative, Mauritania and Niger, armies trained by the U.S., have also taken power in the past eight years,” observed journalist William Wallis in the Financial Times. “In the third, Chad, they came close in a 2006 attempt.” Still another coup plot involving members of the Chadian military was reportedly uncovered earlier this spring.

In March, Major General Patrick Donahue, the commander of U.S. Army Africa, told interviewer Gail McCabe that northwestern Africa was now becoming increasingly “problematic.” Al-Qaeda, he said, was at work destabilizing Algeria and Tunisia. Last September, in fact, hundreds of Islamist protesters attacked the U.S. embassy compound in Tunisia, setting it on fire. More recently, Camille Tawil in the CTC Sentinel, the official publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, wrote that in Tunisia “jihadis are openly recruiting young militants and sending them to training camps in the mountains, especially along Algeria’s borders.”

The U.S.-backed French intervention in Mali also led to a January revenge terror attack on the Amenas gas plant in Algeria. Carried out by the al-Mulathameen brigade, one of various new al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb-linked militant groups emerging in the region, it led to the deaths of close to 40 hostages, including three Americans. Planned by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran of the U.S.-backed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was only the first in a series of blowback responses to U.S. and Western interventions in Northern Africa that may have far-reaching implications.

Last month, Belmokhtar’s forces also teamed up with fighters from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa — yet another Islamist militant group of recent vintage — to carry out coordinated attacks on a French-run uranium mine and a nearby military base in Agadez, Niger, that killed at least 25 people. A recent attack on the French embassy in Libya by local militants is also seen as a reprisal for the French war in Mali.

According to the Carnegie Endowment’s Wehrey, the French military’s push there has had the additional effect of reversing the flow of militants, sending many back into Libya to recuperate and seek additional training. Nigerian Islamist fighters driven from Mali have returned to their native land with fresh training and innovative tactics as well as heavy weapons from Libya. Increasingly battle-hardened, extremist Islamist insurgents from two Nigerian groups, Boko Haram and the newer, even more radical Ansaru, have escalated a long simmering conflict in that West African oil giant.

For years, Nigerian forces have been trained and supported by the U.S. through the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program. The country has also been a beneficiary of U.S. Foreign Military Financing, which provides grants and loans to purchase U.S.-produced weaponry and equipment and funds military training. In recent years, however, brutal responses by Nigerian forces to what had been a fringe Islamist sect have transformed Boko Haram into a regional terrorist force.

The situation has grown so serious that President Goodluck Jonathan recently declared a state of emergency in northern Nigeria. Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke out about “credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism.” After a Boko Haram militant killed a soldier in the town of Baga, for example, Nigerian troops attacked the town, destroying more than 2,000 homes and killing an estimated 183 people.

Similarly, according to a recent United Nations report, the Congolese army’s 391st Commando Battalion, formed with U.S. support and trained for eight months by U.S. Special Operations forces, later took part in mass rapes and other atrocities. Fleeing the advance of a recently formed, brutal (non-Islamic) rebel group known as M23, its troops joined with other Congolese soldiers in raping close to 100 women and more than 30 girls in November 2012.

“This magnificent battalion will set a new mark in this nation’s continuing transformation of an army dedicated and committed to professionalism, accountability, sustainability, and meaningful security,” said Brigadier General Christopher Haas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa at the time of the battalion’s graduation from training in 2010.

Earlier this year, incoming AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez told the Senate Armed Services Committee that a review of the unit found its “officers and enlisted soldiers appear motivated, organized, and trained in small unit maneuver and tactics” even if there were “limited metrics to measure the battalion’s combat effectiveness and performance in protecting civilians.” The U.N. report tells a different story. For example, it describes “a 14 year old boy… shot dead on 25 November 2012 in the village of Kalungu, Kalehe territory, by a soldier of the 391 Battalion. The boy was returning from the fields when two soldiers tried to steal his goat. As he tried to resist and flee, one of the soldiers shot him.”

Despite years of U.S. military aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo, M23 has dealt its army heavy blows and, according to AFRICOM’s Rodriguez, is now destabilizing the region. But they haven’t done it alone. According to Rodriguez, M23 “would not be the threat it is today without external support including evidence of support from the Rwandan government.”

For years, the U.S. aided Rwanda through various programs, including the International Military Education and Training initiative and Foreign Military Financing. Last year, the U.S. cut $200,000 in military assistance to Rwanda — a signal of its disapproval of that government’s support for M23. Still, as AFRICOM’s Rodriguez admitted to the Senate earlier this year, the U.S. continues to “support Rwanda’s participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa.”

After years of U.S. assistance, including support from Special Operations forces advisors, the Central African Republic’s military was recently defeated and the country’s president ousted by another newly formed (non-Islamist) rebel group known as Seleka. In short order, that country’s army chiefs pledged their allegiance to the leader of the coup, while hostility on the part of the rebels forced the U.S. and its allies to suspend their hunt for Joseph Kony.

A strategic partner and bulwark of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Kenya receives around $1 billion in U.S. aid annually and elements of its military have been trained by U.S. Special Operations forces. But last September, Foreign Policy’s Jonathan Horowitz reported on allegations of “Kenyan counterterrorism death squads… killing and disappearing people.” Later, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the Kenyan military’s response to a November attack by an unknown gunman that killed three soldiers in the northern town of Garissa. The “Kenyan army surrounded the town, preventing anyone from leaving or entering, and started attacking residents and traders,” the group reported. “The witnesses said that the military shot at people, raped women, and assaulted anyone in sight.”

Another longtime recipient of U.S. support, the Ethiopian military, was also involved in abuses last year, following an attack by gunmen on a commercial farm. In response, according to Human Rights Watch, members of Ethiopia’s army raped, arbitrarily arrested, and assaulted local villagers.

The Ugandan military has been the primary U.S. proxy when it comes to policing Somalia. Its members were, however, implicated in the beating and even killing of citizens during domestic unrest in 2011. Burundi has also received significant U.S. military support and high-ranking officers in its army have recently been linked to the illegal mineral trade, according to a report by the environmental watchdog group Global Witness. Despite years of cooperation with the U.S. military, Senegal now appears more vulnerable to extremism and increasingly unstable, according to a report by the Institute of Security Studies.

And so it goes across the continent.

Success Stories

In addition to the Gulf of Guinea, AFRICOM’s chief spokesman pointed to Somalia as another major U.S. success story on the continent. And it’s true that Somalia is more stable now than it has been in years, even if a weakened al-Shabaab continues to carry out attacks. The spokesman even pointed to a recent CNN report about a trickle of tourists entering the war-torn country and the construction of a luxury beach resort in the capital, Mogadishu.

I asked for other AFRICOM success stories, but only those two came to his mind — and no one should be surprised by that.

After all, in 2006, before AFRICOM came into existence, 11 African nations were among the top 20 in the Fund for Peace’s annual Failed States Index. Last year, that number had risen to 15 (or 16 if you count the new nation of South Sudan).

In 2001, according to the Global Terrorism Database from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, there were 119 terrorist incidents in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, there were close to 500. A recent report from the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies counted 21 terrorist attacks in the Maghreb and Sahel regions of northern Africa in 2001. During the Obama years, the figures have fluctuated between 144 and 204 annually.

Similarly, an analysis of 65,000 individual incidents of political violence in Africa from 1997 to 2012, assembled by researchers affiliated with the International Peace Research Institute, found that “violent Islamist activity has increased significantly in the past 15 years, with a particular[ly] sharp increase witnessed from 2010 onwards.” Additionally, according to researcher Caitriona Dowd, “there is also evidence for the geographic spread of violent Islamist activity both south- and east-ward on the continent.”

In fact, the trends appear stark and eerily mirror statements from AFRICOM’s leaders.

In March 2009, after years of training indigenous forces and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on counterterrorism activities, General William Ward, the first leader of U.S. Africa Command, gave its inaugural status report to the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was bleak. “Al-Qaeda,” he said, “increased its influence dramatically across north and east Africa over the past three years with the growth of East Africa Al-Qaeda, al Shabaab, and al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).”

This February, after four more years of military engagement, security assistance, training of indigenous armies, and hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding, AFRICOM’s incoming commander General David Rodriguez explained the current situation to the Senate in more ominous terms. “The command’s number one priority is East Africa with particular focus on al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda networks. This is followed by violent extremist [movements] and al-Qaeda in North and West Africa and the Islamic Maghreb. AFRICOM’s third priority is Counter-LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] operations.”

Rodriguez warned that, “with the increasing threat of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, I see a greater risk of regional instability if we do not engage aggressively.” In addition to that group, he declared al-Shabaab and Boko Haram major menaces. He also mentioned the problems posed by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar al-Dine. Libya, he told them, was threatened by “hundreds of disparate militias,” while M23 was “destabilizing the entire Great Lakes region [of Central Africa].”

In West Africa, he admitted, there was also a major narcotics trafficking problem. Similarly, East Africa was “experiencing an increase in heroin trafficking across the Indian Ocean from Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In addition, “in the Sahel region of North Africa, cocaine and hashish trafficking is being facilitated by, and directly benefitting, organizations like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leading to increased regional instability.”

In other words, 10 years after Washington began pouring taxpayer dollars into counterterrorism and stability efforts across Africa and its forces first began operating from Camp Lemonnier, the continent has experienced profound changes, just not those the U.S. sought. The University of Birmingham’s Berny Sèbe ticks off post-revolutionary Libya, the collapse of Mali, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, the coup in the Central African Republic, and violence in Africa’s Great Lakes region as evidence of increasing volatility. “The continent is certainly more unstable today than it was in the early 2000s, when the U.S. started to intervene more directly,” he told me.

As the war in Afghanistan — a conflict born of blowback — winds down, there will be greater incentive and opportunity to project U.S. military power in Africa. However, even a cursory reading of recent history suggests that this impulse is unlikely to achieve U.S. goals. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, there is ample evidence to suggest the United States has facilitated a terror diaspora, imperiling nations and endangering peoples across Africa. In the wake of 9/11, Pentagon officials were hard-pressed to show evidence of a major African terror threat. Today, the continent is thick with militant groups that are increasingly crossing borders, sowing insecurity, and throwing the limits of U.S. power into broad relief. After 10 years of U.S. operations to promote stability by military means, the results have been the opposite. Africa has become blowback central.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here. His website is NickTurse.com. You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook.

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Copyright 2013 Nick Turse

Photo: A US Solider with Site Security Team/Joint Combat Search and Rescue, 2nd Battalion, 137th Infantry Regiment, guards a C-130 Hercules aircraft while pararecuesmen with the 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron evacuate onto it with a simulated patient in Djibouti, Djibouti. The Site Security Team/Joint Combat Search and Rescue and the 82nd ERQS are deployed in support of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christine Clark)

Tom Dispatch: The Making of a Global Security State

SateliteThe Five Uncontrollable Urges of a Secrecy-Surveillance World By Tom Engelhardt

As happens with so much news these days, the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying and just how far we’ve come in the building of a surveillance state have swept over us 24/7 — waves of leaks, videos, charges, claims, counterclaims, skullduggery, and government threats. When a flood sweeps you away, it’s always hard to find a little dry land to survey the extent and nature of the damage. Here’s my attempt to look beyond the daily drumbeat of this developing story (which, it is promised, will go on for weeks, if not months) and identify five urges essential to understanding the world Edward Snowden has helped us glimpse.

1. The Urge to be Global

Corporately speaking, globalization has been ballyhooed since at least the 1990s, but in governmental terms only in the twenty-first century has that globalizing urge fully infected the workings of the American state itself. It’s become common since 9/11 to speak of a “national security state.” But if a week of ongoing revelations about NSA surveillance practices has revealed anything, it’s that the term is already grossly outdated. Based on what we now know, we should be talking about an American global security state.

Much attention has, understandably enough, been lavished on the phone and other metadata about American citizens that the NSA is now sweeping up and about the ways in which such activities may be abrogating the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Far less attention has been paid to the ways in which the NSA (and other U.S. intelligence outfits) are sweeping up global data in part via the just-revealed Prism and other surveillance programs.

Sometimes, naming practices are revealing in themselves, and the National Security Agency’s key data mining tool, capable in March 2013 of gathering “97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide,” has been named “boundless informant.” If you want a sense of where the U.S. Intelligence Community imagines itself going, you couldn’t ask for a better hint than that word “boundless.” It seems that for our spooks, there are, conceptually speaking, no limits left on this planet.

Today, that “community” seeks to put not just the U.S., but the world fully under its penetrating gaze. By now, the first “heat map” has been published showing where such information is being sucked up from monthly: Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion). Whether you realize this or not, even for a superpower that has unprecedented numbers of military bases scattered across the planet and has divided the world into six military commands, this represents something new under the sun. The only question is what?

The twentieth century was the century of “totalitarianisms.” We don’t yet have a name, a term, for the surveillance structures Washington is building in this century, but there can be no question that, whatever the present constraints on the system, “total” has something to do with it and that we are being ushered into a new world. Despite the recent leaks, we still undoubtedly have a very limited picture of just what the present American surveillance world really looks like and what it plans for our future. One thing is clear, however: the ambitions behind it are staggering and global.

In the classic totalitarian regimes of the previous century, a secret police/surveillance force attempted, via every imaginable method, including informers, wire tappers, torture techniques, imprisonment, and so on to take total control of a national environment, to turn every citizen’s life into the equivalent of an open book, or more accurately a closed, secret file lodged somewhere in that police system. The most impressive of these efforts, the most global, was the Soviet one simply because the USSR was an imperial power with a set of disparate almost-states — those SSRs of the Caucasus and Central Asia — within its borders, and a series of Eastern European satellite states under its control as well. None of the twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, however, ever imagined doing the same thing on a genuinely global basis. There was no way to do so.

Washington’s urge to take control of the global communications environment, lock, stock, and chat room, to gather its “data” — billions and billions of pieces of it — and via inconceivably powerful computer systems, mine and arrange it, find patterns in it, and so turn the world into a secret set of connections, represents a remarkable development. For the first time, a great power wants to know, up close and personal, not just what its own citizens are doing, but those of distant lands as well: who they are communicating with, and how, and why, and what they are buying, and where they are travelling, and who they are bumping into (online and over the phone).

Until recently, once you left the environs of science fiction, that was simply beyond imagining. You could certainly find precursors for such a development in, for instance, the Cold War intelligence community’s urge to create a global satellite system that would bring every inch of the planet under a new kind of surveillance regime, that would map it thoroughly and identify what was being mapped down to the square inch, but nothing so globally up close and personal.

The next two urges are intertwined in such a way that they might be thought as a single category: your codes and theirs.

2. The Urge to Make You Transparent

The urge to possess you, or everything that can be known about you, has clearly taken possession of our global security state. With this, it’s become increasingly apparent, go other disturbing trends. Take something seemingly unrelated: the recent Supreme Court decision that allows the police to take a DNA swab from an arrestee (if the crime he or she is charged with is “serious”). Theoretically, this is being done for “identification” purposes, but in fact it’s already being put to other uses entirely, especially in the solving of separate crimes.

If you stop to think about it, this development, in turn, represents a remarkable new level of state intrusion on private life, on your self. It means that, for the first time, in a sure-to-widen set of circumstances, the state increasingly has access not just — as with NSA surveillance — to your Internet codes and modes of communication, but to your most basic code of all, your DNA. As Justice Antonin Scalia put it in his dissent in the case, “Make no mistake about it: As an entirely predictable consequence of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.” Can global DNA databases be far behind?

If your DNA becomes the possession of the state, then you are a transparent human being at the most basic level imaginable. At every level, however, the pattern, the trend, the direction is the same (and it’s the same whether you’re talking about the government or giant corporations). Increasingly, access to you, your codes, your communications, your purchases, your credit card transactions, your location, your travels, your exchanges with friends, your tastes, your likes and dislikes is what’s wanted — for what’s called your “safety” in the case of government and your business in the case of corporations.

Both want access to everything that can be known about you, because who knows until later what may prove the crucial piece of information to uncover a terrorist network or lure in a new network of customers. They want everything, at least, that can be run through a system of massive computers and sorted into patterns of various potentially useful kinds. You are to be, in this sense, the transparent man or transparent woman. Your acts, your life patterns, your rights, your codes are to be an open book to them — and increasingly a closed book to you. You are to be their secret and that “you” is an ever more global one.

3. The Urge to Make Themselves Opaque

With this goes another reality. They are to become ever less accessible, ever more impenetrable, ever less knowable to you (except in the forms in which they would prefer you to know them). None of their codes or secrets are to be accessed by you on pain of imprisonment. Everything in the government — which once was thought to be “your” government — is increasingly disappearing into a professional universe of secrecy. In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, the government classified 92 million documents. And they did so on the same principle that they use in collecting seemingly meaningless or harmless information from you: that only in retrospect can anyone know whether a benign-looking document might prove anything but. Better to deny access to everything.

In the process, they are finding new ways of imposing silence on you, even when it comes to yourself. Since 2001, for instance, it has become possible for the FBI to present you with a National Security Letter which forces you to turn over information to them, but far more strikingly gags you from ever mentioning publicly that you got such a letter. Those who have received such letters (and 15,000 of them were issued in 2012) are legally enjoined from discussing or even acknowledging what’s happening to them; their lives, that is, are no longer theirs to discuss. If that isn’t Orwellian, what is?

President Obama offered this reassurance in the wake of the Snowden leaks: the National Security Agency, he insisted, is operating under the supervision of all three branches of the government. In fact, the opposite could be said to be true. All three branches, especially in their oversight roles, have been brought within the penumbra of secrecy of the global security state and so effectively coopted or muzzled. This is obviously true with our ex-professor of Constitutional law and the executive branch he presides over, which has in recent years been ramping up its own secret operations.

When it comes to Congress, the people’s representatives who are to perform oversight on the secret world have been presented with the equivalent of National Security Letters; that is, when let in on some of the secrets of that world, they find they can’t discuss them, can’t tell the American people about them, can’t openly debate them in Congress. In public sessions with Congress, we now know that those who run our most secret outfits, if pushed to the wall by difficult questions, will as a concession respond in the “least untruthful manner” possible, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it last week.

Given the secret world’s control over Congress, representatives who are horrified by what they’ve learned about our government’s secrecy and surveillance practices, like Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, can only hint at their worries and fears. They can, in essence, wink at you, signal to you in obscure ways that something is out of whack, but they can’t tell you directly. Secrecy, after all.

Similarly, the judiciary, that third branch of government and other body of oversight, has, in the twenty-first century, been fully welcomed into the global security state’s atmosphere of total secrecy. So when the surveillance crews go to the judiciary for permission to listen in on the world, they go to a secret court, a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court, locked within that secret world. It, in turn, notoriously rubberstamps whatever it is they want to do, evidently offering no resistance whatsoever to their desires. (Of the 6,556 electronic surveillance requests submitted to the court in Obama’s first term in office, for instance, only one was denied.) In addition, unlike any other court in America, we, the American people, the transparent and ignorant public, can know next to nothing about it. And you know perfectly well why: the overriding needs of secrecy.

What, though, is the point of “oversight” if you can’t do anything other than what that secret world wants you to do?

We are, in other words, increasingly open to them and they are increasingly closed to us.

4. The Urge to Expand

As we’ve known at least since Dana Priest and William Arkin published their stunning series, “Top Secret America,” in the Washington Post in 2010, the U.S. Intelligence Community has expanded post-9/11 to levels unimaginable even in the Cold War era. Then, of course, it faced another superpower, not a small set of jihadis largely located in the backlands of the planet. It now exists on, as Arkin says, an “industrial scale.” And its urge to continue growing, to build yet more structures for surveillance, including a vast $2 billion NSA repository in Bluffdale, Utah, that will be capable of holding an almost unimaginable yottabyte of data, is increasingly written into its DNA.

For this vast, restless, endless expansion of surveillance of every sort and at every level, for the nearly half-million or possibly far more private contractors, aka “digital Blackwater,” now in the government surveillance business — about 70% of the national intelligence budget reportedly goes to the private sector these days — and the nearly five million Americans with security clearances (1.4 million with top security clearances, more than a third of them private contractors), the official explanation is “terrorism.” It matters little that terrorism as a phenomenon is one of the lesser dangers Americans face in their daily lives and that, for some of the larger ones, ranging from food-borne illnesses to cars, guns, and what’s now called “extreme weather,” no one would think about building vast bureaucratic structures shrouded in secrecy, funded to the hilt, and offering Americans promises of ultimate safety.

Terrorism certainly rears its ugly head from time to time and there’s no question that the fear of some operation getting through the vast U.S. security net drives the employees of our global security state. As an explanation for the phenomenal growth of that state, however, it simply doesn’t hold water. In truth, compared to the previous century, U.S. enemies are remarkably scarce on this planet. So forget the official explanation and imagine our global-security-state-in-the-making in the grips of a kind of compulsive disorder in which the urge to go global, make the most private information of the citizen everywhere the property of the American state, and expand surveillance endlessly simply trumps any other way of doing things.

In other words, they can’t help themselves. The process, the phenomenon, has them by the throat, so much so that they can imagine no other way of being. In this mood, they are paving the way for a new global security — or rather insecurity — world. They are, for instance, hiking spending on “cybersecurity,” have already secretly launched the planet’s first cyberwar, are planning for more of them, intend to dominate the future cyber-landscape in a staggering fashion, continue to gather global data of every sort on a massive scale, and more generally are acting in ways that they would consider criminal if other countries engaged in them.

5. The Urge to Leak

The massive leaks of documents by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have few precedents in American history. Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers leak is their only obvious predecessor. They are not, however, happenstances of our moment. They are signs of what’s to come. If, in surveillance terms, the urge to go global and impose ultimate secrecy on both the state’s secrets and yours, to prosecute whistleblowers to the maximum (at this point usually via the Espionage Act or, in the case of Manning, via the charge of “aiding the enemy,” and with calls of “treason” already in the air when it comes to Snowden), it’s natural that the urge to leak will rise as well.

If the surveillance state has reached an industrial level of operations, and ever more secrets are being brought into computer systems, then vast troves of secrets exist to be revealed, already cached, organized, and ready for the plucking. If the security state itself goes global, then the urge to leak will go global, too.

In fact, it already has. It’s easy to forget that WikiLeaks was originally created not just for American secrets but any secrets. Similarly, Manning uploaded his vast trove of secrets from Iraq, and Snowden, who had already traveled the world in the service of secrecy, leaked to an American columnist living in Brazil and writing for a British newspaper. His flight to Hong Kong and dream of Icelandic citizenship could be considered another version of the globalizing impulse.

Rest assured, they will not be the last. An all-enveloping atmosphere of secrecy is not a natural state of being. Just look at us individually. We love to tell stories about each other. Gossiping is one of the most basic of human activities. Revealing what others don’t know is an essential urge. The urge, that is, to open it all up is at least as powerful as the urge to shut it all down.

So in our age, considering the gigantism of the U.S. surveillance and intelligence apparatus and the secrets it holds, it’s a given that the leak, too, will become more gigantic, that leaked documents will multiply in droves, and that resistance to regimes of secrecy and the invasion of private life that goes with them will also become more global. It’s hard from within the U.S. to imagine the shock in Pakistan, or Germany, or India, on discovering that your private life may now be the property of the U.S. government. (Imagine for a second the reaction here if Snowden had revealed that the Pakistani or Iranian or Chinese government was gathering and storing vast quantities of private emails, texts, phone calls, and credit card transactions from American citizens. The uproar would have been staggering.)

As a result of all this, we face a strangely contradictory future in which ever more draconian regimes of secrecy will confront the urge for ever greater transparency. President Obama came into office promising a “sunshine” administration that would open the workings of the government to the American people. He didn’t deliver, but Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and other leakers have, and no matter how difficult the government makes it to leak or how hard it cracks down on leakers, the urge is almost as unstoppable as the urge not to be your government’s property.

You may have secrets, but you are not a secret — and you know it.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (just published in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt

Naming Our Nameless War

MarineHow Many Years Will It Be? By Andrew J. Bacevich

For well over a decade now the United States has been “a nation at war.” Does that war have a name?

It did at the outset. After 9/11, George W. Bush’s administration wasted no time in announcing that the U.S. was engaged in a Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT. With few dissenters, the media quickly embraced the term. The GWOT promised to be a gargantuan, transformative enterprise. The conflict begun on 9/11 would define the age. In neoconservative circles, it was known as World War IV.

Upon succeeding to the presidency in 2009, however, Barack Obama without fanfare junked Bush’s formulation (as he did again in a speech at the National Defense University last week). Yet if the appellation went away, the conflict itself, shorn of identifying marks, continued.

Does it matter that ours has become and remains a nameless war? Very much so.

Names bestow meaning. When it comes to war, a name attached to a date can shape our understanding of what the conflict was all about. To specify when a war began and when it ended is to privilege certain explanations of its significance while discrediting others. Let me provide a few illustrations.

With rare exceptions, Americans today characterize the horrendous fraternal bloodletting of 1861-1865 as the Civil War. Yet not many decades ago, diehard supporters of the Lost Cause insisted on referring to that conflict as the War Between the States or the War for Southern Independence (or even the War of Northern Aggression). The South may have gone down in defeat, but the purposes for which Southerners had fought — preserving a distinctive way of life and the principle of states’ rights — had been worthy, even noble. So at least they professed to believe, with their preferred names for the war reflecting that belief.

Schoolbooks tell us that the Spanish-American War began in April 1898 and ended in August of that same year. The name and dates fit nicely with a widespread inclination from President William McKinley’s day to our own to frame U.S. intervention in Cuba as an altruistic effort to liberate that island from Spanish oppression.

Yet the Cubans were not exactly bystanders in that drama. By 1898, they had been fighting for years to oust their colonial overlords. And although hostilities in Cuba itself ended on August 12th, they dragged on in the Philippines, another Spanish colony that the United States had seized for reasons only remotely related to liberating Cubans. Notably, U.S. troops occupying the Philippines waged a brutal war not against Spaniards but against Filipino nationalists no more inclined to accept colonial rule by Washington than by Madrid. So widen the aperture to include this Cuban prelude and the Filipino postlude and you end up with something like this: The Spanish-American-Cuban-Philippines War of 1895-1902. Too clunky? How about the War for the American Empire? This much is for sure: rather than illuminating, the commonplace textbook descriptor serves chiefly to conceal.

Strange as it may seem, Europeans once referred to the calamitous events of 1914-1918 as the Great War. When Woodrow Wilson decided in 1917 to send an army of doughboys to fight alongside the Allies, he went beyond Great. According to the president, the Great War was going to be the War To End All Wars. Alas, things did not pan out as he expected. Perhaps anticipating the demise of his vision of permanent peace, War Department General Order 115, issued on October 7, 1919, formally declared that, at least as far as the United States was concerned, the recently concluded hostilities would be known simply as the World War.

In September 1939 — presto chango! — the World War suddenly became the First World War, the Nazi invasion of Poland having inaugurated a Second World War, also known as World War II or more cryptically WWII. To be sure, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin preferred the Great Patriotic War. Although this found instant — almost unanimous — favor among Soviet citizens, it did not catch on elsewhere.

Does World War II accurately capture the events it purports to encompass? With the crusade against the Axis now ranking alongside the crusade against slavery as a myth-enshrouded chapter in U.S. history to which all must pay homage, Americans are no more inclined to consider that question than to consider why a playoff to determine the professional baseball championship of North America constitutes a “World Series.”

In fact, however convenient and familiar, World War II is misleading and not especially useful. The period in question saw at least two wars, each only tenuously connected to the other, each having distinctive origins, each yielding a different outcome. To separate them is to transform the historical landscape.

On the one hand, there was the Pacific War, pitting the United States against Japan. Formally initiated by the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, it had in fact begun a decade earlier when Japan embarked upon a policy of armed conquest in Manchuria. At stake was the question of who would dominate East Asia. Japan’s crushing defeat at the hands of the United States, sealed by two atomic bombs in 1945, answered that question (at least for a time).

Then there was the European War, pitting Nazi Germany first against Great Britain and France, but ultimately against a grand alliance led by the United States, the Soviet Union, and a fast fading British Empire. At stake was the question of who would dominate Europe. Germany’s defeat resolved that issue (at least for a time): no one would. To prevent any single power from controlling Europe, two outside powers divided it.

This division served as the basis for the ensuing Cold War, which wasn’t actually cold, but also (thankfully) wasn’t World War III, the retrospective insistence of bellicose neoconservatives notwithstanding. But when did the Cold War begin? Was it in early 1947, when President Harry Truman decided that Stalin’s Russia posed a looming threat and committed the United States to a strategy of containment? Or was it in 1919, when Vladimir Lenin decided that Winston Churchill’s vow to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle” posed a looming threat to the Russian Revolution, with an ongoing Anglo-American military intervention evincing a determination to make good on that vow?

Separating the war against Nazi Germany from the war against Imperial Japan opens up another interpretive possibility. If you incorporate the European conflict of 1914-1918 and the European conflict of 1939-1945 into a single narrative, you get a Second Thirty Years War (the first having occurred from 1618-1648) — not so much a contest of good against evil, as a mindless exercise in self-destruction that represented the ultimate expression of European folly.

So, yes, it matters what we choose to call the military enterprise we’ve been waging not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in any number of other countries scattered hither and yon across the Islamic world. Although the Obama administration appears no more interested than the Bush administration in saying when that enterprise will actually end, the date we choose as its starting point also matters.

Although Washington seems in no hurry to name its nameless war — and will no doubt settle on something self-serving or anodyne if it ever finally addresses the issue — perhaps we should jump-start the process. Let’s consider some possible options, names that might actually explain what’s going on.

The Long War: Coined not long after 9/11 by senior officers in the Pentagon, this formulation never gained traction with either civilian officials or the general public. Yet the Long War deserves consideration, even though — or perhaps because — it has lost its luster with the passage of time.

At the outset, it connoted grand ambitions buoyed by extreme confidence in the efficacy of American military might. This was going to be one for the ages, a multi-generational conflict yielding sweeping results.

The Long War did begin on a hopeful note. The initial entry into Afghanistan and then into Iraq seemed to herald “home by Christmas” triumphal parades. Yet this soon proved an illusion as victory slipped from Washington’s grasp. By 2005 at the latest, events in the field had dashed the neo-Wilsonian expectations nurtured back home.

With the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dragging on, “long” lost its original connotation. Instead of “really important,” it became a synonym for “interminable.” Today, the Long War does succinctly capture the experience of American soldiers who have endured multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Long War combatants, the object of the exercise has become to persist. As for winning, it’s not in the cards. The Long War just might conclude by the end of 2014 if President Obama keeps his pledge to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan and if he avoids getting sucked into Syria’s civil war. So the troops may hope.

The War Against Al-Qaeda: It began in August 1996 when Osama bin Laden issued a “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” i.e., Saudi Arabia. In February 1998, a second bin Laden manifesto announced that killing Americans, military and civilian alike, had become “an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”

Although President Bill Clinton took notice, the U.S. response to bin Laden’s provocations was limited and ineffectual. Only after 9/11 did Washington take this threat seriously. Since then, apart from a pointless excursion into Iraq (where, in Saddam Hussein’s day, al-Qaeda did not exist), U.S. attention has been focused on Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have waged the longest war in American history, and on Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, where a CIA drone campaign is ongoing. By the end of President Obama’s first term, U.S. intelligence agencies were reporting that a combined CIA/military campaign had largely destroyed bin Laden’s organization. Bin Laden himself, of course, was dead.

Could the United States have declared victory in its unnamed war at this point? Perhaps, but it gave little thought to doing so. Instead, the national security apparatus had already trained its sights on various al-Qaeda “franchises” and wannabes, militant groups claiming the bin Laden brand and waging their own version of jihad. These offshoots emerged in the Maghreb, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and — wouldn’t you know it — post-Saddam Iraq, among other places. The question as to whether they actually posed a danger to the United States got, at best, passing attention — the label “al-Qaeda” eliciting the same sort of Pavlovian response that the word “communist” once did.

Americans should not expect this war to end anytime soon. Indeed, the Pentagon’s impresario of special operations recently speculated — by no means unhappily — that it would continue globally for “at least 10 to 20 years.” Freely translated, his statement undoubtedly means: “No one really knows, but we’re planning to keep at it for one helluva long time.”

The War For/Against/About Israel: It began in 1948. For many Jews, the founding of the state of Israel signified an ancient hope fulfilled. For many Christians, conscious of the sin of anti-Semitism that had culminated in the Holocaust, it offered a way to ease guilty consciences, albeit mostly at others’ expense. For many Muslims, especially Arabs, and most acutely Arabs who had been living in Palestine, the founding of the Jewish state represented a grave injustice. It was yet another unwelcome intrusion engineered by the West — colonialism by another name.

Recounting the ensuing struggle without appearing to take sides is almost impossible. Yet one thing seems clear: in terms of military involvement, the United States attempted in the late 1940s and 1950s to keep its distance. Over the course of the 1960s, this changed. The U.S. became Israel’s principal patron, committed to maintaining (and indeed increasing) its military superiority over its neighbors.

In the decades that followed, the two countries forged a multifaceted “strategic relationship.” A compliant Congress provided Israel with weapons and other assistance worth many billions of dollars, testifying to what has become an unambiguous and irrevocable U.S. commitment to the safety and well-being of the Jewish state. The two countries share technology and intelligence. Meanwhile, just as Israel had disregarded U.S. concerns when it came to developing nuclear weapons, it ignored persistent U.S. requests that it refrain from colonizing territory that it has conquered.

When it comes to identifying the minimal essential requirements of Israeli security and the terms that will define any Palestinian-Israeli peace deal, the United States defers to Israel. That may qualify as an overstatement, but only slightly. Given the Israeli perspective on those requirements and those terms — permanent military supremacy and a permanently demilitarized Palestine allowed limited sovereignty — the War For/Against/About Israel is unlikely to end anytime soon either. Whether the United States benefits from the perpetuation of this war is difficult to say, but we are in it for the long haul.

The War for the Greater Middle East: I confess that this is the name I would choose for Washington’s unnamed war and is, in fact, the title of a course I teach. (A tempting alternative is the Second Hundred Years War, the “first” having begun in 1337 and ended in 1453.)

This war is about to hit the century mark, its opening chapter coinciding with the onset of World War I. Not long after the fighting on the Western Front in Europe had settled into a stalemate, the British government, looking for ways to gain the upper hand, set out to dismantle the Ottoman Empire whose rulers had foolishly thrown in their lot with the German Reich against the Allies.

By the time the war ended with Germany and the Turks on the losing side, Great Britain had already begun to draw up new boundaries, invent states, and install rulers to suit its predilections, while also issuing mutually contradictory promises to groups inhabiting these new precincts of its empire. Toward what end? Simply put, the British were intent on calling the shots from Egypt to India, whether by governing through intermediaries or ruling directly. The result was a new Middle East and a total mess.

London presided over this mess, albeit with considerable difficulty, until the end of World War II. At this point, by abandoning efforts to keep Arabs and Zionists from one another’s throats in Palestine and by accepting the partition of India, they signaled their intention to throw in the towel. Alas, Washington proved more than willing to assume Britain’s role. The lure of oil was strong. So too were the fears, however overwrought, of the Soviets extending their influence into the region.

Unfortunately, the Americans enjoyed no more success in promoting long-term, pro-Western stability than had the British. In some respects, they only made things worse, with the joint CIA-MI6 overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran in 1953 offering a prime example of a “success” that, to this day, has never stopped breeding disaster.

Only after 1980 did things get really interesting, however. The Carter Doctrine promulgated that year designated the Persian Gulf a vital national security interest and opened the door to greatly increased U.S. military activity not just in the Gulf, but also throughout the Greater Middle East (GME). Between 1945 and 1980, considerable numbers of American soldiers lost their lives fighting in Asia and elsewhere. During that period, virtually none were killed fighting in the GME. Since 1990, in contrast, virtually none have been killed fighting anywhere except in the GME.

What does the United States hope to achieve in its inherited and unending War for the Greater Middle East? To pacify the region? To remake it in our image? To drain its stocks of petroleum? Or just keeping the lid on? However you define the war’s aims, things have not gone well, which once again suggests that, in some form, it will continue for some time to come. If there’s any good news here, it’s the prospect of having ever more material for my seminar, which may soon expand into a two-semester course.

The War Against Islam: This war began nearly 1,000 years ago and continued for centuries, a storied collision between Christendom and the Muslim ummah. For a couple of hundred years, periodic eruptions of large-scale violence occurred until the conflict finally petered out with the last crusade sometime in the fourteenth century.

In those days, many people had deemed religion something worth fighting for, a proposition to which the more sophisticated present-day inhabitants of Christendom no longer subscribe. Yet could that religious war have resumed in our own day? Professor Samuel Huntington thought so, although he styled the conflict a “clash of civilizations.” Some militant radical Islamists agree with Professor Huntington, citing as evidence the unwelcome meddling of “infidels,” mostly wearing American uniforms, in various parts of the Muslim world. Some militant evangelical Christians endorse this proposition, even if they take a more favorable view of U.S. troops occupying and drones targeting Muslim countries.

In explaining the position of the United States government, religious scholars like George W. Bush and Barack (Hussein!) Obama have consistently expressed a contrary view. Islam is a religion of peace, they declare, part of the great Abrahamic triad. That the other elements of that triad are likewise committed to peace is a proposition that Bush, Obama, and most Americans take for granted, evidence not required. There should be no reason why Christians, Jews, and Muslims can’t live together in harmony.

Still, remember back in 2001 when, in an unscripted moment, President Bush described the war barely begun as a “crusade”? That was just a slip of the tongue, right? If not, we just might end up calling this one the Eternal War.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a TomDispatch regular. His next book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, will appear in September.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Andrew J. Bacevich

Photo: Pfc. Rowal Gomez, 1st Marine Division Band, Headquarters and Support Company, Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division (1ST MARDIV), provides security during Exercise DESERT SCIMITAR aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. (US Marine Corps Photo by Lance Cpl. Devin G. Jantzi/Released)

Where Has All the Money Gone?

PentagonsHow Contractors Raked in $385 Billion to Build and Support Bases Abroad since 2001 By David Vine

Outside the United States, the Pentagon controls a collection of military bases unprecedented in history. With U.S. troops gone from Iraq and the withdrawal from Afghanistan underway, it’s easy to forget that we probably still have about 1,000 military bases in other peoples’ lands. This giant collection of bases receives remarkably little media attention, costs a fortune, and even when cost cutting is the subject du jour, it still seems to get a free ride.

With so much money pouring into the Pentagon’s base world, the question is: Who’s benefiting?

Some of the money clearly pays for things like salaries, health care, and other benefits for around one million military and Defense Department personnel and their families overseas. But after an extensive examination of government spending data and contracts, I estimate that the Pentagon has dispersed around $385 billion to private companies for work done outside the U.S. since late 2001, mainly in that baseworld. That’s nearly double the entire State Department budget over the same period, and because Pentagon and government accounting practices are so poor, the true total may be significantly higher.

Not surprisingly, when it comes to such contracts and given our recent wars, the top two countries into which taxpayer dollars flowed were Afghanistan and Iraq (around $160 billion). Next comes Kuwait ($37.2 billion), where the military has had a significant presence since the first Gulf War of 1990-1991, followed by Germany ($27.8 billion), South Korea ($18.2 billion), Japan ($15.2 billion), and Britain ($14.7 billion). While some of these costs are for weapons procurement, rather than for bases and troop support, the hundreds of thousands of contracts believed to be omitted from these tallies thanks to government accounting errors make the numbers a reasonable reflection of the everyday moneys flowing to private contractors for the world of bases the United States has maintained since World War II.

Beyond the sheer volume of dollars heading overseas, an analysis of Pentagon spending reveals a troubling pattern: the majority of benefits have gone to a relatively small group of private contractors. In total, almost a third of the $385 billion has flowed into the coffers of just 10 top contractors, including scandal-prone companies like KBR, the former subsidiary of Halliburton, and oil giant BP.

In addition, Pentagon spending on its baseworld has been marked by spiraling expenditures, the growing use of uncompetitive contracts and contracts lacking incentives to control costs, outright fraud, and the repeated awarding of non-competitive sweetheart contracts to companies with histories of fraud and abuse. There’s been so much cost gouging that any attempt to catalog it across bases globally would be a mammoth effort. The $31-$60 billion in contracting fraud in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars alone, as calculated by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which Congress established to investigate waste and abuse, suggests the global total could be astronomical.

Since 2001, U.S. taxpayers have effectively shipped hundreds of billions of dollars out of the country to build and maintain an enormous military presence abroad, while major Pentagon contractors and a select group of politicians, lobbyists, and other friends have benefited mightily.

Peeling the Potatoes and Bringing Home the Bacon

While a handful of overseas bases, like Guantánamo Bay, date to the turn of the twentieth century, most have existed since the construction of thousands of bases during World War II. Although the number of installations and troops ebbed and flowed in the Cold War years and shrank by about 60% once it was over, a significant infrastructure of bases remains. Scattered from Aruba and Belgium to the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, the Pentagon’s global landholdings are bigger than all of North Korea and represent by far the largest collection of foreign bases in history.

Once upon a time, however, the military, not contractors, built the barracks, cleaned the clothes, and peeled the potatoes at these bases. This started to change during the Vietnam War, when Brown & Root, better known to critics as “Burn & Loot” (later KBR), began building major military installations in South Vietnam as part of a contractor consortium.

The use of contractors accelerated following the Cold War’s end, part of a larger trend toward the privatization of formerly public services. By the first Gulf War, one in 100 deployed personnel was a contractor. Later in the 1990s, during U.S. military operations in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Italy, and especially the Balkans, Brown & Root received more than $2 billion in base-support and logistics contracts for base construction and maintenance, food services, waste removal, water production, transportation services, and much more.

By the second Gulf War, contractors represented roughly one in two deployed personnel in Iraq, with the company now known as KBR employing more than 50,000 people, or enough to staff 100 army battalions. Burger Kings, Starbucks, and car dealerships, as well as air conditioning, steak, and ice cream became regular features of often city-sized bases. However, this wasn’t a phenomenon restricted to war zones. U.S. bases worldwide look much the same, which helps explain the staggering taxpayer dollars they consume.

Calculating Costs in a “Dysfunctional” System

The problem is, it’s remarkably difficult to figure out who’s been benefiting from all the taxpayer money. The government doesn’t bother to compile such information. This meant I had to pick through hundreds of thousands of contracts and research scores of companies in countries worldwide.

I began with publicly available government contract data and followed a methodology for tracking funds used by the Commission on Wartime Contracting. This allowed me to compile a list of every Pentagon contract with a “place of performance” — that is, the country where most of a contract’s work is performed — outside the United States since the start of the Afghan war (fiscal year 2002).

There were 1.7 million of them.

Scrolling through 1.7 million spreadsheet rows, one for each contract, offered a dizzying feel for the immensity of the Pentagon’s activities and the money spent globally. Generally, the companies winning the largest contracts have been doing one (or more) of four things: building bases, running bases, providing security for bases, and delivering fuel to bases. Among those 1.7 million contracts, there was one for $43 for sand in South Korea and another for a $1.7 million fitness center in Honduras. There was the $23,000 for sports drinks in Kuwait, $53 million in base support services in Afghanistan, and everything from $73 in pens to $301 million for U.S. Army industrial supplies in Iraq.

Cheek by jowl, I found the most basic services, the most banal purchases, and the most ominous acquisitions, including concrete sidewalks, a traffic light system, diesel fuel, insect fogger, shower heads, black toner, a 59” desk, unskilled laborers, chaplain supplies, linen for “distinguished visitor” rooms, easy chairs, gym equipment, flamenco dancers, the rental of six sedans, phone cards, a 50” plasma screen, billiards cues, X-Box 360 games and accessories, Slushie machine parts, a hot dog roller, scallops, shrimp, strawberries, asparagus, and toaster pastries, as well as hazardous waste services, a burn pit, ammo and clips, bomb disposal services, blackout goggles for detainees, and confinement buildings.

The $385 billion total is at best a rough estimate; the real totals are surely higher. The Federal Procurement Data System that’s supposed to keep track of government contracts “often contains inaccurate data,” according to the Government Accountability Office. Harvard University economist Linda Bilmes calls the system “dysfunctional.” For example, hundreds of thousands of contracts have no “place of performance” listed at all. There are 116,527 contracts that list the place of performance as Switzerland, even though the vast majority are for delivering food to troops in Afghanistan and at bases worldwide.

The unreliable and opaque nature of the data becomes clearer when you consider that the top recipient of Pentagon contracts isn’t a company at all, but a category labeled “miscellaneous foreign contractors”; that is, almost 250,000 contracts totaling nearly $50 billion, or 12% of the total, have gone to recipients we can’t identify. As the Commission on Wartime Contracting explains, “miscellaneous foreign contractors” is a catch-all “often used for the purpose of obscuring the identification of the actual contractor[s].”

The reliability of the data only worsens when we consider the Pentagon’s inability to track its own money or pass an audit. Identifying the value of contracts given to specific companies is made more difficult by a general lack of corporate transparency, as well as complicated subcontracting arrangements, the use of foreign subsidiaries, and frequent corporate name changes.

Still, examining the top contractors is illuminating. Let’s start with the top three whose names we know:

1. KBR: Among the companies bringing home billions, the name Kellogg, Brown & Root dominates. It has almost five times the contracts of the next company on the list and is emblematic of broader problems in the contracting system.

KBR is the latest incarnation of Brown & Root, the company that started paving roads in Texas in 1919 and grew into the largest engineering and construction firm in the United States. In 1962, Halliburton, an international oil services company, bought Brown & Root. In 1995, Dick Cheney became Halliburton’s president and CEO after helping jump-start the Pentagon’s ever-greater reliance on private contractors when he was President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of defense.

Later, while Cheney was vice president, Halliburton and its KBR subsidiary (formed after acquiring Kellogg Industries) won by far the largest wartime contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s difficult to overstate KBR’s role in the two conflicts. Without its work, there might have been no wars. In a 2005 interview, Paul Cerjan, a former Halliburton vice president, explained that KBR was supporting more than 200,000 coalition forces in Iraq, providing “anything they need to conduct the war.” That meant “base support services, which includes all the billeting, the feeding, water supplies, sewage — anything it would take to run a city.” It also meant Army “logistics functions, which include transportation, movement of POL [petroleum, oil, and lubricants] supplies, gas… spare parts, ammunition.”

Most of KBR’s contracts to support bases and troops overseas have come under the multi-billion dollar Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program (LOGCAP). In 2001, KBR won a one-year LOGCAP contract to provide an undefined quantity and an undefined value of “selected services in wartime.” The company subsequently enjoyed nearly eight years of work without facing a competitor’s bid, thanks to a series of one-year contract extensions. By July 2011, KBR had received more than $37 billion in LOGCAP funds. Its experience reflected the near tripling of Pentagon contracts issued without competitive bidding between 2001 and 2010. “It’s like a gigantic monopoly,” a representative from Taxpayers for Common Sense said of LOGCAP.

The work KBR performed under LOGCAP also reflected the Pentagon’s frequent use of “cost-plus” contracts. These reimburse a company for its expenses and then add a fee that’s usually fixed contractually or determined by a performance evaluation board. The Congressional Research Service explained that because “increased costs mean increased fees to the contractor,” there is “no incentive for the contractor to limit the government’s costs.” As one Halliburton official told a congressional committee bluntly, the company’s unofficial mantra in Iraq became “Don’t worry about price. It’s ‘cost-plus.’”

Not surprisingly, in 2009, the Pentagon’s top auditor testified that KBR accounted for “the vast majority” of wartime fraud. The company has also faced accusations of overcharging for everything from delivering food and fuel and supplying housing for troops to providing base security services.

After years of bad publicity, in 2007, Halliburton spun KBR off as an independent company and moved its headquarters from Houston to Dubai. Despite KBR’s track record and a 2009 guilty plea for bribing Nigerian government officials to win gas contracts (for which its former CEO received prison time), the company has continued to receive massive government contracts. Its latest LOGCAP contract, awarded in 2008, could be worth up to $50 billion through 2018.

2. Supreme Group: Next on the list is the company that’s been described as the KBR for the Afghan War. Supreme Group has won more than $9 billion in contracts for transporting and serving meals to troops in Afghanistan and at other bases worldwide. Its growth perfectly symbolizes the soldiers-to-contractors shift in who peels the potatoes.

Supreme was founded in 1957 by an Army veteran who saw an opportunity to provide food for the hundreds of U.S. bases in Germany. After expanding over several decades into the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, the company won multi-billion-dollar “sole source contracts” that gave it a virtual monopoly over wartime food services in Afghanistan.

Today, in a prime example of the revolving door between the Pentagon and its contractors, Supreme’s chief commercial officer is former Lieutenant General Robert Dail. From August 2006 to November 2008, Dail headed the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which awards food contracts. In 2007, Dail presented Supreme with DLA’s “New Contractor of the Year Award.” Four months after leaving the Pentagon, he became the president of Supreme Group USA.

Recently, Supreme has faced growing scrutiny over the way it’s won competition-free contracts, with service fees as high as 75% of costs and reportedly for more than three-quarters of a billion dollars in overbilling. Last month, Supreme had the chutzpah to sue the Pentagon for awarding a new $10 billion Afghanistan food contract to a competitor that underbid Supreme’s offer by $1.4 billion.

3. Agility Logistics: Next on the list is Agility Logistics, a Kuwaiti company. It won multi-billion-dollar contracts to transport food to troops in Iraq. When the Pentagon decided against awarding similar contracts in Afghanistan to a single firm, Agility partnered with Supreme in exchange for a 3.5% fee on revenues. In 2009 and 2010, grand juries indicted Agility for massive contracting fraud, and the Pentagon suspended the company and 125 related companies from receiving new contracts. In 2012, a judge issued a default judgment against Agility in a whistleblower suit seeking more than $1 billion for overcharging the government.

The Rest of the Top 10: A Pattern of Misconduct

Things don’t get much better farther down the list. Next come DynCorp International and Fluor Intercontinental, which along with KBR won the latest LOGCAP contracts. Awarding that contract to three companies rather than one was intended to increase competition. In practice, according to the Commission on Wartime Contracting, each corporation has enjoyed a “mini-monopoly” over logistics services in Afghanistan and other locations. DynCorp, which has also won large wartime private security contracts, has a history littered with charges of overbilling, shoddy construction, smuggling laborers onto bases, sexual harassment, and sex trafficking.

Although a Fluor employee pled guilty in 2012 to conspiring to steal and sell military equipment in Iraq, it’s the only defense firm in the world to receive an “A” on Transparency International’s anti-corruption index that rates companies’ efforts to fight corruption. On the other hand, number seven on the list, ITT (now Exelis), received a “C” (along with KBR and DynCorp).

The last three in the top ten are BP (which tops the Project on Government Oversight’s federal contractor misconduct list) and the petroleum companies of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. After all, the U.S. military runs on oil. It consumed five billion gallons in fiscal year 2011 alone, or more than all of Sweden. In total, 10 of the top 25 firms are oil companies, with contracts for delivering oil overseas totaling around $40 billion.

Spreading the Love

Contractors are hardly alone in raking in the dollars from the Pentagon’s baseworld. Pentagon officials, military personnel, members of Congress, and lobbyists, among others, have all benefited — financially, politically, and professionally — from the giant overseas presence. In particular, contractors have spread the love by making millions in campaign contributions to members of Congress. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, military contractors and their employees gave more than $27 million in election donations in 2012 alone, and have donated almost $200 million since 1990.

Most of these have gone to members of the armed services and appropriations committees in the Senate and House of Representatives. These, of course, have primary authority over awarding military dollars. For the 2012 elections, for example, DynCorp International’s political action committee donated $10,000 to both the chair and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, and made additional donations to 33 other members of the House and Senate armed services committees and 16 members of the two appropriations committees.

Most contractors also pay lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars to sway military budgeteers and policymakers their way. KBR and Halliburton spent nearly $5.5 million on lobbying between 2002 and 2012, including $420,000 in 2008 when KBR won the latest LOGCAP contract and $620,000 the following year when it protested being barred from bidding on contracts in Kuwait. Supreme spent $660,000 on lobbying in 2012 alone. Agility spent $200,000 in 2011, after its second indictment on fraud charges, and Fluor racked up nearly $9.5 million in lobbying fees from 2002 to 2012.

Shrinking the Baseworld

Today, there are some signs of baseworld shrinkage. The hundreds of bases built in Iraq are long gone, and many of the hundreds built in Afghanistan are now being shut down as U.S. combat troops prepare to withdraw. The military is downsizing an old base in the Portuguese Azores and studying further base and troop reductions in Europe. While many in Congress are resisting an Obama administration request to reduce “excess capacity” among thousands of domestic bases through two new rounds of the Base Realignment and Closure process, at least some current and former members of Congress are calling for a parallel effort to close bases abroad.

At the same time, however, the military is building (or exploring the possibility of building) new bases from Asia and Africa to the Persian Gulf and Latin America. Small drone bases are on the rise from Niger to Saudi Arabia. Even in Europe, the Pentagon is still building bases while closing others.

Much work remains to be done to figure out who’s been benefiting from the Pentagon’s baseworld. The billions in contracts that sustain our bases, however, are a good reminder that there are immediate savings available by reducing troop deployments and Cold War bases abroad. They are also a reminder of where we should look when we’re told there isn’t enough money for Head Start or hospitals or housing.

For decades, tens of billions of dollars in overseas spending have ended up in the coffers of a select few, with many billions leaking out of the U.S. economy entirely. Stemming those leaks by cutting overseas spending and redirecting precious resources toward long-neglected non-military needs is an important way to help revive an economy that has long benefited the few rather than the many.

David Vine, a Tom Dispatch regular, is assistant professor of anthropology at American University, in Washington, DC. He is the author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia. He has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and Mother Jones, among other places. He is currently completing a book about the effects of U.S. military bases located outside the United States. For more of his writing, visit http://www.davidvine.net.

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Copyright 2013 David Vine

Tom Dispatch: And Then There Was One

TF Currahee conducts largest combined U.S., Afghan air assault so farImperial Gigantism and the Decline of Planet Earth By Tom Engelhardt

It stretched from the Caspian to the Baltic Sea, from the middle of Europe to the Kurile Islands in the Pacific, from Siberia to Central Asia. Its nuclear arsenal held 45,000 warheads, and its military had five million troops under arms. There had been nothing like it in Eurasia since the Mongols conquered China, took parts of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau, and rode into the Middle East, looting Baghdad. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, by far the poorer, weaker imperial power disappeared.

And then there was one. There had never been such a moment: a single nation astride the globe without a competitor in sight. There wasn’t even a name for such a state (or state of mind). “Superpower” had already been used when there were two of them. “Hyperpower” was tried briefly but didn’t stick. “Sole superpower” stood in for a while but didn’t satisfy. “Great Power,” once the zenith of appellations, was by then a lesser phrase, left over from the centuries when various European nations and Japan were expanding their empires. Some started speaking about a “unipolar” world in which all roads led… well, to Washington.

To this day, we’ve never quite taken in that moment when Soviet imperial rot unexpectedly — above all, to Washington — became imperial crash-and-burn. Left standing, the Cold War’s victor seemed, then, like an empire of everything under the sun. It was as if humanity had always been traveling toward this spot. It seemed like the end of the line.

The Last Empire?

After the rise and fall of the Assyrians and the Romans, the Persians, the Chinese, the Mongols, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the English, the Germans, and the Japanese, some process seemed over. The United States was dominant in a previously unimaginable way — except in Hollywood films where villains cackled about their evil plans to dominate the world.

As a start, the U.S. was an empire of global capital. With the fall of Soviet-style communism (and the transformation of a communist regime in China into a crew of authoritarian “capitalist roaders”), there was no other model for how to do anything, economically speaking. There was Washington’s way — and that of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (both controlled by Washington) — or there was the highway, and the Soviet Union had already made it all too clear where that led: to obsolescence and ruin.

In addition, the U.S. had unprecedented military power. By the time the Soviet Union began to totter, America’s leaders had for nearly a decade been consciously using “the arms race” to spend its opponent into an early grave. And here was the curious thing after centuries of arms races: when there was no one left to race, the U.S. continued an arms race of one.

In the years that followed, it would outpace all other countries or combinations of countries in military spending by staggering amounts. It housed the world’s most powerful weapons makers, was technologically light years ahead of any other state, and was continuing to develop future weaponry for 2020, 2040, 2060, even as it established a near monopoly on the global arms trade (and so, control over who would be well-armed and who wouldn’t).

It had an empire of bases abroad, more than 1,000 of them spanning the globe, also an unprecedented phenomenon. And it was culturally dominant, again in a way that made comparisons with other moments ludicrous. Like American weapons makers producing things that went boom in the night for an international audience, Hollywood’s action and fantasy films took the world by storm. From those movies to the golden arches, the swoosh, and the personal computer, there was no other culture that could come close to claiming such a global cachet.

The key non-U.S. economic powerhouses of the moment — Europe and Japan — maintained militaries dependent on Washington, had U.S. bases littering their territories, and continued to nestle under Washington’s “nuclear umbrella.” No wonder that, in the U.S., the post-Soviet moment was soon proclaimed “the end of history,” and the victory of “liberal democracy” or “freedom” was celebrated as if there really were no tomorrow, except more of what today had to offer.

No wonder that, in the new century, neocons and supporting pundits would begin to claim that the British and Roman empires had been second-raters by comparison. No wonder that key figures in and around the George W. Bush administration dreamed of establishing a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East and possibly over the globe itself (as well as a Pax Republicana at home). They imagined that they might actually prevent another competitor or bloc of competitors from arising to challenge American power. Ever.

No wonder they had remarkably few hesitations about launching their incomparably powerful military on wars of choice in the Greater Middle East. What could possibly go wrong? What could stand in the way of the greatest power history had ever seen?

Assessing the Imperial Moment, Twenty-First-Century-Style

Almost a quarter of a century after the Soviet Union disappeared, what’s remarkable is how much — and how little — has changed.

On the how-much front: Washington’s dreams of military glory ran aground with remarkable speed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then, in 2007, the transcendent empire of capital came close to imploding as well, as a unipolar financial disaster spread across the planet. It led people to begin to wonder whether the globe’s greatest power might not, in fact, be too big to fail, and we were suddenly — so everyone said — plunged into a “multipolar world.”

Meanwhile, the Greater Middle East descended into protest, rebellion, civil war, and chaos without a Pax Americana in sight, as a Washington-controlled Cold War system in the region shuddered without (yet) collapsing. The ability of Washington to impose its will on the planet looked ever more like the wildest of fantasies, while every sign, including the hemorrhaging of national treasure into losing trillion-dollar wars, reflected not ascendancy but possible decline.

And yet, in the how-little category: the Europeans and Japanese remained nestled under that American “umbrella,” their territories still filled with U.S. bases. In the Euro Zone, governments continued to cut back on their investments in both NATO and their own militaries. Russia remained a country with a sizeable nuclear arsenal and a reduced but still large military. Yet it showed no signs of “superpower” pretensions. Other regional powers challenged unipolarity economically — Turkey and Brazil, to name two — but not militarily, and none showed an urge either singly or in blocs to compete in an imperial sense with the U.S.

Washington’s enemies in the world remained remarkably modest-sized (though blown to enormous proportions in the American media echo-chamber). They included a couple of rickety regional powers (Iran and North Korea), a minority insurgency or two, and relatively small groups of Islamist “terrorists.” Otherwise, as one gauge of power on the planet, no more than a handful of other countries had even a handful of military bases outside their territory.

Under the circumstances, nothing could have been stranger than this: in its moment of total ascendancy, the Earth’s sole superpower with a military of staggering destructive potential and technological sophistication couldn’t win a war against minimally armed guerillas. Even more strikingly, despite having no serious opponents anywhere, it seemed not on the rise but on the decline, its infrastructure rotting out, its populace economically depressed, its wealth ever more unequally divided, its Congress seemingly beyond repair, while the great sucking sound that could be heard was money and power heading toward the national security state. Sooner or later, all empires fall, but this moment was proving curious indeed.

And then, of course, there was China. On the planet that humanity has inhabited these last several thousand years, can there be any question that China would have been the obvious pick to challenge, sooner or later, the dominion of the reigning great power of the moment? Estimates are that it will surpass the U.S. as the globe’s number one economy by perhaps 2030.

Right now, the Obama administration seems to be working on just that assumption. With its well-publicized “pivot” (or “rebalancing”) to Asia, it has been moving to “contain” what it fears might be the next great power. However, while the Chinese are indeed expanding their military and challenging their neighbors in the waters of the Pacific, there is no sign that the country’s leadership is ready to embark on anything like a global challenge to the U.S., nor that it could do so in any conceivable future. Its domestic problems, from pollution to unrest, remain staggering enough that it’s hard to imagine a China not absorbed with domestic issues through 2030 and beyond.

And Then There Was One (Planet)

Militarily, culturally, and even to some extent economically, the U.S. remains surprisingly alone on planet Earth in imperial terms, even if little has worked out as planned in Washington. The story of the years since the Soviet Union fell may prove to be a tale of how American domination and decline went hand-in-hand, with the decline part of the equation being strikingly self-generated.

And yet here’s a genuine, even confounding, possibility: that moment of “unipolarity” in the 1990s may really have been the end point of history as human beings had known it for millennia — the history, that is, of the rise and fall of empires. Could the United States actually be the last empire? Is it possible that there will be no successor because something has profoundly changed in the realm of empire building? One thing is increasingly clear: whatever the state of imperial America, something significantly more crucial to the fate of humanity (and of empires) is in decline. I’m talking, of course, about the planet itself.

The present capitalist model (the only one available) for a rising power, whether China, India, or Brazil, is also a model for planetary decline, possibly of a precipitous nature. The very definition of success — more middle-class consumers, more car owners, more shoppers, which means more energy used, more fossil fuels burned, more greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere — is also, as it never would have been before, the definition of failure. The greater the “success,” the more intense the droughts, the stronger the storms, the more extreme the weather, the higher the rise in sea levels, the hotter the temperatures, the greater the chaos in low-lying or tropical lands, the more profound the failure. The question is: Will this put an end to the previous patterns of history, including the until-now-predictable rise of the next great power, the next empire? On a devolving planet, is it even possible to imagine the next stage in imperial gigantism?

Every factor that would normally lead toward “greatness” now also leads toward global decline. This process — which couldn’t be more unfair to countries having their industrial and consumer revolutions late — gives a new meaning to the phrase “disaster capitalism.”

Take the Chinese, whose leaders, on leaving the Maoist model behind, did the most natural thing in the world at the time: they patterned their future economy on the United States — on, that is, success as it was then defined. Despite both traditional and revolutionary communal traditions, for instance, they decided that to be a power in the world, you needed to make the car (which meant the individual driver) a pillar of any future state-capitalist China. If it worked for the U.S., it would work for them, and in the short run, it worked like a dream, a capitalist miracle — and China rose.

It was, however, also a formula for massive pollution, environmental degradation, and the pouring of ever more fossil fuels into the atmosphere in record amounts. And it’s not just China. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about that country’s ravenous energy use, including its possible future “carbon bombs,” or the potential for American decline to be halted by new extreme methods of producing energy (fracking, tar-sands extraction, deep-water drilling). Such methods, however much they hurt local environments, might indeed turn the U.S. into a “new Saudi Arabia.” Yet that, in turn, would only contribute further to the degradation of the planet, to decline on an ever-larger scale.

What if, in the twenty-first century, going up means declining? What if the unipolar moment turns out to be a planetary moment in which previously distinct imperial events — the rise and fall of empires — fuse into a single disastrous system?

What if the story of our times is this: And then there was one planet, and it was going down.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt

Photo: (Image: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: DVIDSHUB, Jiří Děcký, Rishi Bandopadhay)