This Week in War. A Friday round-up of what happened and what’s been written in the world of war and military/security affairs this week. It’s a mix of news reports, policy briefs, blog posts and longform journalism. Subscribe here to receive this round-up by email.
- War deaths in Syria now top 100,000.
- The US plans to begin directly supplying arms to the opposition force within the month.
- Experts say that sarin gas use in Syria still cannot be genuinely proved, since the process can’t control for tampering.
- Fighting between rival armed militias in Libya’s capital have killed five and wounded nearly 100.
- Monday saw Israeli air strikes carried out against Gaza in retaliation for Palestinian rocket fire.
- At least 16 Lebanese soldiers were killed in fighting with Sunni militants in Sidon.
- A series of bomb attacks in Iraq on Monday killed at least 42.
- A Taliban attack on Kabul has put peace talks on edge.
- The annual report (PDF) from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime shows Afghanistan remains the world leader in opium cultivation and production.
- Pakistan’s former leader Pervez Musharraf’s treason trial has been adjourned indefinitely and a four-member committee has been created to probe treason charges.
- A video of two Czech women captured in Balochistan a couple of months ago surfaced, along with demands by their unidentified captors, that neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui be released by the US. It has not been verified.
- Head of NGO For Human Rights, Lev Ponomaryov, was forcibly evicted from his offices along with staff and beaten by Russian law enforcement.
- China will send peacekeeping troops to Mali.
- HRW says that China has resettled 2 million Tibetans over the past seven years.
- Violence and rioting in the Western region of Xinjiang left 27 dead.
- In response to US threats to end trade benefits over Snowden, Ecuador waived the benefits and offered the US $23 million worth of human rights training.
- Protesters continued to take to the streets in Brazil, facing off against police.
- Dzokhar Tsarnaev has been formally charged with killing four people and using a weapon of mass destruction.
- Marine Gen. James Cartwright, formerly the vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is apparently the target of a DOJ leak investigation regarding information leaked about Stuxnet.
- A new Guardian scoop revealed that the Bush administration email record collection continued for two years under the Obama administration.
- The administration insists anyway, that Bush era data collection ended in 2011, but as The Guardian went on to report, massive metadata mining continues through the program EvilOlive (what?).
- Here’s a pdf of a 2009 draft report of the NSA inspector general regarding the surveillance program, thanks to The Guardian.
- Leaks also reveal massive online data collection by the British counterpart to the NSA, the GCHQ, of information obtained by tapping fibre-optics cables. The info is shared with the US.
- The Army is restricting access to The Guardian’s website in an Armywide filter.
- McClatchy on how memories of Stasi affect Germans’ views of US surveillance practices.
- Glenn Greenwald addresses attempts to smear his reputation and attack his work. David Carr and Jay Rosen both came to his aid earlier this week.
- Two law school professors say the NSA data collection programs “violate both the letter and the spirit of federal law.”
- The Snowden leaks have brought WikiLeaks back into the news.
- A CIA inspector general’s report (PDF) reveals there have been four CIA embeds with the NYPD since 9/11 and raises questions about the limitations they had, the assistance they offered, and the relationship between the two organizations.
- Former US National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke rather astonishingly acknowledged to the Huffington Post that the circumstances of Michael Hastings’ crash were “consistent with a car cyber attack.” He was careful to say that he was not saying he thought there had been such an attack.
- The Daily Beast profiles the life and work of incoming deputy director of the CIA, Avril Haines.
- A video interview with journalist and Dirty Wars author Jeremy Scahill on national security oversight, whistleblowers and the effect of surveillance on journalists and journalism.
- A military court overturned a Marine’s conviction in the murder of a retired Iraqi policeman because Sgt. Hutchins was held in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer.
- The Army plans to cut 12 combat brigades and reduce force size by 80,000.
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Photo: Kabul, Afghanistan. An Afghan soldier stands guard at the presidential palace on June 25th following a Taliban attack. Shah Merai/AFP/Getty
This Week in War. A weekly round-up compiled by Torie Rose DeGhett of what happened and what’s been written in the world of war and military/security affairs this week. It’s a mix of news reports, policy briefs, blog posts and longform journalism. Subscribe here to receive this round-up by email.
- Those who speak Russian have become targets for kidnapping in Syria.
- Syrian forces have dropped cluster bombs on towns, showing Assad’s calculated targeting of civilians.
- The UN says that Syrian fighting is now “overtly sectarian.”
- Religious police forces are patrolling Aleppo, generating some worries about religious crackdowns but also some strident defenses of their motives.
- NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and his news production team spent five days captive in Syria, freed from their captors on Monday when they escaped during a firefight. Great that they’re back safe.
- Engel and members of his team appeared on the Today Show and Rock Center. Engel also gave an interview about his kidnapping in Arabic.
- Others remain in captivity in Syria, like journalist Austin Tice, whose family appealed for his release for Christmas.
- The war in Syria had a hand in spiking the death toll of journalists in 2012, which was a 42 percent increase in deaths from last year with a record number of deaths of online journalists. Also contributing were a string of murders in Somalia and in Brazil. A total of 67 journalists were killed in direct connection to their work this year.
- Foreign Policy published a “roundtable” on dangers to journalists in Syria, featuring Martin Chulov, Paul Conroy, Rania Abouzeid, and Justin Vela.
- Israel approved 1500 more settlement homes in East Jerusalem.
- Yemen’s president restructured the armed forces.
- A “dubious yes” to the Egyptian constitutional referendum,
- Three State Dept. officials resigned over the events in Benghazi in September.
- Embassy security following Benghazi is turning out to be a big boon to the defense contractor formerly known as Blackwater.
- Khalid Mustafa Medani notes similarities between current constitutional crisis in Egypt and the causes of the rise of the National Islamic Front in Sudan.
- The UN Security Council has voted unanimously to authorize an African-led intervention force to oust rebels from Mali.
- No ships have been hijacked by pirates off of Somalia in the last six months.
- About 40 people, including many children, were killed this morning in an escalation of tribal attacks along the Tana River Delta in Kenya.
- Congolese rebel leader Mathieu Ngudjolo was acquitted of war crimes by the ICC.
- In Rwanda, the special tribunal has sentenced Augustin Ngirabatware to 35 years for his key organizing role in the 1994 genocide. He is the last person to be tried by the ICTR, which will now be only hearing appeals.
- Hundreds of Iraqis who were victims of torture at the hands of British forces have been paid compensation and coverage of costs by the Ministry of Defence, a total of more than 14 million pounds.
- Iraqi president Jalal Talabani has been flown to Germany for stroke treatment.
- Nearly two years later, the uprising and protests in Bahrain have continued, largely forgotten on the international scene.
- Afghanistan’s new, clean and shiny Helmand Central Prison faces an uncertain future after American and British forces leave.
- Afghanistan’s female police officers are growing worried about their futures and expressing frustration with persistent and pervasive sexual harassment, discrimination and government neglect.
- The US Army is seeking the death penalty against Staff Sgt. Bales in the murders of 16 Afghan civilians in March.
- A New York Times video report on the crisis confronting polio campaign workers in Pakistan.
- The UN has halted vaccination work in Pakistan following continued killings.
- An interview with Suman Nalwa, the head of a Delhi police unit aimed at addressing violence against women.
- The US is reimbursing Pakistan $688 million for the costs associated with supporting 140,000 troops on the Af-Pak border.
- An emerging gun lobby in Russia is pushing for more handguns in the crime-ridden country.
- Surfing the internet in North Korea.
- Mexico is planning to create a new police force as part of combatting drug crime.
- An excellent piece in Der Spiegel: “The Woes of an American Drone Operator.”
- Following the tragedy in Newtown, gun buyback programs are doing business at historic levels.
- Corporations like private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management and Dick’s Sporting Goods are seeking to distance themselves from the Bushmaster.
- Lawmakers apparently have dropped a provision from the National Defense Authorization Act that would have explicitly banned indefinite detention of US citizens.
- The children of the Japanese-Americans who were put in internment camps during World War II have filed suit against 2012’s NDAA for its indefinite detention provision.
- A new survey shows that sexual assault at military academies is underreported.
- Documenting the service of Jewish veterans of World War II.
- Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain have publicly expressed their displeasure at the portrayal of torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.
Photo: A UH-1Y crew chief with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (forward) mans the GAU-17/A 7.62mm machine gun while gathering key coalition personnel to be inserted into the Ismaat Bazaar in Helmand province, Afghanistan
Americans lived in a “victory culture” for much of the twentieth century. You could say that we experienced an almost 75-year stretch of triumphalism — think of it as the real “American Century” — from World War I to the end of the Cold War, with time off for a destructive stalemate in Korea and a defeat in Vietnam too shocking to absorb or shake off.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, it all seemed so obvious. Fate had clearly dealt Washington a royal flush. It was victory with a capital V. The United States was, after all, the last standing superpower, after centuries of unceasing great power rivalries on the planet. It had a military beyond compare and no enemy, hardly a “rogue state,” on the horizon. It was almost unnerving, such clear sailing into a dominant future, but a moment for the ages nonetheless. Within a decade, pundits in Washington were hailing us as “the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome.”
And here’s the odd thing: in a sense, little has changed since then and yet everything seems different. Think of it as the American imperial paradox: everywhere there are now “threats” against our well-being which seem to demand action and yet nowhere are there commensurate enemies to go with them. Everywhere the U.S. military still reigns supreme by almost any measure you might care to apply; and yet — in case the paradox has escaped you — nowhere can it achieve its goals, however modest.
At one level, the American situation should simply take your breath away. Never before in modern history had there been an arms race of only one or a great power confrontation of only one. And at least in military terms, just as the neoconservatives imagined in those early years of the twenty-first century, the United States remains the “sole superpower” or even “hyperpower” of planet Earth.
The Planet’s Top Gun
And yet the more dominant the U.S. military becomes in its ability to destroy and the more its forces are spread across the globe, the more the defeats and semi-defeats pile up, the more the missteps and mistakes grow, the more the strains show, the more the suicides rise, the more the nation’s treasure disappears down a black hole — and in response to all of this, the more moves the Pentagon makes.
A great power without a significant enemy? You might have to go back to the Roman Empire at its height or some Chinese dynasty in full flower to find anything like it. And yet Osama bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaeda is reportedly a shadow of its former self. The great regional threats of the moment, North Korea and Iran, are regimes held together by baling wire and the suffering of their populaces. The only incipient great power rival on the planet, China, has just launched its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Ukrainian throwaway from the 1990s on whose deck the country has no planes capable of landing.
The U.S. has 1,000 or more bases around the world; other countries, a handful. The U.S. spends as much on its military as the next 14 powers (mostly allies) combined. In fact, it’s investing an estimated $1.45 trillion to produce and operate a single future aircraft, the F-35 — more than any country, the U.S. included, now spends on its national defense annually.
The U.S. military is singular in other ways, too. It alone has divided the globe — the complete world — into six “commands.” With (lest anything be left out) an added command, Stratcom, for the heavens and another, recently established, for the only space not previously occupied, cyberspace, where we’re already unofficially “at war.” No other country on the planet thinks of itself in faintly comparable military terms.
When its high command plans for its future “needs,” thanks to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, they repair (don’t say “retreat”) to a military base south of the capital where they argue out their future and war-game various possible crises while striding across a map of the world larger than a basketball court. What other military would come up with such a method?
The president now has at his command not one, but two private armies. The first is the CIA, which in recent years has been heavily militarized, is overseen by a former four-star general (who calls the job “living the dream”), and is running its own private assassination campaigns and drone air wars throughout the Greater Middle East. The second is an expanding elite, the Joint Special Operations Command, cocooned inside the U.S. military, members of whom are now deployed to hot spots around the globe.
The U.S. Navy, with its 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carrier task forces, is dominant on the global waves in a way that only the British Navy might once have been; and the U.S. Air Force controls the global skies in much of the world in a totally uncontested fashion. (Despite numerous wars and conflicts, the last American plane possibly downed in aerial combat was in the first Gulf War in 1991.) Across much of the global south, there is no sovereign space Washington’s drones can’t penetrate to kill those judged by the White House to be threats.
In sum, the U.S. is now the sole planetary Top Gun in a way that empire-builders once undoubtedly fantasized about, but that none from Genghis Khan on have ever achieved: alone and essentially uncontested on the planet. In fact, by every measure (except success), the likes of it has never been seen.
Blindsided by Predictably Unintended Consequences
By all the usual measuring sticks, the U.S. should be supreme in a historically unprecedented way. And yet it couldn’t be more obvious that it’s not, that despite all the bases, elite forces, private armies, drones, aircraft carriers, wars, conflicts, strikes, interventions, and clandestine operations, despite a labyrinthine intelligence bureaucracy that never seems to stop growing and into which we pour a minimum of $80 billion a year, nothing seems to work out in an imperially satisfying way. It couldn’t be more obvious that this is not a glorious dream, but some kind of ever-expanding imperial nightmare.
This should, of course, have been self-evident since at least early 2004, less than a year after the Bush administration invaded and occupied Iraq, when the roadside bombs started to explode and the suicide bombings to mount, while the comparisons of the United States to Rome and of a prospective Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East to the Pax Romana vanished like a morning mist on a blazing day. Still, the wars against relatively small, ill-armed sets of insurgents dragged toward their dismally predictable ends. (It says the world that, after almost 11 years of war, the 2,000th U.S. military death in Afghanistan occurred at the hands of an Afghan “ally” in an “insider attack.”) In those years, Washington continued to be regularly blindsided by the unintended consequences of its military moves. Surprises — none pleasant — became the order of the day and victories proved vanishingly rare.
One thing seems obvious: a superpower military with unparalleled capabilities for one-way destruction no longer has the more basic ability to impose its will anywhere on the planet. Quite the opposite, U.S. military power has been remarkably discredited globally by the most pitiful of forces. From Pakistan to Honduras, just about anywhere it goes in the old colonial or neocolonial world, in those regions known in the contested Cold War era as the Third World, resistance of one unexpected sort or another arises and failure ensues in some often long-drawn-out and spectacular fashion.
Given the lack of enemies — a few thousand jihadis, a small set of minority insurgencies, a couple of feeble regional powers — why this is so, what exactly the force is that prevents Washington’s success, remains mysterious. Certainly, it’s in some way related to the more than half-century of decolonization movements, rebellions, and insurgencies that were a feature of the previous century.
It also has something to do with the way economic heft has spread beyond the U.S., Europe, and Japan — with the rise of the “tigers” in Asia, the explosion of the Chinese and Indian economies, the advances of Brazil and Turkey, and the movement of the planet toward some kind of genuine economic multipolarity. It may also have something to do with the end of the Cold War, which put an end as well to several centuries of imperial or great power competition and left the sole “victor,” it now seems clear, heading toward the exits wreathed in self-congratulation.
Explain it as you will, it’s as if the planet itself, or humanity, had somehow been inoculated against the imposition of imperial power, as if it now rejected it whenever and wherever applied. In the previous century, it took a half-nation, North Korea, backed by Russian supplies and Chinese troops to fight the U.S. to a draw, or a popular insurgent movement backed by a local power, North Vietnam, backed in turn by the Soviet Union and China to defeat American power. Now, small-scale minority insurgencies, largely using roadside bombs and suicide bombers, are fighting American power to a draw (or worse) with no great power behind them at all.
Think of the growing force that resists such military might as the equivalent of the “dark matter” in the universe. The evidence is in. We now know (or should know) that it’s there, even if we can’t see it.
Washington’s Wars on Autopilot
After the last decade of military failures, stand-offs, and frustrations, you might think that this would be apparent in Washington. After all, the U.S. is now visibly an overextended empire, its sway waning from the Greater Middle East to Latin America, the limits of its power increasingly evident. And yet, here’s the curious thing: two administrations in Washington have drawn none of the obvious conclusions, and no matter how the presidential election turns out, it’s already clear that, in this regard, nothing will change.
Even as military power has proven itself a bust again and again, our policymakers have come to rely ever more completely on a military-first response to global problems. In other words, we are not just a classically overextended empire, but also an overwrought one operating on some kind of militarized autopilot. Lacking is a learning curve. By all evidence, it’s not just that there isn’t one, but that there can’t be one.
Washington, it seems, now has only one mode of thought and action, no matter who is at the helm or what the problem may be, and it always involves, directly or indirectly, openly or clandestinely, the application of militarized force. Nor does it matter that each further application only destabilizes some region yet more or undermines further what once were known as “American interests.”
Take Libya, as an example. It briefly seemed to count as a rare American military success story: a decisive intervention in support of a rebellion against a brutal dictator — so brutal, in fact, that the CIA previously shipped “terrorist suspects,” Islamic rebels fighting against the Gaddafi regime, there for torture. No U.S. casualties resulted, while American and NATO air strikes were decisive in bringing a set of ill-armed, ill-organized rebels to power.
In the world of unintended consequences, however, the fall of Gaddafi sent Tuareg mercenaries from his militias, armed with high-end weaponry, across the border into Mali. There, when the dust settled, the whole northern part of the country had come unhinged and fallen under the sway of Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda wannabes as other parts of North Africa threatened to destabilize. At the same time, of course, the first American casualties of the intervention occurred when Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in an attack on the Benghazi consulate and a local “safe house.”
With matters worsening regionally, the response couldn’t have been more predictable. As Greg Miller and Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post recently reported, in ongoing secret meetings, the White House is planning for military operations against al-Qaeda-in-the-Magreb (North Africa), now armed with weaponry pillaged from Gaddafi’s stockpiles. These plans evidently include the approach used in Yemen (U.S. special forces on the ground and CIA drone strikes), or a Somalia “formula” (drone strikes, special forces operations, CIA operations, and the support of African proxy armies), or even at some point “the possibility of direct U.S. intervention.”
In addition, Eric Schmitt and David Kilpatrick of the New York Times report that the Obama administration is “preparing retaliation” against those it believes killed the U.S. ambassador, possibly including “drone strikes, special operations raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden, and joint missions with Libyan authorities.” The near certainty that, like the previous intervention, this next set of military actions will only further destabilize the region with yet more unpleasant surprises and unintended consequences hardly seems to matter. Nor does the fact that, in crude form, the results of such acts are known to us ahead of time have an effect on the unstoppable urge to plan and order them.
Such situations are increasingly legion across the Greater Middle East and elsewhere. Take one other tiny example: Iraq, from which, after almost a decade-long military disaster, the “last” U.S. units essentially fled in the middle of the night as 2011 ended. Even in those last moments, the Obama administration and the Pentagon were still trying to keep significant numbers of U.S. troops there (and, in fact, did manage to leave behind possibly several hundred as trainers of elite Iraqi units). Meanwhile, Iraq has been supportive of the embattled Syrian regime and drawn ever closer to Iran, even as its own sectarian strife has ratcheted upward. Having watched this unsettling fallout from its last round in the country, according to the New York Times, the U.S. is now negotiating an agreement “that could result in the return of small units of American soldiers to Iraq on training missions. At the request of the Iraqi government, according to General Caslen, a unit of Army Special Operations soldiers was recently deployed to Iraq to advise on counterterrorism and help with intelligence.”
Don’t you just want to speak to those negotiators the way you might to a child: No, don’t do that! The urge to return to the scene of their previous disaster, however, seems unstaunchable. You could offer various explanations for why our policymakers, military and civilian, continue in such a repetitive — and even from an imperial point of view — self-destructive vein in situations where unpleasant surprises are essentially guaranteed and lack of success a given. Yes, there is the military-industrial complex to be fed. Yes, we are interested in the control of crucial resources, especially energy, and so on.
But it’s probably more reasonable to say that a deeply militarized mindset and the global maneuvers that go with it are by now just part of the way of life of a Washington eternally “at war.” They are the tics of a great power with the equivalent of Tourette’s Syndrome. They happen because they can’t help but happen, because they are engraved in the policy DNA of our national security complex, and can evidently no longer be altered. In other words, they can’t help themselves.
That’s the only logical conclusion in a world where it has become ever less imaginable to do the obvious, which is far less or nothing at all. (Northern Chad? When did it become crucial to our well being?) Downsizing the mission? Inconceivable. Thinking the unthinkable? Don’t even give it a thought!
What remains is, of course, a self-evident formula for disaster on autopilot. But don’t tell Washington. It won’t matter. Its denizens can’t take it in.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, his history of the Cold War, 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.