Wayne O’Leary

The Specter of Endless War

The Obama administration’s December decision to substantially increase American troop levels in Afghanistan, thereby raising the ante on our commitment to that graveyard of empires, means the US will have a military presence there indefinitely. Exactly what the administration is thinking remains unclear. Are we all in for “victory” over whomever on the Bush model, or nation building again with an overdose of hubris, or temporarily propping up the latest in a string of American-installed puppet governments until it gets its act together?

If it’s the last-named, prepare to be disappointed. The Karzai government in Kabul has demonstrated its corruption and incompetence time and time again. As the US has done throughout its decades as a superpower (Somoza in Nicaragua, Diem in South Vietnam, Pinochet in Chile, the Shah in Iran), it is once more backing a leader widely despised among his countrymen. Karzai has little support outside Afghanistan’s capital city and no ability to impose his will on its unruly tribal areas, so the American military is charged with being the de facto government and keeper of order for the foreseeable future.

If the ratcheting up of US forces is part of an offensive against al Qaeda, Washington is off the track there as well. Al-Qaeda has left Afghanistan; it’s in Pakistan, where our well-funded (with American dollars) ally in Karachi is supposedly dealing with it. Are we going to station troops among the Afghans forever in case a handful of bin Laden’s henchmen filter back across the border?

Maybe we’re escalating in Afghanistan to eliminate the Taliban, al-Qaeda’s supposed surrogates. They’re nasty boys without a doubt, but they have no technological capacity to attack Americans in this hemisphere and no announced desire to do so outside their own bailiwick. If, in our absence, they should return to power, it will be because the Afghan majority lacks the will, despite billions in aid and years of instruction and encouragement, to resist them. A Taliban government would once more impose Islamist fundamentalism and authoritarianism, an unhappy prospect, but it’s hardly worth a generation of American occupation to prevent that eventuality.

Forget the president’s convoluted rationale. The most likely reason for the White House decision to bulk up and hunker down for an open-ended anti-insurgency campaign against whoever might attempt to dislodge the nominally pro-Western Afghan government can be expressed in two words: nation building. Since the only apparent way to avoid the unthinkable embarrassment of “losing” in Afghanistan is to recreate an American-style government, society, and way of life there, then that’s apparently what we’re going to attempt. We’ll make them the same as us, even if it kills them (and us).

A curious kind of policy inertia has taken hold. Withdrawal is unacceptable because it’s the devil we don’t know. Suppose something bad resulted, or things got worse. No, the easier course by far is to soldier on and push the ultimate day of reckoning out into the future. This means expending additional lives and billions more in money we don’t have — on top of the $1 trillion, most of it borrowed, already spent in Iraq. Regardless, the nation-building project (there, not here) is on in earnest.

Other factors play into the equation. One of the unmentionable advantages of permanent war and occupation is that it’s good for the Pentagon; it gives the generals a raison d’être. Like Petraeus in Iraq, McChrystal is convinced that, given sufficient troops and logistical support, he can win in Afghanistan. Generals always think they can win; it’s in their DNA. More to the point, generals are in a line of work that values armed conflict, their protestations notwithstanding. Without it, they have no purpose, and so they believe to their souls in “the mission.”

Beyond that, the concept of endless war has an institutional support structure in this country. There is Eisenhower’s long-standing military-industrial complex, of course, encompassing the scores of domestic manufacturing interests with an economic stake in continued military solutions to any and all problems, including the latest one. A hydra-headed lobby, with branches in most congressional districts, it fanned the flames of belligerence throughout the 40-year Cold War. Terrorism has now replaced communism as the all-purpose evil, and the Middle East is standing in nicely for places like Southeast Asia.

But there is a new plot twist in the old story: Privatization of the defense establishment — the Blackwaters, the Halliburtons — has given the creaking military-industrial complex an added boost. Profit-oriented special interests are not only producing the tools of war as before, they’re actively engaged in utilizing them. If spending by the military per se is cut, it’s the Pentagon and its hardware suppliers that howl; if the mercenary private armies (the source of over half our battlefield and logistical manpower in the Iraq-Afghanistan theater) are cut, it’s the newly influential service contractors that are roiled. So America’s only expanding industry has married the fad of government privatization to the traditional Pentagon bureaucracy and the arms bazaar, and planted new seeds for the growth of the 21st century’s permanent war.

None of this could happen, however, without the passive acquiescence of the American people. The lingering hangover from 9/11 has instilled the notion that we’re surrounded by enemies. “They” are out to get us, and we must always be fighting “them” somewhere, lest they show up on our doorstep unannounced and terminate our freedoms. The semi-hysterical reaction to the Fort Hood shooting points this up: a criminal act by one deranged individual was transformed, at the behest of an alarmist media and the insistence of the paranoid Right, into a manifestation of terrorism. Conveniently, terrorism can be whatever you want it to be.

The mindset that we need to be constantly at war to preserve our way of life means that whenever a new president undertakes to prove his toughness, as all chief executives must, by invading or occupying foreign soil, there will be broad public acceptance. Extremist conservatives will impugn the patriotism of anyone opposing endless military engagement, and the rest of the political establishment will go along to get along. So, failing a reality check at the highest levels, be prepared for a long stay in Afghanistan (eight years and counting) and wherever else the demons of terror are seen — or imagined.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy.

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 15, 2010


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