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The Ir-Af-Pak War

He may be remarkable in many ways, but Obama is also president of the United States—an empire that now lives off war and the preparations for future war.

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 1:10 PM EDT

General Manhunter

And let's be careful not to put all of this in the passive voice either when it comes to the new president. In both of these areas, he may have felt somewhat unsure of himself and so slotted in the old guard around him as a kind of political protection. Nonetheless, this hasn't just happened to him. He didn't just inherit the presidency. He went for it. And he isn't just sitting atop it. He's actively using it. He's wielding power. In foreign policy terms, he's settling in—and despite his Cairo speech and various hints of change on subjects like relations with Iran, in largely predictable ways.

He may, for example, have declared a sunshine policy when it comes to transparency in government, but in his war policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, his imperial avatar is already plunging deep into the dark, distinctly opaque valley of death. He's just appointed a general, Stanley A. McChrystal, as his Afghan commander. From 2003-2008, McChrystal ran a special operations outfit in Iraq (and then Afghanistan) so secret that the Pentagon avoided mention of it. In those years, its operatives were torturing, abusing, and killing Iraqis as part of a systematic targeted assassination program on a large scale. It was, for those who remember the Vietnam era, a mini-Phoenix program in which possibly hundreds of enemies were assassinated: al-Qaeda-in-Iraq types, but also Sunni insurgents, and Sadrists (not to speak of others, since informers always settle scores and turn over their own personal enemies as well).

Although he's now being touted in the press as the man to bring the real deal in counterinsurgency to Afghanistan (and "protect" the Afghan population in the bargain), his actual field is "counter-terrorism." He spoke the right words to Congress during his recent confirmation hearings, but pay no attention.

The team he's now assembling in Washington to lead his operations in Afghanistan (and someday maybe Pakistan) tells you what you really need to know. It's filled with special operations types. The expertise of his chosen key lieutenants is, above all, in special ops work. At the same time, reports Rowan Scarborough at Fox News, an extra 1,000 special operations troops are now being "quietly" dispatched to Afghanistan, bringing the total number there to about 5,000. Keep in mind that it's been the special operations forces, with their kick-down-the-door night raids and air strikes, who have been involved in the most notorious incidents of civilian slaughter, which continue to enrage Afghans.

Note, by the way, that while the president is surging into Afghanistan 21,000 troops and advisors (as well as those special ops forces), ever more civilian diplomats and advisors, and ever larger infusions of money, there is now to be a command surge as well. General McChrystal, according to a recent New York Times article, has "been given carte blanche to handpick a dream team of subordinates, including many Special Operations veterans... [He] is assembling a corps of 400 officers and soldiers who will rotate between the United States and Afghanistan for a minimum of three years. That kind of commitment to one theater of combat is unknown in the military today outside Special Operations, but reflects an approach being imported by General McChrystal, who spent five years in charge of secret commando teams in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Like the new mega-embassy in Pakistan, this figure—the Spartans, after all, only needed 300 warriors at Thermopylae—tells us a great deal about the top-heavy manner in which the planet's super-garrison state fights its wars.

So, this is now truly Obama's war, about to be run by his chosen general, a figure from the dark side. Expect, then, from our sunshine president's men an ever bloodier secret campaign of so-called counter-terror (though it's essence is likely to be terror, pure and simple), as befits an imperial power trying to hang on to the Eastern reaches of the Greater Middle East.

The new crew aren't counterinsurgency warriors, but—a term that has only recently entered our press—"manhunters." And don't forget, President Obama is now presiding over an expanding war in which "manhunters" engaging in systematic assassination programs will not only be on the ground but, thanks to the CIA's escalating program of targeted assassination by robot aircraft, in the skies over the Pakistani tribal borderlands.

For those who care to remember, it was into counter-terrorism and an orgy of manhunting, abuse, and killing that the Vietnam era version of "counterinsurgency" dissolved as well.

Into the Charnel House of History

A neologism coined for the expanding Afghan war has recently come into widespread use: Af-Pak (for Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater of Operations). But the coining of neologisms shouldn't just be left to those in Washington, so let me suggest one that hints at one possible new world over which our newest president may unexpectedly preside: Ir-Af-Pak. Let it stand, conveniently, for the Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater of Operations—a neologism that catches the perilously expansionist and devolutionary possibilities of our moment.

Media organizations in increasingly tight financial straits sense the explosive nature of this expansionist moment and, even as they are fleeing Iraq (and former bureaus in so many other places), like the president, they are doubling down and piling into Afghanistan and Pakistan. But don't count Iraq pacified yet. It remains an uneasy, dangerous, explosive place as, in fact, does the Greater Middle East. Worse yet, the Af-Pak War may not itself be done expanding. It could still, for instance, seep into one or more of the Central Asian 'stans, among other places, and already has made it into catastrophic Somalia, while a shaky Yemen could be swept into the grim festivities.

Finally, let's return to that "dream team" being put together by Obama's man in Afghanistan. That team of Spartans, according to the New York Times, is being formed with, minimally, a three-year horizon. This in itself is striking. After all, the Afghan War started in November 2001. So when the shortest possible Afghan tour of duty of the 400 is over, it will have been going on for more than 10½ years—and no one dares to predict that, three years from now, the war will actually be at an end.

Looked at another way, the figure cited should probably not be one decade, but three. After all, our Afghan adventure began in 1980, when, in the jihad against the Soviets, we were supporting some of the very same fundamentalist figures now allied with the Taliban and fighting us in Afghanistan—just as, once upon a time, we looked positively upon the Taliban; just as, once, we looked positively upon Saddam Hussein, who was for a while seen as our potential bulwark in the Middle East against the fundamentalist Islamic Republic of Iran. (Remarkably enough, only Iran has, until this moment, retained its position as our regional enemy over these decades.)

What a record, then, of blood and war, of great power politics and imperial hubris, of support for the heinous (including various fundamentalist groups and grim, authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes who remain our allies to this day). What a tale of imperial power frittered away and treasure squandered. Truly, Rudyard Kipling would have been able to do something with this.

As for me, I find myself in awe of these decades of folly. Thirty years in Afghanistan, it staggers the imagination. What tricks does that land play with the minds of imperial Great-Gamers? Maybe it has something to do with those poppies. Who knows? I'm no Kipling, but I am aware that this sorry tale has taken up almost half of my lifetime with no end in sight.

In the meantime, our new president has loosed the manhunters. His manhunters. This is where charisma disappears into the charnel house of history. Watch out.

[Note for readers: Credit where credit's due: the neologism, "Ir-Af-Pak," is actually the invention of Jonathan Schell. A small bow of appreciation to him for handing it off to me and another bow to Jim Peck for some inspired suggestions. Thanks as well to Alfred McCoy for helping to bring me up to speed on the meaning of General McChrystal's Iraq activities. In addition, the filmmaker Robert Greenwald's website Rethink Afghanistan (also the name of his new film) is starting to post clips about Afghan casualties of the U.S. air war. These will be incorporated into part four of his Afghan War film, being released part by part on-line. Because we see so little of this, these initial clips are sobering and well worth viewing. To do so, click here, here, and here.]

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, and The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.

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