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TomDispatch: What to Watch for in 2010

An American world of war.

| Mon Jan. 4, 2010 11:17 AM PST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

According to the Chinese calendar, 2010 is the Year of the Tiger. We don't name our years, but if we did, this one might prospectively be called the Year of the Assassin.

We, of course, think of ourselves as something like the peaceable kingdom. After all, the shock of September 11, 2001 was that "war" came to "the homeland," a mighty blow delivered against the very symbols of our economic, military, and—had Flight 93 not gone down in a field in Pennsylvania—political power.

Since that day, however, war has been a stranger in our land. With the rarest of exceptions, like Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan's massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, this country has remained a world without war or any kind of mobilization for war. No other major terrorist attacks, not even victory gardens, scrap-metal collecting, or rationing. And certainly no war tax to pay for our post-9/11 trillion-dollar "expeditionary forces" sent into battle abroad. Had we the foresight to name them, the last few years domestically might have reflected a different kind of carnage—2006, the Year of the Subprime Mortgage; 2007, the Year of the Bonus; 2008, the Year of the Meltdown; 2009, the Year of the Bailout. And perhaps some would want to label 2010, prematurely or not, the Year of Recovery.

Although our country delivers war regularly to distant lands in the name of our "safety," we don't really consider ourselvesatwar(despite the endless talk of "supporting our troops"), and the money that has simply poured into Pentagon coffers, and then into weaponry and conflicts is, with rare exceptions, never linked to economic distress in this country. And yet, if we are no nation of warriors, from the point of view of the rest of the world we are certainly the planet's foremost war-makers. If money talks, then war may be what we care most about as a society and fund above all else, with the least possible discussion or debate.

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In fact, according to military expert William Hartung, the Pentagon budget has risen in every year of the new century, an unprecedented run in our history. We dominate the global arms trade, monopolizing almost 70% of the arms business in 2008, with Italy coming in a vanishingly distant second. We put more money into the funding of war, our armed forces, and the weaponry of war than the next 25 countries combined (and that's without even including Iraq and Afghan war costs). We garrison the planet in a way no empire or nation in history has ever done. And we plan for the future, for "the next war"—on the ground, on the seas, and in space—in a way that is surely unique. If our two major wars of the twenty-first century in Iraq and Afghanistan are any measure, we also get less bang for our buck than any nation in recent history.

So, let's pause a moment as the New Year begins and take stock of ourselves as what we truly are: the preeminent war-making machine on planet Earth. Let's peer into the future, and consider just what the American way of war might have in store for us in 2010. Here are 10 questions, the answers to which might offer reasonable hints as to just how much U.S. war efforts are likely to intensify in the Greater Middle East, as well as Central and South Asia, in the year to come.

1. How busted will the largest defense budget in history be in 2010?

Strange, isn't it, that the debate about hundreds of billions of dollars in health-care costs in Congress can last almost a year, filled with turmoil and daily headlines, while a $636 billion defense budget can pass in a few days, as it did in late December, essentially without discussion and with nary a headline in sight? And in case you think that $636 billion is an honest figure, think again—and not just because funding for the U.S. nuclear arsenal and actual "homeland defense," among other things most countries would chalk up as military costs, wasn't included.

If you want to put a finger to the winds of war in 2010, keep your eye on something else not included in that budget: the Obama administration's upcoming supplemental funding request for the Afghan surge. In his West Point speech announcing his surge decision, the president spoke of sending 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan in 2010 at a cost of $30 billion. In news reports, that figure quickly morphed into "$30-$40 billion," none of it in the just-passed Pentagon budget. To fund his widening war, sometime in the first months of the New Year, the president will have to submit a supplemental budget to Congress—something the Bush administration did repeatedly to pay for George W.'s wars, and something this president, while still a candidate, swore he wouldn't do. Nonetheless, it will happen. So keep your eye on that $30 billion figure . Even that distinctly low-ball number is going to cause discomfort and opposition in the president's party—and yet there's no way it will fully fund this year's striking escalation of the war. The question is: How high will it go or, if the president doesn't dare ask this Congress for more all at once, how will the extra funds be found? Keep your eye out, then, for hints of future supplemental budgets, because fighting the Afghan War (forget Iraq) over the next decade could prove a near trillion-dollar prospect.

Neither battles won nor al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders killed will be the true measure of victory or defeat in the Afghan War. For Americans at home, even victory as modestly defined by this administration—blunting the Taliban's version of a surge—could prove disastrous in terms of our financial capabilities. Guns and butter? That's going to be a surefire no-go. So keep watching and asking: How busted could the U.S. be by 2011?

2. Will the U.S. Air Force be the final piece in the Afghan surge?

As 2010 begins, almost everything is in surge mode in Afghanistan, including rising numbers of U.S. troops, private contractors , State Department employees, and new bases . In this period, only the U.S. Air Force (drones excepted) has stood down. Under orders from Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal, based on the new make-nice counterinsurgency strategy he's implementing, air power is anything but surging. The use of the Air Force, even in close support of U.S. troops in situations in which Afghan civilians are anywhere nearby, has been severely restricted. There has already been grumbling about this in and around the military. If things don't go well—and quickly—in the expanding war, expect frustration to grow and the pressure to rise to bring air power to bear. Already unnamed intelligence officials are leaking warnings that, with the Taliban insurgency expanding its reach, "time is running out." Counterinsurgency strategies are notorious for how long they take to bear fruit (if they do at all). When Americans are dying, maintaining a surge without a surge of air power is sure to be a test of will and patience (neither of which is an American strong suit). So keep your eye on the Air Force next year. If the planes start to fly more regularly and destructively, you'll know that things aren't looking up for General McChrystal and his campaign.

3. How big will the American presence in Pakistan be as 2010 ends?

Let's start with the fact that it's already bigger than most of us imagine. Thanks to Nation magazine reporter Jeremy Scahill, we know that, from a base in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, officers of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, with the help of hired hands from the notorious private security contractor Xe (formerly Blackwater), "plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, ‘snatch and grabs' of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan." Small numbers of U.S. Special Forces operatives have also reportedly been sent in to train Pakistan's special forces. U.S. spies are in the country . U.S. missile- and bomb-armed drones, both CIA- and Air Force-controlled , have been conducting escalating operations in the country's tribal borderlands. U.S. Special Operations forces have conducted at least four cross-border raids into Pakistan's tribal borderlands unsanctioned by the Pakistani government or military (only one of which was publicly reported in this country). And the CIA and the State Department have been attempting ( against some Pakistani resistance) to build up their personnel and facilities in-country. This, mind you, is only what we know in a situation in which secrecy is the order of the day and rumors fly.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has been threatening to widen its drone war (and possibly other operations) to the powder-keg province of Baluchistan, where most of the Afghan Taliban's leadership reportedly resides (evidently under Pakistani protection) and to the fighters of the Haqqani network , linked to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in the Pakistani border province of North Waziristan. Right now, these threats from Washington are clearly meant to motivate the Pakistani military to do the job instead. But as that is unlikely—both groups are seen by its military as key players in the country's future anti-Indian policies in Afghanistan—they may not remain mere threats for long. Any such U.S. moves are only likely to widen the Af-Pak war and further destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan. In addition, the Pakistani military is not powerless vis-à-vis the U.S. For one thing, as Robert Dreyfuss of the Nation's "Dreyfuss Report" recently pointed out , it has a potential stranglehold on the tortuous U.S. supply lines into Afghanistan, already under attack by Taliban militants, that make the war there possible.

Pakistan is the Catch-22 of Obama's surge. As in the Vietnam War years, sanctuaries across the border ensure limited success in any escalating war effort, but going after those sanctuaries in a major way would be a war-widening move of genuine desperation. As with the Air Force in Afghanistan, watch Pakistan not just for spreading drone operations, but for the use of U.S. troops. If by year's end Special Operations forces or U.S. troops are periodically on the ground in that country, don't be shocked. However it may be explained, this will represent a dangerous failure of the first order.

4. How much smaller will the American presence in Iraq be?

Barack Obama swept into office, in part, on a pledge to end the U.S. war in Iraq. Almost a year after he entered the White House, more than 100,000 U.S. troops are still deployed in that country (about the same number as in February 2004 ). Still, plans developed at the end of the Bush presidency, and later confirmed by President Obama, have set the U.S. on an apparent path of withdrawal. On this the president has been unambiguous. "Let me say this as plainly as I can," he told a military audience in February 2009. "By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end... I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011." However, Robert Gates, his secretary of defense, has not been so unequivocal. While recently visiting Iraq, he disclosed that the U.S. Air Force would likely continue to operate in that country well into the future. He also said: "I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see agreements between ourselves and the Iraqis that continues a train, equip, and advise role beyond the end of 2011."

For 2010, expect platitudes about withdrawal from the President and other administration spokespeople, while Defense Department officials and military commanders offer more "pragmatic" (and realistic) assessments. Keep an eye out for signs this year of a coming non-withdrawal withdrawal in 2011.

5. What will the New Year mean for the Pentagon's base-building plans in our war zones?

As the U.S. war in Afghanistan ramps up, look for American bases there to continue along last year's path, becoming bigger, harder, more numerous, and more permanent-looking. As estimates of the time it will take to get the president's extra boots on the ground in Afghanistan increase, look as well for the construction of more helipads, fuel pits, taxiways, and tarmac space on the forward operating bases sprouting especially across the southern parts of that country. These will be meant to speed the movement of surge troops into rural battle zones, while eschewing increasingly dangerous ground routes.

In Iraq, expect the further consolidation of a small number of U.S. mega-bases as American troops pull back to ever fewer sites offering an ever lower profile in that country. Keep your eyes, in particular, on giant Balad Air Base and on Camp Victory outside Baghdad. These were built for the long term. If Washington doesn't begin preparing to turn them over to the Iraqis, then start thinking 2012 and beyond. Elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region, look for the U.S. military to continue upgrading its many bases, while militarily working to strengthen the security forces of country after autocratic country, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, in part to continue to rattle Iran's cage. If those bases keep growing, don't imagine us drawing down in the region any time soon.

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