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TomDispatch: What to Watch for in 2010

An American world of war.

| Mon Jan. 4, 2010 1:17 PM EST

6. Will the U.S. and Israel thwart the Iranian insurgency?

Iran has long been under siege. A founding member of George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil," the Islamic Republic was long on his administration's hit list. It also found itself in the unenviable position of watching the American military occupy and garrison two bordering countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, while also building or bolstering bases in nearby Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. The Obama administration is now poised to increase key military aid to Iran's nemesis, Israel, and the Pentagon has flooded allied regimes in the region with advanced weaponry. Years of saber-rattling and sanctions, encirclement and threats nonetheless seemed to have little palpable effect. In 2009, however, a disputed election brought Iranians into the streets and, months later, they're still there.

What foreign militarism couldn't do, ordinary Iranians themselves now threaten to accomplish. In earlier street protests, young middle-class activists in Tehran chanting "Where is our vote?" were beaten and martyred by security forces. Today, the protests continue and oppositional Iranians from all social strata are refusing to retreat while, when provoked, sometimes fighting back against the police or the regime's fearsome Basiji militia, even inducing some of them to step aside or switch sides.

A continuing cycle of ever-spreading arrests, protests, and violence in 2010 threatens to further destabilize the regime. How Washington reacts could, however, deeply affect what happens. The memory of the CIA's toppling of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 is still alive in Iran. Any perceived U.S. interference could have grave results for the Iranian insurgency, as could Israeli actions. Recently, President Obama, evidently trying to bring the Chinese into line on the question of imposing fiercer sanctions, reportedly told China's president that the United States could not restrain Israel from attacking Iran's nuclear facilities much longer. Such an Israeli attack would certainly strengthen the current Iranian regime; so, undoubtedly, would pressure to increase potentially crippling sanctions on that country over its nuclear program. Either or both would help further cement the current tumultuous status quo in the Middle East.

7. Will Yemen become the fourth major front in Washington's global war?

George W. Bush unabashedly proclaimed himself a "war president." President Obama seems to be taking up the same mantle. Right now, the Obama administration's war fronts include the inherited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a not-so-covert war in Pakistan, and a potential new war in Yemen. (There are also rarely commented upon ongoing military actions in the Philippines and a U.S.-aided drug war in Colombia, as well as periodic strikes in Somalia.) Though the surge in Afghanistan and Pakistan was supposed to contain al-Qaeda there, the U.S. now finds itself focusing on yet another country and another of that organization's morphing offspring.

In 2002, a USA Today article about a targeted assassination in Yemen began: "Opening up a visible new front in the war on terror, U.S. forces launched a pinpoint missile strike in Yemen..." Just over seven years later, following multiple U.S. cruise missiles launched into the country and targeted air strikes by the air force of the U.S.-aided Yemeni regime against "suspected hide-outs of Al Qaeda," the New York Times announced , "In the midst of two unfinished major wars, the United States has quietly opened a third, largely covert front against Al Qaeda in Yemen." In the wake of a botched airplane terror attack by a single young Nigerian Muslim, and credit-taking by a group calling itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the usual cheery crew of U.S. war advocates are lining up behind the next potential front in the war on terror. ( Senator Joseph Lieberman : "Iraq was yesterday's war. Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war.") What began as a one-off Bush assassination effort now threatens to become another of Obama's wars.

The U.S. has not only sent Special Forces teams into the country, but is now pouring tens of millions of dollars into Yemen's security forces in a dramatic move to significantly arm yet another Middle Eastern country. At the same time, U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia—whose alliance with Washington ignited the current war with al-Qaeda—is aiding the Yemeni forces in a war against Houthi rebels there.

This is a witch's brew of trouble. Keep your eye on Yemen (with an occasional side glance at Somalia , the failed state across the Gulf of Aden). Expect more funding, more trainers, more proxy warfare, and possibly a whole new conflict for 2010.

8. How brutal will the American way of war be in 2010?

When it comes to war, American-style, the key word of 2009 was "counterinsurgency" or COIN. Think of it as the kindly version of war the American way, a strategy based on "clearing and holding" territory and "protecting" the civilian population. Its value, as expounded by Afghan War commander McChrystal, lies not in killing the enemy but in winning over "the people." On paper, it sounds good, like a kinder, gentler version of war, but historically counterinsurgency operations have almost invariably gone into the ditch of brutality. So here's one word you should keep your eyes out for in 2010: "counterterrorism." Consider it the dark underside of counterinsurgency. Instead of boots on the ground, it's bullets to the head.

General McChrystal was, until recently, a counterterrorism guy . He ran the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq and Afghanistan. His operatives were referred to, more or less politely, as "manhunters." Think: assassins. With McChrystal, a general who credits his large-scale assassination program for a great deal of the Iraq surge's success in 2007, it was just a matter of time before counterterrorism—which is just terrorism put in uniform and given an anodyne name—was ramped up in Afghanistan (and undoubtedly Pakistan as well). Though the planes may still be grounded, the special ops guys who kick in doors in the middle of the night and have often been responsible for grievous civilian casualties will evidently be going at it full tilt.

As 2009 ended, the news that black-ops forces were being loosed in a significant way was just hitting the press. So watch for that word "counterterrorism." If it proliferates, you'll know that the expanding Afghan War is getting down and dirty in a big way. For Americans, 2010 could be the year of the assassin.

9. Where will the drones go in 2010?

If there's one thing to keep your eye on in the coming year, it might be the unmanned aerial vehicles— drones —flown secretly, in the case of the Air Force, from distant al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and, in the case of the CIA, even more distantly out of Langley, Virginia. American drones are already in a widening air war in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, while Washington threatens to create an even wider one. Think of these robotic planes as the leading edge of global war, American-style. While "hot pursuit" into Pakistan may still be forbidden to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the drones have long had a kind of hot-pursuit carte blanche in Pakistan's tribal borderlands.

Perhaps more important, they can, to steal a Star Trek line, boldly go where no man has gone before. Since the first drone assassination attack of the Global War on Terror—in Yemen in 2002—in which several men, reputedly al-Qaeda militants, were incinerated inside a car, drones have been taking war into new territory. They have already struck in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and possibly Somalia. As the first robot terminators of our age, they symbolize the loosing of American war-making powers from the oversight of Congress and the American people. In principle, they have made borders (hence national sovereignty) increasingly insignificant as assassination attacks can be launched 24/7 against those we deem our enemies, on the basis of unknown intelligence or evidence.

With our drones, there is little price to be paid if, as has regularly enough been the case, those enemies turn out not to be in the right place at the right time and others die in their stead. Globally, we have become the world's leading state assassins—a judge, jury, and executioner beyond the bounds of all accountability. In essence, those pilot-less planes turn us into a law of war unto ourselves. It's a chilling development. Watch for it to spread in 2010, and keep an eye out for which countries, fielding their own drones, follow down the path we're pioneering, for in our age all war-making developments invariably proliferate—and fast.

The Element of Surprise

We know one thing: 2010 will be another year of war for the United States and, from assassination campaigns to new fronts in what is no longer called the Global War on Terror but is no less global or based on terror, it could get a lot uglier. The Obama administration may, from time to time, talk withdrawal, but across the Middle East and Central Asia, the Pentagon and its contractors are digging in. In the meantime, more money, not less, is being put into preparations and planning for future wars. As William Hartung points out, "if the government's current plans are carried out, there will be yearly increases in military spending for at least another decade."

When it comes to war, the only questions are: How wide? How much? Not: How long? Washington's answer to that question has already been given, not in public pronouncements, but in that Pentagon budget and the planning that goes with it: forever and a day.

Of course, only diamonds are forever. Sooner or later, like great imperial powers of the past, we, too, will find that the stress of fighting a continuous string of wars in distant lands in inhospitable climes tells on us. Whether we "win" or not in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Yemen, we lose.

Which brings us to our last question:

10. What will surprise us in 2010?

It would be the height of hubris to imagine that we can truly see into the future, especially when it comes to war. It is, in fact, Washington's hubris to believe itself in control of its own war-making destiny, whether via shock-and-awe tactics that are certain to work, a netcentric military-lite that can't fail, or most recently, a force dedicated to a "hearts and minds" counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan and, in the future, globally (under the ominous new acronym GCOIN).

The essence of war is surprise. So, despite all those billions of dollars and the high-tech weaponry, and the nine areas discussed above, keep your eyes open for the unexpected and confounding, and in the meantime, welcome to the grim spectacle of war American-style as the second decade of the twenty-first century begins in turmoil.

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