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Clueless in Afghanistan—and Washington

A close read of a WaPo story reveals how absurd our war in Afghanistan really is.

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 11:37 AM PDT

2. Non-Exit strategies: Now, let's wade a little deeper into the strangeness of what Whitlock reported by taking up the question of when we're actually planning to leave Afghanistan. Consider this passage from the Whitlock piece: "US military officials have estimated that the Afghan air force won't be able to operate independently until 2016, five years after President Obama has said he intends to start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan. But [US Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael R.] Boera said that date could slip by at least two years if Congress forces the Afghans to fly US choppers."

In other words, while Americans argue over what the president's July 2011 drawdown date really means, and while Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggests that Afghan forces will take over the country's security duties by 2014, Whitlock's anonymous "US military officials" are clearly operating on a different clock, on, in fact, Pentagon time, and so are planning for a 2016-2018 target date for that force simply to "operate independently" (which by no means indicates "without US support.")

If you were of a conspiratorial mind, you might almost think that the Pentagon preferred not to create an effective Afghan air force and instead—as has also been the case in Iraq, a country that once had the world's sixth largest air force and now, after years of US mentoring, has next to nothing—remain the substitute Afghan air force forever and a day.

3. Who Are the Russians Now?: Okay, let's move even deeper into American strangeness with a passage that makes up most of the 20th and 21st paragraphs of Whitlock's 25-paragraph piece: "In addition," he reports, "the US Special Operations Command would like to buy a few Mi-17s of its own, so that special forces carrying out clandestine missions could cloak the fact that they are American. ‘We would like to have some to blend in and do things,' said a senior US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the clandestine program."

No explanation follows on just how—or where—those Russian helicopters will help "cloak" American Special Operations missions, or what they are to "blend" into, or the "things" they are to do. There's no further discussion of the subject at all.

In other words, the special op urge to Russianize its air transport has officially been reported, and a month later, as far as I know, not a single congressional representative has made a fuss over it; no mainstream pundit has written a curious, questioning, or angry editorial questioning its appropriateness; and no reporter has, as yet, followed up.

As just another little factoid of no great import buried deep in an article focused on other matters, undoubtedly no one has given it a thought. But it's worth stopping a moment and considering just how odd this tiny bit of news-that-won't-ever-rise-to-the-level-of-news actually is. One way to do this is to play the sort of opposites game that never quite works on this still one-way planet of ours.

Just imagine a similar news item coming out of another country.

*Hot off the wires from Tehran: Iranian special forces teams are scouring the planet for old American Chinook helicopters so they can be well "cloaked" in planned future forays into Afghanistan and Pakistan's Baluchistan Province.

*The People's Daily reports: Chinese special forces operatives are buying relatively late model American helicopters so that... Well, here's one problem in the opposites game, and a clue to the genuine strangeness of American activities globally: why would the Chinese need to do such a thing (and, in fact, why would we)? Where might they want to venture militarily without being mistaken for Chinese military personnel?

That might be a little hard to imagine right now, but I guarantee you one thing: had some foreign news source reported such a plan, or had Craig Whitlock somehow uncovered it and included it in a piece—no matter how obscurely nestled—there would have been pandemonium in Washington. Congress would have held hearings. Pundits would have opined on the infamy of Iranian or Chinese operatives masking themselves in our choppers. The company or companies that sold the helicopters would have been investigated. And you can imagine what Fox News commentators would have had to say.

When we do such things, however, and a country like Pakistan reacts with what's usually described as "anti-Americanism," we wonder at the nationalistic hair-trigger they're on; we comment on their over-emotionalism; we highlight their touchy "sensibilities"; and our reporters and pundits then write empathetically about the difficulties American military and civilian officials have dealing with such edgy natives.

Just the other day, for instance, the Wall Street Journal's Barnes reported that US Special Operations Forces are expanding their role in the Pakistani tribal borderlands by more regularly "venturing out with Pakistani forces on aid projects, deepening the American role in the effort to defeat Islamist militants in Pakistani territory that has been off limits to US ground troops." The Pakistani government has not been eager to have American boots visibly on the ground in these areas, and so Barnes writes: "Because of Pakistan's sensitivities, the US role has developed slowly."

Imagine how sensitive they might prove to be if those same forces began to land Russian helicopters in Pakistan as a way to "cloak" their operations and blend in? Or imagine just what sort of hair-trigger the natives of Montana might be on if Pakistani special operations types were roaming Glacier National Park and landing old American helicopters outside Butte.

Then consider the sensitivities of Pakistanis on learning that the just appointed head of the CIA's National Clandestine Service turns out to be a man of "impeccable credentials" (so says CIA Director Leon Panetta). Among those credentials are his stint as the CIA station chief in Pakistan until sometime in 2009, his involvement in the exceedingly unpopular drone war in that country's tribal borderlands, and the way, as the Director put it a tad vaguely, he "guided complex operations under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable."

Here's the truth of the matter, as Whitlock's piece makes clear: we carry on in the most bizarre ways in far-off lands and think nothing of it. Historically, it has undoubtedly been the nature of imperial powers to consider every strange thing they do more or less the norm. For a waning imperial power, however, such an attitude has its own dangers. If we can't imagine the surpassing strangeness of our arrangements for making war in lands thousands of miles from the US, then we can't begin to imagine how the world sees us, which means that we're blind to our own madness. Russian helicopters, that's nuthin' by comparison.

[Note for TomDispatch readers: Don't miss the review Dan Froomkin, the Huffington Post's senior Washington correspondent, wrote about my new book, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's, under the title "The Essential, Undistractable Engelhardt" for his Neiman Watchdog website (cross-posted at the Huffington Post). Here are a few excerpts: "The mainstream media have always been easily distracted and beguiled... This makes us particularly fortunate to have a few relentless souls like Tom Engelhardt around, using the Internet not to chase the latest chatter but to tenaciously chronicle, explore, and illuminate the unspoken realities that shape our political discourse... Engelhardt, a longtime book editor, is the creator and editor of the TomDispatch.com website… He is the finder and cultivator of important progressive voices… But at the heart of TomDispatch.com is Engelhardt's own work and his... thesis that America is a modern empire that has become addicted to the wars that are hastening its decline... His new book is a seamlessly edited collection of his writings... and establishes him as one of the grand chroniclers of the post-9/11 era." And keep in mind that if you buy my book, or anything else, after arriving at Amazon.com via a book link at this site, TD gets a small percentage of your purchase at no cost to you. If you're an Amazon shopper, get in the habit. It's an easy way to support TomDispatch and is greatly appreciated!]

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books), has just been published. You can catch him discussing it on a TomCast video by clicking here.

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