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The Stimulus Package in Kabul

I was delusional—I thought one monster “embassy” was the end of it.

| Tue Nov. 16, 2010 6:00 AM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

You must have had a moment when you thought to yourself: It really isn't going to end, is it? Not ever. Rationally, you know perfectly well that whatever your "it" might be will indeed end, because everything does, but your gut tells you something different.

I had that moment recently when it came to the American way of war. In the past couple of weeks, it could have been triggered by an endless string of ill-attended news reports like the Christian Science Monitor piece headlined "US involvement in Yemen edging toward 'clandestine war.'" Or by the millions of dollars in US payments reportedly missing in Afghanistan, thanks to under-the-table or unrecorded handouts in unknown amounts to Afghan civilian government employees (as well as Afghan security forces, private-security contractors, and even the Taliban). Or how about the news that the F-35 "Joint Strike Fighter," the cost-overrun poster weapon of the century, already long overdue, will cost yet more money and be produced even less quickly?

Or what about word that our Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has officially declared the Obama administration "open" to keeping US troops in Iraq after the announced 2011 deadline for their withdrawal? Or how about the news from McClatchy's reliable reporter Nancy Youssef that Washington is planning to start "publicly walking away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the war in Afghanistan in an effort to de-emphasize President Barack Obama's pledge that he'd begin withdrawing US forces in July 2011"?

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Or that bottomless feeling could have been triggered by the recent request from the military man in charge of training Afghan security forces, Lieutenant General William Caldwell, for another 900 US and NATO trainers in the coming months, lest the improbable "transition" date of 2014 for Afghan forces to "take the lead" in protecting their own country be pushed back yet again. ("No trainers, no transition," wrote the general in a "report card" on his mission.)

Or it could have been the accounts of how a trained Afghan soldier turned his gun on US troops in southern Afghanistan, killing two of them, and then fled to the Taliban for protection (one of a string of similar incidents over the last year). Or, speaking of things that could have set me off, consider this passage from the final paragraphs of an Elisabeth Bumiller article tucked away inside the New York Times on whether Afghan War commander General David Petraeus was (or was not) on the road to success: "'It is certainly true that Petraeus is attempting to shape public opinion ahead of the December [Obama administration] review [of Afghan war policy],' said an administration official who is supportive of the general. 'He is the most skilled public relations official in the business, and he's trying to narrow the president's options.'"

Or, in the same piece, what about this all-American analogy from Bruce Riedel, the former CIA official who chairedPresident Obama's initial review of Afghan war policy in 2009, speaking of the hundreds of mid-level Taliban the US military has reportedly wiped out in recent months: "The fundamental question is how deep is their bench." (Well, yes, Bruce, if you imagine the Afghan War as the basketball nightmare on Elm Street in which the hometown team's front five periodically get slaughtered.)

Or maybe it should have been the fact that only 7% of Americans had reports and incidents like these, or evidently anything else having to do with our wars, on their minds as they voted in the recent midterm elections.

The Largest "Embassy" on Planet Earth

Strange are the ways, though. You just can't predict what's going to set you off. For me, it was none of the above, nor even the flood of Republican war hawks heading for Washington eager to "cut" government spending by "boosting" the Pentagon budget. Instead, it was a story that slipped out as the midterm election results were coming in and was treated as an event of no importance in the US

The Associated Press covered US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry's announcement that a $511 million contract had been awarded to Caddell Construction, one of America's "largest construction and engineering groups," for a massive expansion of the US embassy in Kabul. According to the ambassador, that embassy is already "the largest... in the world with more than 1,100 brave and dedicated civilians... from 16 agencies and working next to their military counterparts in 30 provinces," and yet it seems it's still not large enough.

A few other things in his announcement caught my eye. Construction of the new "permanent offices and housing" for embassy personnel is not to be completed until sometime in 2014, approximately three years after President Obama's July 2011 Afghan drawdown is set to begin, and that $511 million is part of a $790 million bill to US taxpayers that will include expansion work on consular facilities in the Afghan cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat. And then, if the ambassador's announcement was meant to fly below the media radar screen in the US, it was clearly meant to be noticed in Afghanistan. After all, Eikenberry publicly insisted that the awarding of the contract should be considered "an indication... an action, a deed that you can take as a long-term commitment of the United States government to the government of Afghanistan."

(Note to Tea Party types heading for Washington: this contract is part of a new stimulus package in one of the few places where President Obama can, by executive fiat, increase stimulus spending. It has already resulted in the hiring of 500 Afghan workers and when construction ramps up, another 1,000 more will be added to the crew.)

Jo Comerford and the number-crunchers at the National Priorities Project have offered TomDispatch a hand in putting that $790 million outlay into an American context: "$790 million is more than ten times the money the federal government allotted for the State Energy Program in FY2011. It's nearly five times the total amount allocated for the National Endowment for the Arts (threatened to be completely eliminated by the incoming Congress). If that sum were applied instead to job creation in the United States, in new hires it would yield more than 22,000 teachers, 15,000 healthcare workers, and employ more than 13,000 in the burgeoning clean energy industry."

Still, to understand just why, among a flood of similar war reports, this one got under my skin, you need a bit of backstory.

Singular Spawn or Forerunner Deluxe?

One night in May 2007, I was nattering on at the dinner table about reports of a monstrous new US embassy being constructed in Baghdad, so big that it put former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's grandiose Disneyesque palaces to shame. On 104 acres of land in the heart of the Iraqi capital (always referred to in news reports as almost the size of Vatican City), it was slated to cost $590 million. (Predictable cost overruns and delays—see F-35 above—would, in the end, bring that figure to at least $740 million, while the cost of running the place yearly is now estimated at $1.5 billion.)

Back then, more than half a billion dollars was impressive enough, even for a compound that was to have its own self-contained electricity-generation, water-purification, and sewage systems in a city lacking most of the above, not to speak of its own antimissile defense systems, and 20 all-new blast-resistant buildings including restaurants, a recreation center, and other amenities. It was to be by far the largest, most heavily fortified embassy on the planet with a "diplomatic" staff of 1,000 (a number that has only grown since).

My wife listened to my description of this future colossus, which bore no relation to anything ever previously called an "embassy," and then, out of the blue, said, "I wonder who the architect is?" Strangely, I hadn't even considered that such a mega-citadel might actually have an architect.

That tells you what I know about building anything. So imagine my surprise to discover that there was indeed a Kansas architect, BDY (Berger Devine Yaeger), previously responsible for the Sprint Corporation's world headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas; the Visitation Church in Kansas City, Missouri; and Harrah's Hotel and Casino in North Kansas City, Missouri. Better yet, BDY was so proud to have been taken on as architect to the wildest imperial dreamers and schemers of our era that it posted sketches at its website of what the future embassy, its "pool house," its tennis court, PX, retail and shopping areas, and other highlights were going to look like.

Somewhere between horrified and grimly amused, I wrote a piece at TomDispatch, entitled "The Mother Ship Lands in Baghdad" and, via a link to the BDY drawings, offered readers a little "blast-resistant spin" through Bush's colossus. From the beginning, I grasped that this wasn't an embassy in any normal sense and I understood as well something of what it was. Here's the way I put it at the time:

"As an outpost, this vast compound reeks of one thing: imperial impunity. It was never meant to be an embassy from a democracy that had liberated an oppressed land. From the first thought, the first sketch, it was to be the sort of imperial control center suitable for the planet's sole 'hyperpower,' dropped into the middle of the oil heartlands of the globe. It was to be Washington's dream and Kansas City's idea of a palace fit for an embattled American proconsul—or a khan."

In other words, a US "control center" at the heart of what Bush administration officials then liked to call "the Greater Middle East" or the "arc of instability." To my surprise, the piece began racing around the Internet and other sites—TomDispatch did not then have the capacity to post images—started putting up BDY's crude drawings. The next thing I knew, the State Department had panicked, declared this a "security breach," and forced BDY to take down its site and remove the drawings.

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