The Unreal War
If Obama framed his Afghan remarks in a rhetoric of militarized super-national surrealism, then what he had to say about the future of the war itself was deceptive in the extreme—not lies perhaps, but full falsehoods half told. Consider just the two most important of them: that his "surge" consisted only of 33,000 American troops and that "by next summer," Americans are going to be so on the road to leaving Afghanistan that it isn't funny.
Unfortunately, it just ain't so. First of all, the real Obama surge was minimally almost 55,000 and possibly 66,000 troops, depending on how you count them. When he came into office in January 2009, there were about 32,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Another 11,000 had been designated to go in the last days of the Bush administration, but only departed in the first Obama months. In March 2009, the president announced his own "new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan" and dispatched 21,700 more troops. Then, in December 2009 in a televised speech to the nation from West Point, he announced that another 30,000 would be going. (With "support troops," it turned out to be 33,000.)
In other words, in September 2012, 14 months from now, only about half the actual troop surge of the Obama years will have been withdrawn. In addition, though seldom discussed, the Obama "surge" was hardly restricted to troops. There was a much ballyhooed "civilian surge" of State Department and aid types that more than tripled the "civilian" effort in Afghanistan. Their drawdown was recently addressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but only in the vaguest of terms.
Then there was a major surge of CIA personnel (along with US special operations forces), and there's no indication whatsoever that anyone in Washington intends reductions there, or in the drone surge that went with it. As a troop drawdown begins, CIA agents, those special ops forces, and the drones are clearly slated to remain at or beyond a surge peak.
Finally, there was a surge in private contractors—hired foreign guns and hired Afghans—tens of thousands of them. It goes unmentioned, as does the surge in base building, which has yet to end, and the surge in massive citadel-style embassy building in the region, which is assumedly ongoing.
All of this makes mincemeat of the idea that we are in the process of ending the Afghan war. I know the president said, "Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security." And that was a foggy enough formulation that you might be forgiven for imagining more or less everything will be over "by 2014"—which, by the way, means not January 1st, but December 31st of that year.
If what we know of US plans in Afghanistan plays out, however, December 31, 2014, will be the date for the departure of the last of the full Obama surge of 64,000 troops. In other words, almost five years after Obama entered office, more than 13 years after the Bush administration launched its invasion, we could find ourselves back to or just below something close to Bush-era troop levels. Tens of thousands of US forces would still be in Afghanistan, some of them "combat troops" officially relabeled (as in Iraq) for less warlike activity. All would be part of an American "support" mission that would include huge numbers of "trainers" for the Afghan security forces and also US special forces operatives and CIA types engaged in "counterterror" activities in the country and region.
The US general in charge of training the Afghan military recently suggested that his mission wouldn't be done until 2017 (and no one who knows anything about the country believes that an effective Afghan Army will be in place then either). In addition, although the president didn't directly mention this in his speech, the Obama administration has been involved in quiet talks with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to nail down a "strategic partnership" agreement that would allow American troops, spies, and air power to hunker down as "tenants" on some of the giant bases we've built. There they would evidently remain for years, if not decades (as some reports have it).
In other words, on December 31, 2014, if all goes as planned, the US will be girding for years more of wildly expensive war, even if in a slimmed down form. This is the reality, as American planners imagine it, behind the president's speech.
Of course, it's not for nothing that we regularly speak of the best laid plans going awry, something that applies doubly, as in Afghanistan, to the worst laid plans. It's increasingly apparent that our disastrous wars are, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry recently admitted, "unsustainable." After all, just the cost of providing air conditioning to US personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan—$20 billion a year—is more than NASA's total budget.
Yes, despite Washington's long lost dreams of a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East, some of its wars there are still being planned as if for a near-eternity, while others are being intensified. Those wars are still fueled by overblown fears of terrorism; encouraged by a National Security Complex funded to the tune of more than $1.2 trillion annually by an atmosphere of permanent armed crisis; and run by a military that, after a decade of not-so-creative destruction, can't stop doing what it knows how to do best (which isn't winning a war).
Though Obama claims that the United States is no empire, all of this gives modern meaning to the term "overstretched empire." And it's not really much of a mystery what happens to overextemded imperial powers that find themselves fighting "little" wars they can't win, while their treasuries head south.
The growing unease in Washington about America's wars reflects a dawning sense of genuine crisis, a sneaking suspicion even among hawkish Republicans that they preside ineffectually over a great power in precipitous decline.
Think, then, of the president's foreign-policy-cum-war speeches as ever more unconvincing attempts to cover the suppurating wound that is Washington's global war policy. If you want to take the temperature of the present crisis, you can do it through Obama's words. The less they ring true, the more discordant they seem in the face of reality, the more he fawns and repeats his various mantras, the more uncomfortable he makes you feel, the more you have the urge to look away, the deeper the crisis.
What will he say when the Great American Unraveling truly begins?
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books). To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.