How many Americans are aware that the U.S. is currently engaged in five wars — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and that our forces are involved in lesser conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia? The answer is, probably very few. These wars are largely out of the news, and since there are seldom any American casualties, they are virtually invisible.
Combat operations primarily involve drones operated from thousands of miles away, and bombs dropped from thousands of feet in the air. According to the Pentagon, there are currently 662 U.S.military bases around the world from which air strikes can be launched using a variety of aircraft. Also stationed on these bases are Special Operations forces that carry out hit-and-run raids and sinations in various parts of the world.
These commandos, who are trained to capture and kill, often alienate the local population with their excessive brutality. The New York Times recently revealed that members of the Navy SEALS assigned to train Afghan police beat several detainees so badly that one died. The crime took place in 2012 and was covered up by the SEALS commander.
Consequently the participants were never punished. A plan announced by the Pentagon in mid-December would greatly increase the number of overseas bases in order to maintain a more permanent U.S. military presence across Africa and the Middle East. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter explained the plan in a little publicized speech in Washington. “Because we cannot predict the future,” he said, “these regional nodes — from Moron, Spain, to Jalalabad, Afghanistan — will provide forward presence to respond to a range of crises, terrorist and other kinds.”
Carter did not explain what he meant by “other kinds” of crises, but he did say the bases will enable “unilateral crisis response, counterterror operations or strikes on high value targets.” The Pentagon has already expanded a former French base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, to become the headquarters of 2,000 troops prepared for military operations in East Africa and Yemen.
The city of Erbil in northern Iraq, where 3,500 American troops are already based, is likely to be the U.S. military hub in the Middle East. The U.S. operates smaller installations in places such as Cameroon, Niger, and Burkino Faso. These bases are being used for surveillance flights that collect intelligence about militant groups in the region. The turboprop planes that are used in these operations are designed to look like civilian aircraft.
Carter’s announcement could be used word for word on an ISIS web site to attract new recruits. It could easily be described as a plan by the U.S. to achieve worldwide military domination. Carter and the military establishment also seem remarkably insensitive to the possible reactions of citizens of the countries where U.S. forces carry out drone strikes and other forms of bombing. It is a form of warfare that may be invisible to most Americans, but it is hardly invisible to those on the ground.
The Pentagon claims the U.S. precision bombing of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has killed 15,000 terrorists, but no one can be sure how many civilians are included in that figure. Tom Engelhardt in the latest issue of Fellowship cites a study by the Bureau of Investigative Reporting that concludes that thousands of civilians have been killed by drones and other forms of U.S. air strikes.
Meanwhile, 13,500 American troops are still fighting in Afghanistan despite President Obama’s announcement last year that U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan had ended. The Taliban continue to gain more territory, and in many areas the local residents prefer them to the corrupt and often brutal Afghan soldiers and police.
Afghan troops reportedly lay down their arms and run rather than fight, military equipment turns up on the black market, and according to a recent New York Times report the Taliban in some places face so little opposition that they put in requests through Afghan intermediaries to U.S.A.I.D. for local aid projects, and the requests are granted. Taliban doctors are even working with the World Health Organization in fighting polio.
America’s least visible military involvement is in Yemen, where the Pentagon is providing arms and logistical support to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates in their intensive bombing campaign against Houthi rebels from North Yemen. Because the Saudis’ air strikes have spared Al Qaeda forces, the militants and their affiliates have taken over large portions of Yemen, and ISIS is carrying out an increasing number of attacks. At the same time, the airstrikes have failed to defeat the Houthis, who show no signs of giving up.
Evidence from previous conflicts indicates that bombing does not win wars. What it does do, despite official denials, is create popular resentment. American policymakers seem oblivious to the fact that it is anger at our military interventions that breeds much of the current violence. All of the Republican candidates for president are demanding more bombing to combat ISIS — Ted Cruz wants to carpet-bomb them, and Hillary Clinton has not as yet proposed an alternative to airstrikes.
The hopeful sign is that Secretary of State John Kerry is making an intensive effort in cooperation with the Russians and other parties involved to achieve an end to the fighting in Syria that has ravaged that country and provided fertile ground for ISIS to grow. The danger is that his efforts will be undermined if America, under the guise of fighting terrorism, is seen as attempting to extend its military power over all parts of the globe.