Originally published in TomDispatch.
Here’s a statement it might be hard to disagree with: American war is off the charts.
Still, I’d like to explain — but I’m nervous about doing so. I know perfectly well that the next word I plan to write will send most of you tumbling elsewhere in a universe in which “news” is the latest grotesque mass shooting; the craziest tweet from you-know-who; celebrities marching into court over college-admissions scandals; or even a boy, missing for years, who suddenly turns up only to morph into a 23-year-old impostor with a criminal record.
How can America’s wars in distant lands compete with that? Which is why I just can’t bring myself to write the next word. So promise me that, after you read it, you’ll hang in there for just a minute and give me a chance to explain.
Okay, here goes: Somalia.
A country in the horn of Africa, it once glued American eyeballs, but that was so last century, right? I mean, there was that bestselling book and that hit Hollywood movie directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien!) about the disaster early in Bill Clinton’s presidency that came to be known as Black Hawk Down (aka the battle of Mogadishu).
In the age of Donald Trump, wasn’t that a million presidencies ago? Honestly, can you even tell me anymore what in the world it was all about? I couldn’t have, not without looking it up again. A warlord, starvation, U.S. intervention, 18 dead American soldiers (and hundreds of dead Somalis, but that hardly mattered) in a country that was shattering. President Clinton did, however, pull out those troops and end the disastrous mission — and that was that, right? I mean, lessons learned. Somalia? Africa? What in the world did it all have to do with us? So Washington washed its hands of the whole thing.
And now, on a planet of outrageous tweets and murderously angry white men, you probably didn’t even notice, but more than two years into the era of Donald Trump, a quarter-century after that incident, American air strikes in… yep, Somalia, are precipitously on the rise.
Last year’s 47 strikes, aimed at the leaders and fighters of al-Shabaab, an Islamist terror outfit, more than tripled the ones carried out by the Obama administration in 2016 (themselves a modest increase from previous years). And in 2019, they’re already on pace to double again, while Somali civilians — not that anyone (other than Somali civilians) notices or cares — are dying in significant and rising numbers.
And with 500 troops back on the ground there and Pentagon estimates that they will remain for at least another seven years, the U.S. military is increasingly Somalia-bound, Congress hasn’t uttered a peep on the subject, and few in this country are paying the slightest attention.
So consider this a simple fact of the never-ending Global War on Terror (as it was once called): the U.S. military just can’t get enough of Somalia. And if that isn’t off the charts, what is? Maybe it’s even worth a future book (with a very small print run) called not Black Hawk Down II but U.S. Down Forever and a Day.
And now that I’ve started on the subject (if you still happen to be reading), when it comes to the U.S. military, it’s not faintly just Somalia. It’s all of Africa.
After all, this country’s military uniquely has a continent-wide Africa Command (aka AFRICOM), founded in 2007. As Nick Turse has often written for TomDispatch, that command now has its troops, thousands of them, its planes, and other equipment spread across the continent, north to south, east to west — air bases, drone bases, garrisons, outposts, staging areas, you name it. Meanwhile, AFRICOM’s outgoing commanding general, Thomas Waldhauser, only recently told Congress why it’s bound to be a forever outfit — because, shades of the Cold War, the Ruskies are coming! (“Russia is also a growing challenge and has taken a more militaristic approach in Africa.”)
And honestly, 600-odd words in, this wasn’t meant to be a piece about either Somalia or Africa. It was meant to be about those U.S. wars being off the charts, about how the Pentagon now feeds eternally at the terror trough, al-Shabaab being only a tiny part of the slop it regularly digests. So, for the seven of you still reading, let me change the subject to something a little more appealingly — to quote a well-known authority — “ridiculous” when it comes to American war.
A “Ridiculous” War
Maybe you won’t be surprised to learn that what I have in mind is the war in Afghanistan, another of Washington’s off-the-charts affairs.
It might even qualify as the original one (if you don’t count Vietnam, which would take you back to the Neolithic Age of the U.S. military’s infinite wars). Lest you think I only mean the war that began in Afghanistan after the terror attacks of 9/11, think again. I’m talking about the American war in that distant land that started in 1979, the decade-long conflict in which the U.S. supported extreme Islamists (including a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden) — they were our guys, then — to successfully force the Red Army out of Afghanistan.
That was in 1989, 30 years ago, and a triumphant Washington promptly took more than a decade-long holiday, while a brutal set of civil wars continued in already devastated Afghanistan and the Taliban rose to power in most of the country.
Then, as in Somalia, having learned their lesson (the wrong one, of course), George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and crew decided after 9/11 to emulate… well, the Red Army (even though the Soviet Union had imploded a decade earlier) and occupy the Afghan capital, Kabul. For the only great power left on the planet, facing a lightly armed extremist group, what could possibly go wrong?
Seventeen and a half years later, Congress has rarely focused on the war (not) to end all wars and there are still 14,000 American troops (and the usual set of private contractors) there, along with enough U.S. air power to… well, blow up a lot but not change anything decisively. Of course, the Taliban was long ago sent to hell in a hand basket…Whoops! The Taliban in 2019 is stronger and in control of more territory than at any moment since it was driven from power in November 2001.
Staggering billions of American taxpayer dollars have gone into the “reconstruction” of that land to little effect (while the domestic infrastructure of the United States has begun to crumble without significant new federal investment). Meanwhile, the security forces of the American-backed Afghan government have been taking casualties at a reportedly unsustainable rate.
After not paying much attention to all of this for something like a decade and a half, the American people did, however inadvertently, vote into the White House a presidential candidate who had long had dissident thoughts about the Afghan War. Typical was this 2012 tweet of his: “Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!”
And it’s not a set of thoughts Donald Trump tossed overboard once he entered the Oval Office either. Only the other day, he ludicrously praised the “great strides in Afghanistan” that the U.S. military and NATO are(n’t) making in an awkward meeting with that alliance’s secretary general (in which he also managed to claim that his father — distinctly from the Bronx, New York — had been born and raised in Germany).
He then doubled back and termed the Afghan War “ridiculous” and “unfortunate.” And last December, soon after he announced that he was pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria (on which more in a moment), he essentially demanded that the U.S. military cut its forces in Afghanistan from 14,000 to 7,000 as part of its route (not rout!) out. That number was assumedly meant to include the 3,000 troops he had been persuaded to add to U.S. forces there in his first year in office.
As it happened, however, the Pentagon had its own forward-looking ideas on how to “withdraw” from Afghanistan. Having already turned that war into the longest in American history, the high command was now evidently vying for another awe-inspiring record: the longest withdrawal of American forces from a war zone ever — a three-to-five-year span of time with perhaps an initial cut of 7,000 somewhere in the months to come (though I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting). In that way, they were working to produce an American war of at least 21 years (USA! USA!), while perhaps also hoping to outlast this president and get one willing to commit to forever war forever.
Admittedly, the Trump administration has also launched peace talks with the Taliban and who knows where they might lead sooner or later. Still, when it comes to the “ridiculous” war the president continues to belittle, give credit where it’s due. It remains robustly, even disastrously, ongoing and off the charts.
The Trump Surge
And none of that compares to Trump’s Syrian debacle. In December, the president publicly overruled his advisers and ordered that the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in that country be withdrawn within 30 days. “We have won against ISIS,” he declared in a video posted on Twitter. “Our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”
I think of what followed as “the Trump surge,” the third of the era.
The first, of course, was General David Petraeus’s 2007 surge into Iraq with more than 20,000 American troops. Its aim: to turn the disastrous occupation of that country that followed George W. Bush’s May 2003 “mission accomplished” moment into a raging success. Petraeus, in fact, made his reputation on that turn-around of a surge… until, of course, it wasn’t, and by then he had moved on.
The second surge was President Obama’s decision to send more than 30,000 new U.S. troops into Afghanistan in 2009 — and, of course, you know how that turned out. (See above.)
Now, appropriately enough, we’ve had an upside down, inside-out surge in Syria. Honestly, it could have been a Saturday Night Live routine, complete with Alec Baldwin.
In response to Trump’s withdrawal decision, Secretary of Defense James Mattis promptly resigned and was almost instantly lauded as an all-American hero by a Congress and a media in an uproar over the decision. We’re talking, of course, about “Mad Dog” Mattis, the former Marine general who so classically said of fighting the Taliban, “It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.”
And then, in February, as the pressure on the president ramped up, there was the first partial retreat. Think of it as the beginning of a withdrawal from the withdrawal.
The news leaked out that, in a “concession” to Pentagon officials, 200 U.S. troops would be left in Syria “for a period of time.” It only took another day for that number to rise to 400. Then, in mid-March, the Wall Street Journal reported that, in reality, 1,000 troops would be left in that country, a figure promptly and definitively denied (“factually incorrect”) by no less a personage than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford. By month’s end, however, that factually incorrect figure had been confirmed — 1,000 U.S. personnel would indeed remain indefinitely, or at least until the fall of 2020.
Where the Trump surge will go from here we simply don’t know, as the subject has largely dropped from the news.
The President From Riyadh?
Meanwhile, don’t forget the war that, unlike Afghanistan and Syria, Donald Trump may not be able to imagine ending, the only one on which, since 2001, Congress has taken a stand. I’m thinking, of course, about the grim U.S.-backed Saudi and Emirati war in Yemen.
As April began, Congress passed a resolution calling on the president to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting” Yemen within 30 days. (Of course, you already know how well such 30-day deadlines work when it comes to America’s wars.) In the single most obvious situation in which a war (or at least American involvement in it) might possibly be ended, in which the president with the help of Congress might actually override the national security state’s urge to fight on anywhere and everywhere, President Trump then signed second veto of his term in office and nixed the congressional resolution.
Who could be surprised? It’s obviously the wrong off-the-charts war for the president from Riyadh to end — or have I, like the president himself, gotten confused about which Trump was born where?
Oh yes, and talking about learning one’s lessons, as well as truly going off the charts…
As the 2020 elections approach, watch out. There’s one possible American war still to come in the Greater Middle East. You know, the one that won’t be off the charts, that’s bound to turn out well given the deep pool of experience and reflection on American war making that will have preceded it.
I’m thinking, of course, about a potential war with Iran (the one the Bush administration’s top officials wished for before they bogged down so disastrously in Iraq and Afghanistan). President Trump’s foreign-policy team — National Security Advisor John Bolton (a relic of the Bush years) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — are visibly dying (if that’s the right word) for just such a war and the president who ripped up the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, recently declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terror group, and has been threatening Iran ever since, seems all too open to it as well.
So, for the last few of us still here thinking about American wars, I would say that when it comes to off the charts, it’s possible that you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.