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Nick Turse: Prisons, Drones, and Black Ops in Afghanistan

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In Afghanistan, "victory" came early -- with the U.S. invasion of 2001.  Only then did the trouble begin. 

Ever since the U.S. occupation managed to revive the Taliban, one of the least popular of popular movements in memory, the official talk, year after year, has been of modest "progress," of limited "success," of enemy advances "blunted," of "corners" provisionally turned.  And always such talk has been accompanied by grim on-the-ground reports of gross corruption, fixed elections, massive desertions from the Afghan army and police, "ghost" soldiers, and the like. 

Year after year, ever more American and NATO money has been poured into the training of a security force so humongous that, given the impoverished Afghan government, it will largely be owned and paid for by Washington until hell freezes over (or until it disintegrates) -- $11 billion in 2011 and a similar figure for 2012.  And year after year, there appear stories like the recent one from Reuters that began: "Only 1 percent of Afghan police and soldiers are capable of operating independently, a top U.S. commander said on Wednesday, raising further doubts about whether Afghan forces will be able to take on a still-potent insurgency as the West withdraws."  And year after year, the response to such dismal news is to pour in yet more money and advisors.

In the meantime, Afghans in army or police uniforms have been blowing away those advisors in startling numbers and with a regularity for which there is no precedent in modern times.  (You might have to reach back to the Sepoy Mutiny in British India of the nineteenth century to find a similar sense of loathing resulting in similarly bloody acts.)  And year after year, these killings are publicly termed "isolated incidents" of little significance by American and NATO officials -- even when the Afghan perpetrator of the bloodiest of them, who reportedly simply wanted to "kill Americans," is given a public funeral at which 1,500 of his countrymen appeared as mourners. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to pursue a war in which its supply lines, thousands of miles long, are dependent on the good will of two edgy "allies," Russia and Pakistan.  At the moment, with the cheaper Pakistani routes to Afghanistan cut off by that country's government (in anger over an incident in which 24 of their troops were killed by American cross-border air strikes), it's estimated that the cost of resupplying U.S. troops there has risen six-fold.  Keep in mind that, before that route was shut down, a single gallon of fuel for U.S. troops was cost at least $400!

Admittedly, just behind the scenes, the latest intelligence assessments might be far gloomier than the official talk.  A December 2011 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, for instance, suggested that the war was "mired in stalemate" and that the Afghan government might not survive an American and NATO withdrawal.  But it's rare that the ranks of the military are broken publicly by a straight-talking truth-teller. This has just happened and it's been bracing.  After a year in Afghanistan spending time with (and patrolling with) U.S. troops, as well as consulting Afghan military officers and local officials, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis published a breathtakingly blunt, whistleblowing piece in Armed Forces Journal.  It stated baldly that, in Afghanistan, the emperor was naked. ("What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground... I did not need to witness dramatic improvements to be reassured, but merely hoped to see evidence of positive trends, to see companies or battalions produce even minimal but sustainable progress. Instead, I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level.")

Given all this, here's what remains doggedly remarkable, as Nick Turse reports in the latest post in his TomDispatch series on the changing face of empire (supported by Lannan Foundation): the U.S. military continues to build in Afghanistan as if modest progress were indeed the byword, limited success a reality, and corners still there to be decisively turned -- if not by a giant army of occupation, then by drones and special operations forces.  Go figure.  Tom

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450 Bases and It's Not Over Yet
The Pentagon's Afghan Basing Plans for Prisons, Drones, and Black Ops
By Nick Turse

In late December, the lot was just a big blank: a few burgundy metal shipping containers sitting in an expanse of crushed eggshell-colored gravel inside a razor-wire-topped fence.  The American military in Afghanistan doesn't want to talk about it, but one day soon, it will be a new hub for the American drone war in the Greater Middle East.

Next year, that empty lot will be a two-story concrete intelligence facility for America's drone war, brightly lit and filled with powerful computers kept in climate-controlled comfort in a country where most of the population has no access to electricity.  It will boast almost 7,000 square feet of offices, briefing and conference rooms, and a large "processing, exploitation, and dissemination" operations center -- and, of course, it will be built with American tax dollars. 

Nor is it an anomaly.  Despite all the talk of drawdowns and withdrawals, there has been a years-long building boom in Afghanistan that shows little sign of abating.  In early 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had nearly 400 bases in Afghanistan.  Today, Lieutenant Lauren Rago of ISAF public affairs tells TomDispatch, the number tops 450.

The hush-hush, high-tech, super-secure facility at the massive air base in Kandahar is just one of many building projects the U.S. military currently has planned or underway in Afghanistan.  While some U.S. bases are indeed closing up shop or being transferred to the Afghan government, and there's talk of combat operations slowing or ending next year, as well as a withdrawal of American combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the U.S. military is still preparing for a much longer haul at mega-bases like Kandahar and Bagram airfields. The same is true even of some smaller camps, forward operating bases (FOBs), and combat outposts (COPs) scattered through the country's backlands.  "Bagram is going through a significant transition during the next year to two years," Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gerdes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Bagram Office recently told Freedom Builder, a Corps of Engineers publication.  "We're transitioning... into a long-term, five-year, 10-year vision for the base." 

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Whether the U.S. military will still be in Afghanistan in five or 10 years remains to be seen, but steps are currently being taken to make that possible.  U.S. military publications, plans and schematics, contracting documents, and other official data examined by TomDispatch catalog hundreds of construction projects worth billions of dollars slated to begin, continue, or conclude in 2012. 

While many of these efforts are geared toward structures for Afghan forces or civilian institutions, a considerable number involve U.S. facilities, some of the most significant being dedicated to the ascendant forms of American warfare: drone operations and missions by elite special operations units.  The available plans for most of these projects suggest durability.  "The structures that are going in are concrete and mortar, rather than plywood and tent skins," says Gerdes. As of last December, his office was involved in 30 Afghan construction projects for U.S. or international coalition partners worth almost $427 million.  

The Big Base Build-Up

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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