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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, Vietnamization 2.0

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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After the United States toppled Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003, L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian official in occupied Iraq, took a bold step. He dissolved Iraq's military, deciding to replace Saddam's 350,000-man army with a lightly-armed border protection force that would start with 12,000 troops and eventually peak at around 40,000 soldiers, supplemented by various police and civil defense forces.

Bremer's best-laid plans imploded as an insurgency blossomed from the roiling mass of well-trained Iraqi military veterans he had ushered to the unemployment line and a civil war soon wracked the country. A bloodbath ensued and never ended, even as the U.S. surged in more troops and pumped in tens of billions of dollars to build what eventually became the 930,000-man strong Iraqi security forces. (That's not much smaller than the South Vietnamese Army the U.S. built up in the late 1960s!) Along the way, there was plenty of progress. "Every single day, the Iraqi security forces are getting bigger and better and better trained and better equipped and more experienced," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2005. "You know, the one thing -- the one thing we have seen is that Iraq has developed a very good capability to be able to defend itself," said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta six years later. "And I think that's a reflection of the fact that the Iraqis have developed a very important capability here to be able to respond to security threats within their own country."

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And yet by 2014, the Iraqi military had (and was paying) more ghost soldiers -- troops who existed only on paper -- than the number of real soldiers Bremer had envisioned to secure the whole country back in 2003. As it happened, Iraq was anything but secure. Today, it's a half-failed state, riven by sectarian strife, and has lost a significant portion of its territory to an extremist group incubated in U.S. prison camps. The country is now far worse off than the one the U.S. invaded in 2003.

The U.S. military is great at a lot of things, just not things like winning wars or effectively training foreign forces. TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich takes on the how-and-why of this latter failure, tracing the sorry history of U.S. nation- and army-building from the battlefields of Vietnam -- which he knew intimately -- to the festering wars of today. Buckle up for a long, strange trip. Nick Turse

On Building Armies (and Watching Them Fail)
Why Washington Can't "Stand Up" Foreign Militaries
By Andrew J. Bacevich

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First came Fallujah, then Mosul, and later Ramadi in Iraq. Now, there is Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan. In all four places, the same story has played out: in cities that newspaper reporters like to call "strategically important," security forces trained and equipped by the U.S. military at great expense simply folded, abandoning their posts (and much of their U.S.-supplied weaponry) without even mounting serious resistance. Called upon to fight, they fled. In each case, the defending forces gave way before substantially outnumbered attackers, making the outcomes all the more ignominious.

Together, these setbacks have rendered a verdict on the now more-or-less nameless Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Successive blitzkriegs by ISIS and the Taliban respectively did more than simply breach Iraqi and Afghan defenses. They also punched gaping holes in the strategy to which the United States had reverted in hopes of stemming the further erosion of its position in the Greater Middle East.

Recall that, when the United States launched its GWOT soon after 9/11, it did so pursuant to a grandiose agenda. U.S. forces were going to imprint onto others a specific and exalted set of values. During President George W. Bush's first term, this "freedom agenda" formed the foundation, or at least the rationale, for U.S. policy.

The shooting would stop, Bush vowed, only when countries like Afghanistan had ceased to harbor anti-American terrorists and countries like Iraq had ceased to encourage them. Achieving this goal meant that the inhabitants of those countries would have to change. Afghans and Iraqis, followed in due course by Syrians, Libyans, Iranians, and sundry others would embrace democracy, respect human rights, and abide by the rule of law, or else. Through the concerted application of American power, they would become different -- more like us and therefore more inclined to get along with us. A bit less Mecca and Medina, a bit more "we hold these truths" and "of the people, by the people."

So Bush and others in his inner circle professed to believe. At least some of them, probably including Bush himself, may actually have done so.

History, at least the bits and pieces to which Americans attend, seemed to endow such expectations with a modicum of plausibility. Had not such a transfer of values occurred after World War II when the defeated Axis Powers had hastily thrown in with the winning side? Had it not recurred as the Cold War was winding down, when previously committed communists succumbed to the allure of consumer goods and quarterly profit statements?

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If the appropriate mix of coaching and coercion were administered, Afghans and Iraqis, too, would surely take the path once followed by good Germans and nimble Japanese, and subsequently by Czechs tired of repression and Chinese tired of want. Once liberated, grateful Afghans and Iraqis would align themselves with a conception of modernity that the United States had pioneered and now exemplified. For this transformation to occur, however, the accumulated debris of retrograde social conventions and political arrangements that had long retarded progress would have to be cleared away. This was what the invasions of Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom!) and Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom!) were meant to accomplish in one fell swoop by a military the likes of which had (to hear Washington tell it) never been seen in history. POW!

Standing Them Up As We Stand Down

Concealed within that oft-cited "freedom" -- the all-purpose justification for deploying American power -- were several shades of meaning. The term, in fact, requires decoding. Yet within the upper reaches of the American national security apparatus, one definition takes precedence over all others. In Washington, freedom has become a euphemism for dominion. Spreading freedom means positioning the United States to call the shots. Seen in this context, Washington's expected victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq were meant to affirm and broaden its preeminence by incorporating large parts of the Islamic world into the American imperium. They would benefit, of course, but to an even greater extent, so would we.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("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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