It's now more than 17 years later, years in which American commanding generals in Afghanistan repeatedly hailed the U.S. military's "progress" there and regularly applauded the way we had finally "turned a corner" in the Afghan War -- only to find more Taliban fighters armed with RPGs around that very corner. Finally, in the 18th year of the war, an American general -- to be specific, Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- has come to a somewhat different conclusion. This, mind you, at a moment when the Taliban has taken control of more territory than at any time since they were forced from power by the U.S. invasion of 2001. His assessment also comes in the face of the worst casualties ("unsustainable") for the American-backed Afghan security forces in memory (more than 28,000 deaths since 2015, according to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani). In response, Dunford has offered the shocking news that -- get a grip on yourself here -- the Taliban "are not losing right now, I think that is fair to say..." Hmm... give America's top general credit for finally offering up the bad news, even if a few years late, with only a modestly optimistic spin on it. Believe me, in the twenty-first-century annals of the U.S. military, that passes for realism of the first order.
Today, however, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the new book Twilight of the American Century, offers us a timely reminder of another American commander who, 14 long years ago, sensed that the country's war on terror was not going well and was unlikely to end in any imaginable future -- and just why that might be. As it happens, that very general has just been nominated by the Trump administration as the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. And what a moment to head for Riyadh! After all, only last week the CIA leaked to the Washington Post its conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that land's (dys)functional ruler, had personally ordered the brutal murder of one of that paper's contributing columnists. On the subject, President Trump continues to shuffle his feet awkwardly. Stay tuned. The war on terror may just be revving up. Tom
Our Man in Riyadh
Abizaid of Arabia
By Andrew J. Bacevich- Advertisement -
What does President Trump's recent nomination of retired Army General John Abizaid to become the next U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia signify? Next to nothing -- and arguably quite a lot.
Abizaid's proposed appointment is both a non-event and an opportunity not to be wasted. It means next to nothing in this sense: while once upon a time, American diplomats abroad wielded real clout -- Benjamin Franklin and John Quincy Adams offer prominent examples -- that time is long past. Should he receive Senate confirmation, Ambassador Abizaid will not actually shape U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia. At most, he will convey policy, while keeping officials back in Washington apprised regarding conditions in the Kingdom. "Conditions" in this context will mean the opinions, attitudes, whims, and mood of one particular individual: Mohammed bin Salman. MBS, as he is known, is the Saudi crown prince and the Kingdom's de facto absolute ruler. By no means incidentally, he is also that country's assassin-in-chief as well as the perpetrator of atrocities in a vicious war that he launched in neighboring Yemen in 2015.
Implicit in Abizaid's job description will be a requirement to cozy up to MBS. "Cozy up" in this context implies finding ways to befriend, influence, and seduce; that is, seeking to replicate in Riyadh the achievements in Washington of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who from 1983 to 2005 served as Saudi ambassador to the United States.- Advertisement -
With plenty of money to spread around, Bandar charmed -- which in this context means suborned -- the Washington establishment, while ingratiating himself with successive presidents and various other power brokers. With his fondness for nicknames, George W. Bush dubbed him "Bandar Bush," informally designating the Saudi prince a member of his own dynastic clan.
After 9/11, the Saudi envoy made the most of those connections, deflecting attention away from the role Saudis had played in the events of that day while fingering Saddam Hussein's Iraq as the true font of Islamist terrorism. Bush came around to endorsing Bandar's view -- although he may not have needed much urging. So while Bandar may not rank alongside the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz among the architects of the ensuing Iraq War, he certainly deserves honorable mention.
That Abizaid will come anywhere close to replicating Bandar's notable (or nefarious) achievements seems unlikely. For starters, at age 67, he may not want to spend the next 20 years or so in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, sucking up to the Kingdom's royals. At least as significantly, he lacks Bandar's bankroll. However much dough Abizaid may have raked in via his consulting firm since leaving the Army a decade ago, it doesn't qualify as real money in Saudi circles, where a billion dollars is a mere rounding error. The mega-rich do not sell themselves cheaply, unless perhaps your surname is Trump.
So the substantive implications of Abizaid's appointment for U.S.-Saudi relations will likely be negligible. Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner will undoubtedly continue to wield greater influence over MBS than Ambassador Abizaid -- or at least will fancy that he is doing so.
Long (and Wrong) War
In another sense, however, Abizaid's appointment to this post (vacant since Donald Trump became president) could mean quite a lot. It offers an ideal opportunity to take stock of the "Long War."- Advertisement -
Now that phrase "Long War" is one that presidents, national security advisors, defense secretaries, and their minions assiduously avoid. Yet, in military circles, it long ago superseded the Global War on Terrorism as an umbrella term describing what U.S. forces have been doing across the Greater Middle East all these many years.
Already by 2005, for example, hawkish analysts employed by a conservative Washington think tank were marketing their recipe for Winning the Long War. And that was just for starters. For more than a decade now, the Long War Journal has been offering authoritative analysis of U.S. military operations across the Greater Middle East and Africa. In the meantime, West Point's Combating Terrorism Center churns out monographs with titles like Fighting the Long War. Always quick to recognize another golden goose of government contracts, the RAND Corporation weighed in with Unfolding the Future of the Long War. After publishing a lengthy essay in the New York Times Magazine called "My Long War," correspondent Dexter Filkins went a step further and titled his book The Forever War. (And for creative types, Voices from the Long War invites Iraq and Afghan War vets to reflect on their experiences before a theatrical audience.)
But where, you might wonder, did that dour phrase originate? As it happens, General Abizaid himself coined it back in 2004 when he was still an active duty four-star and head of U.S. Central Command, the regional headquarters principally charged with waging that conflict. In other words, just a year after the U.S. invaded Iraq and President George W. Bush posed under a White House-produced "Mission Accomplished" banner, with administration officials and their neoconservative boosters looking forward to many more "Iraqi Freedom"-style victories to come, the senior officer presiding over that war went on record to indicate that victory wasn't going to happen anytime soon. Oops.