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Tomgram: Danny Sjursen, Mission Unaccomplished, 15 Years Later

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

If you're going to surround yourself with generals in the Oval Office, as Donald Trump has done, that means one thing in these years: you're going to appoint men whose careers were made (or unmade) by what was once known as the Global War on Terror. They will be deeply associated with Washington's 15 years of disastrous wars and conflicts in the Greater Middle East, which have left that region a set of failed or near-failed states and a hotbed of terror outfits, including various branches of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis, for instance, led troops in the initial post-invasion period in Afghanistan in 2001; in the taking of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in 2003; in the fierce fighting for the city of Fallujah in 2004; and then, from 2010 to 2013, he was in charge of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), with responsibility for the Greater Middle East. In that post, he cooked up a scheme to take out either an Iranian oil refinery or power plant in the "dead of night," an act of war meant to pay that country back for supplying mortars to Iraqi insurgents killing American troops. That plan, nixed by the Obama White House, seems to have played a role in his removal from the CENTCOM post five months early.

General John Kelly, head of the Department of Homeland Security, also commanded troops and fought in Iraq. (His son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.) Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn held key intelligence positions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, while his temporary replacement (and now National Security Council chief of staff), General Joseph "Keith" Kellogg, retired and working with private contractor Oracle at the time of the invasion of Iraq, was sent to Baghdad as chief operating officer of the Coalition Provisional Authority that the Bush administration set up to run its ill-fated occupation of that country. He lasted only five months as that body began its "reconstruction" of Iraq, after disbanding Saddam's army and so putting its officers and troops on the unemployment line, which meant at the disposal of the developing insurgency. Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, the new national security adviser, just tapped for the job by Trump, isn't even retired and held command posts in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the evidence of these last years, such experiences seem to have tied these men to the war against terror in a deep and visceral way, making any major reconsideration of what they had lived through inconceivable. In the new Trump era, clues to this ongoing reality can already be found in two recent events: the first Trump-ordered action in the Greater Middle East, a thoroughly botched Special Operations raid in Yemen, which did not achieve its objective but got large numbers of civilians and one Navy SEAL killed and which, given the last 15 years of U.S. military action in the region, looked painfully familiar; and the request of the present U.S. Afghan commander, General John Nicholson Jr., for "several thousand" more American military advisers, one that it's hard to imagine he would have made before the Senate Armed Services Committee without the agreement of Defense Secretary Mattis. It's also a request that was clearly meant as no more than an opening bid in a potentially far larger surge of American forces into Afghanistan. (Where have you heard that before?)

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Under the circumstances, it's good to know that, even if not at the highest ranks of the U.S. military, there are officers who have been able to take in what they experienced up close and personal in Iraq and Afghanistan and make some new -- not desperately old -- sense of it. U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen, a former history instructor at West Point and the author of Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, who writes his inaugural TomDispatch post today, is obviously one of them and I doubt he's alone in the American armed forces after all these years. Tom

How We Got Here
The Misuse of American Military Power and The Middle East in Chaos
By Danny Sjursen

The United States has already lost -- its war for the Middle East, that is. Having taken my own crack at combat soldiering in both Iraq and Afghanistan, that couldn't be clearer to me. Unfortunately, it's evidently still not clear in Washington. Bush's neo-imperial triumphalism failed. Obama's quiet shift to drones, Special Forces, and clandestine executive actions didn't turn the tide either. For all President Trump's bluster, boasting, and threats, rest assured that, at best, he'll barely move the needle and, at worst" but why even go there?

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At this point, it's at least reasonable to look back and ask yet again: Why the failure? Explanations abound, of course. Perhaps Americans were simply never tough enough and still need to take off the kid gloves. Maybe there just weren't ever enough troops. (Bring back the draft!) Maybe all those hundreds of thousands of bombs and missiles just came up short. (So how about lots more of them, maybe even a nuke?)

Lead from the front. Lead from behind. Surge yet again" The list goes on -- and on and on.

And by now all of it, including Donald Trump's recent tough talk, represents such a familiar set of tunes. But what if the problem is far deeper and more fundamental than any of that?

Here our nation stands, 15-plus years after 9/11, engaged militarily in half a dozen countries across the Greater Middle East, with no end in sight. Perhaps a more critical, factual reading of our recent past would illuminate the futility of America's tragic, ongoing project to somehow "destroy" terrorism in the Muslim world.

The standard triumphalist version of the last 100 or so years of our history might go something like this: in the twentieth century, the United States repeatedly intervened, just in the nick of time, to save the feeble Old World from militarism, fascism, and then, in the Cold War, communism. It did indeed save the day in three global wars and might have lived happily ever after as the world's "sole superpower" if not for the sudden emergence of a new menace. Seemingly out of nowhere, "Islamo-fascists" shattered American complacence with a sneak attack reminiscent of Pearl Harbor. Collectively the people asked: Why do they hate us? Of course, there was no time to really reflect, so the government simply got to work, taking the fight to our new "medieval" enemies on their own turf. It's admittedly been a long, hard slog, but what choice did our leaders have? Better, after all, to fight them in Baghdad than Brooklyn.

What if, however, this foundational narrative is not just flawed but little short of delusional? Alternative accounts lead to wholly divergent conclusions and are more likely to inform prudent policy in the Middle East.

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Let's reconsider just two key years for the United States in that region: 1979 and 2003. America's leadership learned all the wrong "lessons" from those pivotal moments and has intervened there ever since on the basis of some perverse version of them with results that have been little short of disastrous. A more honest narrative of those moments would lead to a far more modest, minimalist approach to a messy and tragic region. The problem is that there seems to be something inherently un-American about entertaining such thoughts.

1979 Revisited

Through the first half of the Cold War, the Middle East remained a sideshow. In 1979, however, all that changed radically. First, rising protests against the brutal police state of the American-backed Shah of Iran led to regime collapse, the return of dissident ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the declaration of an Islamic Republic. Then Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, holding 52 hostages for more than 400 days. Of course, by then few Americans remembered the CIA-instigated coup of 1953 that had toppled a democratically elected Iranian prime minister, preserved Western oil interests in that country, and started both lands on this path (though Iranians clearly hadn't forgotten). The shock and duration of the hostage crisis undoubtedly ensured that Jimmy Carter would be a one-term president and -- to make matters worse -- Soviet troops intervened in Afghanistan to shore up a communist government there. It was quite a year.

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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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