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Tomgram: Engelhardt, A "Ridiculous" War

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

American War Is Off the Charts
How the U.S. Military Feeds at the Terror Trough
By Tom Engelhardt

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.

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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.

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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 significantand 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.

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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.

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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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