The report was devastating -- or would have been, if anyone here had noticed it. "Between 2001 and 2017," it concluded, "U.S. government efforts to stabilize insecure and contested areas in Afghanistan mostly failed." I'm thinking of "Stabilization: Lessons From the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan" put out by the office of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, or SIGAR. It focused on 15 years of U.S. efforts to defeat the Taliban and "reconstruct" that country. Issued in late May, it got a few cursory news reports before disappearing into the maw of Trump addiction. But don't blame The Donald for that. When was the last time -- even before he entered the Oval Office -- that any serious attention was paid here to the longest war in American history, our forever war or "generational struggle" or "infinite war"? When was the last true policy debate on it?
Presidents -- even Donald Trump -- just re-up on coming into office, surge more U.S. troops in, and watch as things devolve. The generals fight; U.S. commanders come and go (the 17th of the Afghan war is just arriving); our European allies ever more wearily support the last superpower on the planet; and things only get worse while SIGAR issues its reports. Even its latest one only ended up recommending yet more military and other efforts at greater cost to "stabilize" that country. There's a certain pathos to it, even as yet more Afghans die, more lives are ruined or uprooted, and yet more insurgent/terror groups form in that country (and neighboring Pakistan). It has all the charm of watching mice on a treadmill. Recently, for instance, there was a new "insider attack" that took the life of an American serviceman and wounded two others, the first in perhaps a year; the Taliban seemed once again to be gaining ground as Afghan government security forces shrank; British Prime Minister Theresa May, preparing to be kicked in the teeth by President Trump, obsequiously came close to doubling her country's force in Afghanistan; approximately 15,000 U.S. military personnel (not counting private contractors) continue to serve there; the U.S. air war has been ramped up; the latest Pentagon review of the American effort may soon be launched; and undoubtedly SIGAR has begun to clear the way for its next report.
Meanwhile, in this country, America's forever wars, which should be on all our minds, have long since largely dropped from public consciousness. There is neither discussion, nor debate, nor protest of any significant sort about them, which is why it seemed worthwhile to ask TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon to review America's wars in the Middle East before a new one, in Iran, can be added to the mix. Tom
Middle East Alliances, Old and New
Confronting "That Part of the World"
By Rebecca Gordon
My father and I always had a tacit agreement: "We will never speak of That Part of the World." He'd grown up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Norfolk, Virginia. His own father, a refugee from early-twentieth-century pogroms in what is now Ukraine, had been the president of his local Zionist organization. A liberal in most things (including his ardent opposition to both of the U.S. wars against Iraq), my father remained a Zionist to his dying day. We both knew that if we were ever to have a real conversation about Israel/Palestine, unforgivable things would be said.
As a child in the 1950s, I absorbed the ambient belief that the state of Israel had been created after World War II as an apology gift from the rest of the world to European Jews who had survived the Holocaust. I was raised to think that if the worst were to happen and Jews were once again to become targets of genocidal rage, my family could always emigrate to Israel, where we would be safe. As a young woman, I developed a different (and, in retrospect, silly) line on That Part of the World: there's entirely too much sun there, and it's made them all crazy.- Advertisement -
It wasn't until I'd reached my thirties that I began to pay serious attention to the region that is variously known as the Middle East, the Arab world, or the Greater Middle East and North Africa. And when I did, I discovered how deep my ignorance (like that of so many fellow Americans) really was and how much history, geography, and politics there is to try to understand. What follows is my attempt to get a handle on how the Trump presidency has affected U.S. policy and actions in That Part of the World.
The United States has a long-standing and deep alliance with Israel. During the Cold War, Washington viewed that country as its bulwark in the oil-rich region against both a rising pan-Arab nationalism and real or imagined Soviet encroachments. In fact, according to the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service, "Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the United States has provided Israel $134.7 billion current, or non-inflation-adjusted, dollars in bilateral assistance and missile defense funding."
The vast majority of this largesse has been in military aid, which has allowed Israel, a country of a little more than eight million people, to become the 14th or 15th strongest military power on the planet. It is also the only nuclear power in the region with an arsenal of at least 80 weapons (even if its government has never officially acknowledged this reality). By comparison, Iran, its present archenemy, ranks 21st, despite having a population 10 times greater.
The history of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights -- territories it captured in the 1967 war -- is too long and complex for even a brief recap here. Suffice it to say that the United States has often been Israel's sole ally as, in direct contravention of international law, that country has used its own settlements to carve Palestinian territory into a jigsaw puzzle of disparate pieces, making a contiguous Palestinian state a near impossibility.
Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explained Israel's plan for the Palestinian people in 1973 when he said, "We'll make a pastrami sandwich of them." Promising to insert "a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank," he insisted that "in 25 years' time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart."- Advertisement -
Forty-five years later, his strategy has been fully implemented, as Barack Obama reportedly learned to his shock when, in 2015, he saw a State Department map of the shredded remains of the land on which Palestinians are allowed to exist on the West Bank.
The "pastrami sandwich" strategy has effectively killed any hope for a two-state solution. Now, as the number of non-Jews begins to surpass that of Jews in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, that country once again confronts the inherent contradiction of a state that aims to be both democratic and, in some sense, Jewish. If everyone living in Israel/Palestine today had equal political and economic rights, majority rule would no longer be Jewish rule. In effect, as some Israelis argue, Israel can be Jewish or democratic, but not both.
A solution to this demographic dilemma -- one supported by present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- is to legislate permanent inequality through what's called "the basic law on Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people," which is now being debated in the country's parliament, the Knesset. Among other provisions, that "basic" law (which, if passed, would have the equivalent of constitutional status) will allow citizens "to establish 'pure' communities on the basis of religion or ethnicity." In other words, it will put in place an official framework of legalized segregation.