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Tomgram: William Astore, The Superpower That Fought Itself -- And Lost

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

After 19 al-Qaeda militants armed only with box-cutters and knives hijacked four American commercial airliners, the U.S. military moved with remarkable efficiency to rectify the problem. In the years since, in its global war on terror, the Pentagon has ensured that America's enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere have regularly been able to arm themselves with... well, not to beat around the bush, a remarkable range of U.S. weaponry. The latest such story: a report that in recent fighting around the city of Tal Afar, the Iraqi military recovered a U.S.-produced FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile and launcher from an Islamic State weapons cache. That's a weapon capable of taking out an M1 Abrams tank. And this is hardly the first time U.S. anti-tank missiles meant either for the Iraqi military or Syrian rebels backed by the CIA have turned up in the hands of ISIS militants. In 2015, that group released photos of its fighters using U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles.

Of course, when the American-trained, funded, and armed Iraqi army collapsed in the summer of 2014 in the face of relatively small numbers of ISIS fighters, that group took vast stores of U.S. weaponry and vehicles that they've used ever since. But that was hardly the end of it. The U.S. soon began retraining and rearming its Iraqi allies to the tune of $1.6 billion for "tens of thousands of assault rifles, hundreds of armored vehicles, hundreds of mortar rounds, nearly 200 sniper rifles, and other gear," much of which, a government audit found, the Pentagon simply lost track of. The weaponry, you might say, went missing in action. No one knew whose hands much of it ended up in and this wasn't a new story, either. For example, in 2007 the Government Accountability Office found that "the United States could not account for nearly 30% of the weapons it had distributed in Iraq since 2004 -- about 200,000 guns."

Similar stories could be told about Afghanistan, another country where U.S. weaponry has disappeared in remarkable quantities. (The Taliban, for instance, recently released a video of their fighters sporting weaponry normally used only by U.S. Special Operations personnel.) In short, the Pentagon has been arming itself, its allies, and its enemies in a profligate fashion for years now in its never-ending conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. As TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore suggests today, since 9/11 the U.S. military has in some sense been fighting itself -- and losing. Someday, when historians look back on this bizarre tale, they will have to explain one thing above all: Why, year after year, in the face of obvious and repetitive failure in such conflicts, was no one in Washington capable of imagining another course of action? Tom

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The American Military Uncontained
Out Everywhere and Winning Nowhere
By William J. Astore

When it comes to the "world's greatest military," the news has been shocking. Two fast U.S. Navy ships colliding with slow-moving commercial vessels with tragic loss of life. An Air Force that has been in the air continuously for years and yet doesn't have enough pilots to fly its combat jets. Ground troops who find themselves fighting "rebels" in Syria previously armed and trained by the CIA. Already overstretched Special Operations forces facing growing demands as their rates of mental distress and suicide rise. Proxy armies in Iraq and Afghanistan that are unreliable, often delivering American-provided weaponry to black markets and into the hands of various enemies. All of this and more coming at a time when defense spending is once again soaring and the national security state is awash in funds to the tune of nearly a trillion dollars a year.

What gives? Why are highly maneuverable and sophisticated naval ships colliding with lumbering cargo vessels? Why is an Air Force that exists to fly and fight short 1,200 pilots? Why are U.S. Special Operations forces deployed everywhere and winning nowhere? Why, in short, is the U.S. military fighting itself -- and losing?

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It's the Ops Tempo, Stupid

After 16 years of a never-ending, ever-spreading global war on terror, alarms are going off in Asia from the Koreas and Afghanistan to the Philippines, while across the Greater Middle East and Africa the globe's "last superpower" is in a never-ending set of conflicts with a range of minor enemies few can even keep straight. As a result, America's can-do military, committed piecemeal to a bewildering array of missions, has increasingly become a can't-do one.

Too few ships are being deployed for too long. Too few pilots are being worn out by incessant patrols and mushrooming drone and bombing missions. Special Operations forces (the "commandos of everywhere," as Nick Turse calls them) are being deployed to far too many countries -- more than two-thirds of the nations on the planet already this year -- and are involved in conflicts that hold little promise of ending on terms favorable to Washington. Meanwhile, insiders like retired General David Petraeus speak calmly about "generational struggles" that will essentially never end. To paraphrase an old slogan from ABC's "Wide World of Sports," as the U.S. military spans the globe, it's regularly experiencing the agony of defeat rather than the thrill of victory.

To President Donald Trump (and so many other politicians in Washington), this unsavory reality suggests an obvious solution: boost military funding; build more navy ships; train more pilots and give them more incentive pay to stay in the military; rely more on drones and other technological "force multipliers" to compensate for tired troops; cajole allies like the Germans and Japanese to spend more on their militaries; and pressure proxy armies like the Iraqi and Afghan security forces to cut corruption and improve combat performance.

One option -- the most logical -- is never seriously considered in Washington: to make deep cuts in the military's operational tempo by decreasing defense spending and downsizing the global mission, by bringing troops home and keeping them there. This is not an isolationist plea. The United States certainly faces challenges, notably from Russia (still a major nuclear power) and China (a global economic power bolstering its regional militarily strength). North Korea is, as ever, posturing with missile and nuclear tests in provocative ways. Terrorist organizations strive to destabilize American allies and cause trouble even in "the homeland."

Such challenges require vigilance. What they don't require is more ships in the sea-lanes, pilots in the air, and boots on the ground. Indeed, 16 years after the 9/11 attacks it should be obvious that more of the same is likely to produce yet more of what we've grown all too accustomed to: increasing instability across significant swaths of the planet, as well as the rise of new terror groups or new iterations of older ones, which means yet more opportunities for failed U.S. military interventions.

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Once upon a time, when there were still two superpowers on Planet Earth, Washington's worldwide military posture had a clear rationale: the containment of communism. Soon after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 to much triumphalist self-congratulation in Washington, the scholar and former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson had an epiphany. What he would come to call "the American Raj," a global imperial structure ostensibly built to corral the menace of communism, wasn't going away just because that menace had evaporated, leaving not a superpower nor even a major power as an opponent anywhere on the horizon. Quite the opposite, Washington -- and its globe-spanning "empire" of military bases -- was only digging in deeper and for the long haul. At that moment, with a certain shock, Johnson realized that the U.S. was itself an empire and, with its mirror-image-enemy gone, risked turning on itself and becoming its own nemesis.

The U.S., it turned out, hadn't just contained the Soviets; they had contained us, too. Once their empire collapsed, our leaders imbibed the old dream of Woodrow Wilson, even if in a newly militarized fashion: to remake the world in one's own image (if need be at the point of a sword).

Since the early 1990s, largely unconstrained by peer rivals, America's leaders have acted as if there were nothing to stop them from doing as they pleased on the planet, which, as it turned out, meant there was nothing to stop them from their own folly. We witness the results today. Prolonged and disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interventions throughout the Greater Middle East (Libya, Syria, Yemen, and beyond) that spread chaos and destruction. Attacks against terrorism that have given new impetus to jihadists everywhere. And recently calls to arm Ukraine against Russia. All of this is consistent with a hubristic strategic vision that, in these years, has spoken in an all-encompassing fashion and without irony of global reach, global power, and full-spectrum dominance.

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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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