Here's last week's good news on America's war fronts: finally, there's light at the end of the tunnel!
From one end of the Greater Middle East to the other, things are looking up for Washington. A U.S. Air Force drone struck for the first time in Baluchistan province and took out the leader of the Taliban with two Hellfire missiles (whereupon the Pakistani government denounced Washington for violating the country's sovereignty). The action was taken, President Obama later announced, as part of "our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan." (Admittedly, you may not have heard much about such peace and prosperity recently with fierce fighting raging on Afghan battlefields, the Taliban gaining ground, the government in its usual pit of corruption, and the country maintaining its proud position as the uncontested global leader in the production and sale of opium.)
Soon after, the president paid a historic visit to Vietnam and finally put to bed memories of a disastrous American war there in the only way conceivable -- by ensuring that American arms and munitions would once again be allowed to flow freely into that country. And while he was at it, he sternly rebuked China (without mentioning it by name) for its actions in the waters off Vietnam. "Nations are sovereign," he said, "and no matter how large or small a nation may be, its territory should be respected."
On the other side of the Greater Middle East, U.S. Green Berets were photographed in northern Syria engaged with Kurdish rebels in fighting aimed at someday retaking Raqqa, the "capital" of the Islamic State. Several of those soldiers were wearing the insignia of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Forces, or YPG (which the Turkish government considers a terrorist outfit), even as the Pentagon continued to insist that theirs was a non-combat role. In other words -- in the good news category -- those boots, whatever the photos might seem to indicate, were not actually on the ground. Meanwhile, some genuinely upbeat news arrived in the midst of a little distinctly out-of-date bad news. Members of the U.S. team now conducting the air war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq told New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt that, despite thousands of air strikes, their predecessors had essentially botched the job, thanks to "poor intelligence collection and clumsy process for identifying targets." Fortunately, they were now in charge and the results were stunning. The Islamic State was finally being hit in its pocketbook, where it truly hurts, damaging its "ability to pay its fighters, govern, and attract new recruits."
"Every bomb now has a greater impact," reported U.S. air war commander Lieutenant General Charles Brown Jr. Yes, after 15 years of American air war across the Greater Middle East, it seems that, from Pakistan to Syria, the Obama administration has finally found the winning formula. If, as Schmitt's piece indicated, you want confirmation of that, who better to turn to than the very people who have gotten the formula right? Having no access to similar in-the-know figures capable of throwing light on the subject of Washington's ongoing conflicts, TomDispatch instead turned to outsider Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of a groundbreaking book, America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, to assess the recent spate of upbeat news from America's war zones. We sent him directly into that infamous Vietnam-era tunnel of darkness to see what might be glimpsed so many decades later when it comes to the American way of war, and here's his report. Tom
Milestones (Or What Passes for Them in Washington)
A Multi-Trillion-Dollar Bridge to Nowhere in the Greater Middle East
By Andrew J. Bacevich
We have it on highest authority: the recent killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan marks "an important milestone." So the president of the United States has declared, with that claim duly echoed and implicitly endorsed by media commentary -- the New York Times reporting, for example, that Mansour's death leaves the Taliban leadership "shocked" and "shaken."
But a question remains: A milestone toward what exactly?
Toward victory? Peace? Reconciliation? At the very least, toward the prospect of the violence abating? Merely posing the question is to imply that U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world serve some larger purpose.
Yet for years now that has not been the case. The assassination of Mansour instead joins a long list of previous milestones, turning points, and landmarks briefly heralded as significant achievements only to prove much less than advertised.
One imagines that Obama himself understands this perfectly well. Just shy of five years ago, he was urging Americans to "take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding." In Iraq and Afghanistan, the president insisted, "the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance."
"These long wars," he promised, were finally coming to a "responsible end." We were, that is, finding a way out of Washington's dead-end conflicts in the Greater Middle East.
Who can doubt Obama's sincerity, or question his oft-expressed wish to turn away from war and focus instead on unattended needs here at home? But wishing is the easy part. Reality has remained defiant. Even today, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that George W. Bush bequeathed to Obama show no sign of ending.
Like Bush, Obama will bequeath to his successor wars he failed to finish. Less remarked upon, he will also pass along to President Clinton or President Trump new wars that are his own handiwork. In Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and several other violence-wracked African nations, the Obama legacy is one of ever-deepening U.S. military involvement. The almost certain prospect of a further accumulation of briefly celebrated and quickly forgotten "milestones" beckons.
During the Obama era, the tide of war has not receded. Instead, Washington finds itself drawn ever deeper into conflicts that, once begun, become interminable -- wars for which the vaunted U.S. military has yet to devise a plausible solution.