Someday, someone will write a history of the U.S. national security state in the twenty-first century and, if the first decade and a half are any yardstick, it will be called something like State of Failure. After all, almost 15 years after the U.S. invaded the Taliban's Afghanistan, launching the second American Afghan War of the past half-century, U.S. troops are still there, their "withdrawal" halted, their rules of engagement once again widened to allow American troops and air power to accompany allied Afghan forces into battle, and the Taliban on the rise, having taken more territory (and briefly one northern provincial capital) than at any time since that movement was crushed in the invasion of 2001.
Thirteen years after George W. Bush and his top officials, dreaming of controlling the oil heartlands, launched the invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq (the second Iraq War of our era), Washington is now in the third iteration of the same, with 6,000 troops (and thousands of private contractors) back in that country and a vast air campaign underway to destroy the Islamic State. With modest numbers of special operations troops on the ground and another major air campaign, Washington is also now enmeshed in a complex and so far disastrous war in Syria. And if you haven't been counting, that's three wars gone wrong.
Then, of course, there was the American (and NATO) intervention in Libya in 2011, which cracked that autocratic country open and made way for the rise of Islamic extremist movements there, as well as the most powerful Islamic State franchise outside Syria and Iraq. Today, plans are evidently being drawn up for yet more air strikes, special operations raids, and the like there. Toss in as well Washington's never-ending drone war in Pakistan's tribal borderlands, its disastrous attempt to corral al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (leading to a grim and horrifying Saudi-led, American-supported internecine conflict in that country), and the unending attempt to destroy al-Shabaab in Somalia, and you have at least seven wars and conflicts in the Greater Middle East, all about to be handed on by President Obama to the next president with no end in sight, no real successes, nothing. In these same years Islamic terror movements have only spread and grown stronger under the pressure of the American war machine.
It's not as if Washington doesn't know this. It's quite obvious and, as TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse, author of the highly praised Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead, points out today in his latest report on the U.S. military's pivot to Africa, the pattern is only intensifying, something clearly recognized by key American commanders. What's strange, however, is that none of this seems to have caused anyone in the national security state or the military to reconsider the last 15 years of military-first policies, of bombs dropped, troops dispatched, drones sent in, and what the results were across the Greater Middle East and now Africa. There is no serious recalibration, no real rethinking. The response to 15 years of striking failure in a vast region remains more of the same. State of failure indeed! Tom
Breaking the Camouflage Wall of Silence
When AFRICOM Evaluates Itself, the News Is Grim
By Nick Turse
It's rare to hear one top military commander publicly badmouth another, call attention to his faults, or simply point out his shortcomings. Despite a seemingly endless supply of debacles from strategic setbacks to quagmire conflicts since 9/11, the top brass rarely criticize each other or, even in retirement, utter a word about the failings of their predecessors or successors. Think of it as the camouflage wall of silence. You may loathe him. You may badmouth him behind closed doors. You may have secretly hoped for his career to implode. But publicly point out failures? That's left to those further down the chain of command.
And yet that's effectively exactly what newly installed U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) chief, General Thomas Waldhauser, did earlier this year in a statement to the Senate Arms Services Committee (SASC). It's just that no one, almost certainly including Waldhauser himself, seemed to notice or recognize it for the criticism it was, including the people tasked with oversight of military operations and those in the media.
Over these last years, the number of personnel, missions, dollars spent, and special ops training efforts as well as drone bases and other outposts on the continent have all multiplied. At the same time, incoming AFRICOM commanders have been publicly warning about the escalating perils and challenges from terror groups that menace the command's area of operations. Almost no one, however -- neither those senators nor the media -- has raised pointed questions, no less demanded frank answers, about why such crises on the continent have so perfectly mirrored American military expansion.
Asked earlier this year about the difficulties he'd face if confirmed, Waldhauser was blunt: "A major challenge is effectively countering violent extremist organizations, especially the growth of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and ISIL in Libya."
That should have been a dej vu moment for some of those senators. Three years earlier, the man previously nominated to lead AFRICOM, General David Rodriguez, was asked the same question. His reply was suspiciously similar: "A major challenge is effectively countering violent extremist organizations, especially the growth of Mali as an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb safe haven, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia."
All that had changed between 2013 and 2016, it seemed, was the addition of one more significant threat.
In the midst of Rodriguez's 2016 victory lap (as he was concluding 40 years of military service), Waldhauser publicly drew attention to just how ineffective his run as AFRICOM chief had been. Some might call it unkind -- a slap in the face for a decorated old soldier -- but perhaps turnabout is fair play. After all, in 2013, Rodriguez did much the same to his predecessor, General Carter Ham, when he offered his warning about the challenges on the continent.
Three years before that, in 2010, Ham appeared before the same committee and said, "I believe that the extremist threat that's emerging from East Africa is probably the greatest concern that Africa Command will face in the near future." Ham expressed no worry about threats posed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or Boko Haram. ISIL in Libya didn't even exist. And even that "greatest concern," al-Shabaab, was, Ham noted, "primarily focused on internal matters in Somalia."
In other words, over these last years, each incoming AFRICOM commander has offered a more dismal and dire assessment of the situation facing the U.S. military than his predecessor. Ham drew attention to only one major terror threat, Rodriguez to three, and Waldhauser to four.
His Own Worst Critic