Posts Tagged ‘more U.S. troops’

Who Decides About War? What About the People?

October 3, 2009

John Nichols, The Nation, Oct 2, 2009

The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has reached its “sell-by…” date.

A majority of Americans now tell pollsters the mission was a mistake. Ninety-eight members of the House – including liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans – have cosponsored Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern’s resolution asking the Pentagon to develop an exit strategy.

Unfortunately, the generals who run wars, and the defense contractors who profit from them, want to keep U.S. troops on the ground in that distant land. And President Obama is under pressure to surge tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops into “the graveyard of empires.”

Continues >>

U.S. Internal Politics and its Military Interventions

September 16, 2009

Immanuel Wallerstein, Commentary No. 265, Sept. 15, 2009

In the last few weeks, there has been a marked increase of calls, coming from both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, for some kind of early “exit strategy” from Afghanistan. This is coming at the very moment that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are about to recommend formally to President Obama an increase in U.S. troop commitments there.

Nothing is certain, but the general expectation is that Obama will agree to this. After all, during the elections, Obama had said that he considered U.S. intervention in Iraq a mistake and wanted an early withdrawal. One of the reasons he gave was that it had prevented sending enough troops into Afghanistan. This was a version of the “bad war, good war” concept. Iraq was a “bad” war, Afghanistan a “good” one.

There has apparently been much debate in the inner circle of President Obama about the wisdom of escalating U.S. military commitments in Afghanistan. It is reported that the leading opponent of troop escalation in Afghanistan is none other than Vice-President Biden. Biden has always been considered somewhat of a Democratic hawk. So how come he is now opposing troop escalation? The reported reason is that he now considers Afghanistan a hopeless quagmire, and that investing troops there will prevent the United States from concentrating on the really important zone, Pakistan. So we have a new version of the “bad war, good war” doctrine. Afghanistan has become a “bad” war; Pakistan is the “good” one.

Why is it so difficult for the United States to extricate itself from military interventions it is so patently losing? Some left analysts, in the United States and elsewhere, say it is because the United States is an imperialist power and therefore engages in such military interventions in order to maintain its political and economic power in the world. This explanation is quite insufficient, for the simple reason that the United States has not won a single major military confrontation since 1945. As an imperialist power, it has shown great incompetence in achieving its goals.

Consider the five wars in which the United States has committed large numbers of troops since 1945. The biggest – in terms of numbers of troops, economic costs, and political impact – was Vietnam. The United States lost the war. The other four were the Korean War, the first Gulf War, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the second invasion of Iraq. The Korean War and the first Gulf War were politically draws. The wars ended at the exact point that they began. The United States is clearly losing the war in Afghanistan. I believe that history will judge the second invasion of Iraq a draw as well. When the U.S. finally pulls out, it will be no stronger politically than when it went in – probably indeed the opposite.

So what drives the United States to engage in such politically self-defeating actions, especially if we think of the United States as a hegemonic power trying to control the entire world to its advantage? To answer that, we have to look at the internal politics of the United States.

All great powers, and especially hegemonic powers, are intensely nationalist. They believe in themselves and in their moral and political right to assert their so-called national interests. The overwhelming majority of their citizens consider themselves patriotic, and take this to mean that their government ought indeed to assert itself vigorously, and if necessary militarily, in the world arena. In the United States, since 1945, the percentage of the population who are principled anti-imperialists is politically insignificant.

U.S. politics is not divided between supporters and opponents of imperialism. It has been divided between those who are strongly interventionist and those who believe in “fortress America.” The latter used to be called isolationists. Isolationists are not anti-military. Indeed, they tend to be strong supporters of financial investment in military forces. But they are skeptical about using these forces in far-off places.

Of course, there is a whole gamut of intermediate positions between the extremes in this cleavage. The crucial thing to see is that almost no politician is ready to call for a serious reduction in U.S. military expenditures. This is why so many of them engage in the “bad war, good war” distinction. They justify reducing the use of military in the “bad” wars by suggesting that there are other, better uses for the military.

At this point, we have to analyze the differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties on these questions. The isolationist wing of the Republican Party was very strong before the Second World War, but since 1945 it has become rather small. The Republicans since 1945 have regularly tended to call for increased investment in the military, and have usually argued that the Democrats have been too “soft” on military questions.

The fact that the Republicans have been very inconsistent in this matter hasn’t seemed to affect their public image. For example, when President Clinton wanted to send troops to the Balkans, the Republicans opposed it. It didn’t matter. The U.S. public seems to take the Republicans at their word as patriotic hawks, no matter what they do.

The Democrats have had the opposite problem. There have been large numbers of books arguing, credibly, that Democratic administrations have been readier than Republican administrations to engage in military interventions abroad (for example, in both Korea and Vietnam). Nonetheless, the Republicans have constantly denounced the Democrats for being “doves” in their military views. It is true that a large minority of Democratic voters have in fact been “doves,” but not a large number of Democratic politicians. Democratic politicians have always worried that the voters will consider them to be “doves” and turn against them for that reason.

The Democrats have therefore almost always used the “bad war, good war” line. It hasn’t done them all that much good. The Democrats seem to be stuck with the label of being less macho than the Republicans. So it’s very simple. When Obama makes his decisions on these matters, it’s not enough for him to analyze whether or not troop escalation in Afghanistan makes any military or political sense. He worries above all that he himself, and more broadly the Democratic Party, may be labeled once again as the “sell-outs,” the “doves,” the ones who “lost” countries to the enemies – to the Soviet Union in the old days, to the “terrorists” today.

Obama will probably therefore send in more troops. And the Afghanistan War will go the way of the Vietnam War. Only the outcome for the United States will be worse, because there is no cohesive, rational opposing group to whom to lose the war – one that will allow U.S. helicopters to withdraw the troops without shooting at them. When Bertold Brecht got cynical or angry at Communist regimes, he told them that, if the people were rebelling against their wisdom, they should “change the people.” Perhaps that’s what Obama needs to do – change the people, his people. Or maybe, in time, the people will change themselves. If the United States loses too many more wars, its citizens may wake up to the realization that U.S. military interventions abroad and incredibly large military expenditures at home are not the solution to their problems, but the greatest impediment to U.S. national survival and well-being.

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global. For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, and contact:, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To contact author, write:

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

Obama Picks Up Where Bush Left Off

May 16, 2009

From My Lai to Bala Baluk

By Mike Whitney | Counterpunch, May 15 – 17, 2009

Barack Obama is aggressively stepping up the war in Afghanistan. He’s intensified the cross-border bombing of Pakistan and he is doubling the number of U.S. troops to 68,000 by 2010. He’s also a strong proponent of pilotless drones even though hundreds of civilians have been killed in bombing raid blunders.

On May 4, 2009, 143 civilians were killed in a bombing raid in Bala Baluk, a remote area south of Herat. Obama brushed off the incident with terse apology never intimating that the US policy for aerial bombardment would be reviewed to avoid future mishaps. Patrick Cockburn gave a summary of the incident:

I did not meet survivors but I did talk to a reliable witness, a radio reporter called Farooq Faizy, who had gone to Bala Baluk soon after the attack happened. He (had) some 70 or 80 photographs and they bore out the villagers’ story: there were craters everywhere; the villages had been plastered with bombs; bodies had been torn to shreds by the blasts; there were mass graves; there were no signs of damage from bullets, rockets or grenades.

US military spokesmen denied the news reports and concocted a wacky story about Taliban militants rampaging through the village hurling grenades into buildings. It was a ridiculous narrative that no one believed. The facts have since been verified by senior government officials, high-ranking members of the Afghan military and representatives of the Red Cross. The United States military killed 143 unarmed villagers and then they tried to cover it up with a lie. None of the victims were fighters. After the bombing, the villagers loaded body parts onto carts and took them to the office of the regional governor who confirmed the deaths. The photos of grief-stricken Afghans burying their dead have been widely circulated on the Internet.

From Reuters:

Ninety-three children and 25 adult women are among a list of 140 names of Afghans who villagers say were killed in a battle and U.S. air strikes last week, causing a crisis between Washington and its Afghan allies.

The list, obtained by Reuters, bears the endorsement of seven senior provincial and central government officials, including an Afghan two-star general who headed a task force dispatched by the government to investigate the incident.

Titled “list of the martyrs of the bombardment of Bala Boluk district of Farah Province”, it includes the name, age and father’s name of each alleged victim.

The youngest was listed as 8-day-old baby Sayed Musa, son of Sayed Adam. Fifty-three victims were girls under the age of 18, and 40 were boys. Only 22 were men 18 or older. (“List of 140 Afghan Killed In US Attack Includes 93 Children”, Reuters)

Neither Obama nor anyone in his administration has acknowledged that 93 children were killed by American bombs.

Military operations in Afghanistan have increased under Obama especially in the south where the Taliban are most heavily concentrated. The fighting has spread into Pakistan where President Asif Ali Zardari has been pressured into deploying his troops the Swat Valley to fight militants despite growing public disapproval. Nearly 850,000 people have been forced from their homes in the last few weeks to seek shelter in the south. For the most part, the humanitarian crisis has gone unreported in the western media, but Obama knows what is going on and is sticking with the same policy. Hundreds of thousands of people are now living in tent cities without food or clean water because of the escalation in the violence. It’s a disaster.

OBAMA PICKS A GENERAL: Enter the assassination squads

This week, General David McKiernan was replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan. Here’s how the Washington Post summarized McChrystal’s qualifications for the job:

“McChrystal kills people. Has he ever worked in the counterinsurgency environment? Not really,” said Roger Carstens, a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former Special Forces officer….

Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former Special Operations chief who is President Obama’s new choice to lead the war in Afghanistan, rose to military prominence because of his single-minded success in a narrow but critical mission: manhunting. As commander of the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) for nearly five years starting in 2003, McChrystal masterminded a campaign to perfect the art of tracking down enemies, and then capturing or killing them. He built a sophisticated network of soldiers and intelligence operatives who proceeded to decapitate the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq and kill its most notorious leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.(“High-value-target hunter takes on Afghan war” Washington Post)

Obama chose McChrystal because of his “black ops” pedigree, which suggests that the conflict in Afghanistan is about to take a very ugly turn. According to Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, McChrystal ran the “executive assassination wing” of the military’s joint special-operations command. (JSOC) The experts believe that he will breeze through congressional confirmation hearings because many Senators believe that his counterinsurgency theories helped the surge in Iraq to succeed. There’s some truth to this, too. But it would be more accurate to say that the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad helped to reduce the violence. That is the truth about the surge; it’s a public relations moniker for ethnic cleansing.

McChrystal’s appointment suggests that Obama supports the idea that hunter-killer units and targeted assassinations are an acceptable means of achieving US foreign policy objectives. Obama supporters should pay close attention; this is a continuation of the Rumsfeld policy with one slight difference, a more persuasive and charismatic pitchman promoting the policy. Other than that, there’s no difference.

Obama knows of McChrystal’s involvement in the prisoner abuse scandal at Baghdad’s Camp Nama, just as he knows of his role in the cover-up in the friendly-fire death of ex-NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman. None of this matters to Obama. What matters is winning; not principle, ideals, human rights or civilian casualties. Just winning.


On March 16, 1968, the US military was involved in a similar incident which soured the public on Vietnam and eventually helped bring the war to a close. Barack Obama was only seven years old when Charlie Company–led by platoon leader second Lieutenant William Calley–entered the small hamlet of My Lai and proceeded to slaughter 347 unarmed civilians. This is Sam Harris’s account of what took place on that day 40 years ago:

“Early in the morning the soldiers were landed in the village by helicopter. Many were firing as they spread out, killing both people and animals. There was no sign of the Vietcong battalion and no shot was fired on Charlie Company all day, but they carried on. They burnt down every house. They raped woman and girls and then killed them. They stabbed some women in the vagina and disemboweled others, or cut off their hands or scalps. Pregnant woman had there stomachs slashed open and were left to die. There were gang rapes and killings by shooting or with bayonets. There were mass executions. Dozens of people at a time, including old men, women and children, were machined-gunned in a ditch. In four hours nearly 500 villagers were killed.” (Sam Harris from his book “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason“)

The only difference between My Lai and Bala Baluk is the degree of savagery. In both cases the guilt can be traced directly back to the White House.

Obama believes that civilian casualties are an unavoidable part of achieving one’s policy goals. The end justifies the means. He has strengthened the Bush policy, not repudiated it. So much for “change”.

Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached at

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