Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow (2012)
Chapter 8. “One Hell of a Killing Machine”
THE HOUBARA BUSTARD IS NOT A PARTICULARLY LARGE OR regal bird. It looks a little like what you might get if you bred a common pheasant with an ostrich—like a miniature ostrich with a shorter neck and legs, or maybe a pheasant on steroids, with a stretched neck, sprinter’s legs, and a much more impressive wingspan. But the little fella has recently provided crucial assistance in making America’s war in Afghanistan (and its spillover in Pakistan) the longest-running military hot show in our nation’s history.
In May 2011, Pakistan got its nose out of joint when US Special Forces sprung a surprise mission on a compound in Abbottabad and offed the most infamous terrorist on the planet, without giving a heads-up to the host government. The Pakistani military and intelligence service found itself having to explain how the target, Osama bin Laden, could have been living in tranquility just a few miles down the road from Pakistan’s most important military academy, in a neighborhood crawling with current and retired military officers. Was Pakistani intelligence that incompetent, or were they protecting bin Laden? And then they had to explain how a US strike force and its very big helicopters could fly into Abbottabad, spend nearly an hour on the ground, and then leave the country with bin Laden’s carcass in tow without being detected, let alone stopped.
While President Obama and the rest of America took a celebratory victory lap, the Pakistanis found the entire episode hugely shaming—but not so much on the bin-Laden-in-our-backyard count. They really fixated on the lack of respect accorded their nation by the United States. “American troops coming across the border and taking action in one of our towns … is not acceptable to the people of Pakistan,” former president Pervez Musharraf said the day after the raid. “It is a violation of our sovereignty.” Worse, word quickly leaked out that President Obama had not only ordered that the Pakistani military and its intelligence service be kept in the dark while the mission was being planned and executed, he had his team ready to do battle with any Pakistani military forces that tried to stop the operation once in progress.
The Pakistani parliament called the country’s military and intelligence chieftains into a rare (and marathon) closed-door session, where the generals had a spot of trouble in covering their respective lapses, but they did deftly deflect much of the civilian ire: the United States, they reminded everyone, was the bad guy here. The generals had little trouble encouraging parliament to formally demand that, henceforth, the United States would ensure that “Pakistan’s national interests were fully respected.” Ally schmally—the Pakistani people deserved some respect. To add some bite to this declaration of sovereignty, the generals suggested a good first step would be forcing the United States to shut down the secret program the CIA had been running out of an airbase in a remote corner of Pakistan called Balochistan. Unfortunately, in publicizing their demand that the CIA leave that airbase, the generals also revealed to surprised Pakistani legislators … that the CIA had been using that airbase. This was cause for an uproar in parliament, but the fact that the CIA had been flying armed drones out of the airfield known as Shamsi came as much less of a surprise to the citizens of the areas those drones were targeting—the tribal regions.
The CIA’s rather dumpy-looking high-tech unmanned aircraft had been used mainly for surveillance in the early stages of the war in Afghanistan. But they could also be armed with Hellfire missiles. Very occasionally from 2004 to 2007, and more frequently in 2008, the Bush administration used drones to launch airborne attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan. When the Obama administration took over in 2009, the number of drone attacks spiked; the next year the 2009 numbers more than doubled. The Obama administration refused as a matter of policy to officially acknowledge the CIA’s drone attacks, but in the days following a big get, they announced that some key Al-Qaeda or Haqqani Network leader “was killed,” as if the event were an act of providence or, like a rainbow, a remarkable atmospheric happening.
Meanwhile, in North and South Waziristan, the presence of the drones has become a hated fact of life—the locals reportedly call them “wasps.” So this was a very popular move in Pakistan, telling the CIA to get the hell out of Shamsi, that there would be no more lethal American drones launched from Pakistani soil … or else. Or else what? Well, Pakistan’s air marshal reminded the Obama administration, the F-16 jets the United States had sold the Pakistani Air Force could knock the drones out of the sky. Team Obama did not flinch. These drone attacks had become the centerpiece of Obama’s recalibration of America’s Global War on Terror, even if we didn’t call it that anymore. The strikes had proved Democrats could be as serious about killing bad guys as Republicans were. In fact, the successes had been among the few bright spots on a fairly bleak political landscape for a young, inexperienced, first-term president. The Obama administration had no intention of pulling up stakes in Shamsi. “That base is neither vacated nor being vacated” was the anonymous but official word from Washington. It was a Mexican standoff in Balochistan.
Here’s where the Houbara bustard provided a little wiggle room in what otherwise looked like a very knotty situation. This tiny forgotten strip of land that held the airbase in Shamsi, it turned out, did not actually belong to Pakistan; it had been quietly signed over to the United Arab Emirates twenty years earlier, in a show of friendship. You see, Balochistan, aside from being full of spectacular Garden of Eden natural wonders, is among the few wintering grounds of the Houbara bustard, a bird held in high esteem among hunters from the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Falconry is the sport of Arab kings, and the poor bustard had long been the preferred prey for falconers. So Emirati royalty were really pleased to have this special foothold in Balochistan, and right away built themselves a sizeable landing strip for easy access to this surprisingly sought-after corner of the world.
“The sheiks tell me it is the ultimate challenge for the falcon,” a chieftain in Balochistan told New Yorker writer Mary Anne Weaver back around the time the Emiratis built the Shamsi airstrip. “The falcon is the fastest bird on earth, and the houbara is also fast, both on the ground and in the air. It is also a clever, wary bird, with a number of tricks.” Among these tricks, the chieftain continued, is an ability to ink-jet “a dark-green slime violently from its vent. Its force is so strong that it can spread for three feet, and it can temporarily blind the falcon, or glue its feathers together, making it unable to fly.” The belief also persisted that the meat of the bustard was an aphrodisiac. Not hard to see why the bustard had been sought and consumed with such sustained effort that the bird was nearly extinct on the Arabian Peninsula.
Cold War politics had added degrees of difficulty for the sportsmen as well. The fall of the shah in 1979 made bustard hunting problematic for Sunni Arabs in Shiite Iran, as had the near-constant state of war in Afghanistan. So Balochistan emerged as the destination spot for latter-day Arab Nimrods. For the last twenty years or so, Emirati sheiks and Saudi princes and the more general run of ambitious Arab dignitaries had jockeyed for the best allotments in the last good place on earth to hunt the bustard. (When Pakistan’s foreign office bestowed upon the Emirati poobahs an allotment once held by the Saudis, the Saudis withheld oil supplies from Pakistan and money for flood relief.) Arab royalty of various stripes show up every year with, according to Weaver’s description, pop-up tent cities, hundreds of servants, satellite dishes for better communication, and hunting vehicles tricked out with sophisticated laptops, infrared spotlights, and bustard-seeking radar. Maybe not sporting, but certainly effective.
Officials at Pakistan’s Ministry of Environment warned over and over about their ever-dwindling bustard population, but they were powerless to keep the Arab potentates to their bag limit of one hundred birds a year. “They never respect code of conduct,” said one ministry man. “What can the Wildlife Department do if the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the president of the UAE or emir of Qatar go into a region that is prohibited for hunting and cross their bag limit?” Not much, apparently, if Pakistan still wanted cheap oil and dirhams and riyals for flood relief, or jet fighters and tanks.
The Emiratis had made one concession that slightly crimped their style in the bustard-hunting department. In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001—when everybody wanted to pitch in—they had agreed, with the consent of Pakistani president Musharraf, to let the Americans use Shamsi as a base to supply US troops fighting the Taliban just across the border in Afghanistan … and maybe for a few special and classified operations. In the ten years that followed, as the CIA (and its many private contractors) began operating lethal attack drones out of Shamsi, the remote top secret base remained off-limits to Pakistan’s own Air Force. So when the shit hit the fan (when the slime hit the falcon) in the aftermath of the bin Laden raid, thanks to the Houbara bustard, everybody had an out: the United States could make it plain that the CIA was not vacating Shamsi, and Pakistan could still save face. Pakistani government officials could say—and did!—Hey, we just checked our land records and it turns out this little strip of Balochistan is not, legally speaking, Pakistan-controlled territory after all. We gave it to the Emiratis for bustard hunting! So, sorry, but there’s nothing we can do to stop the part of America’s secret drone war operating out of Shamsi. But we do condemn it in the strongest possible language.
The UAE meanwhile went on record saying they’d only built the airstrip. Emirati sheiks and others used it for “recreational purposes.” What “recreation” the CIA was pursuing there, the Emiratis couldn’t say. Shamsi, they assured the world, “was never operated or controlled by the UAE.”
And so we still had our drone base in Shamsi, and no skittish ally had to take the blame for having handed it over to us. Even after the bin Laden raid and the Pakistani freak-out, America stepped up the already furious pace of the drone attacks, executing twenty-one multiple-kill sorties in the next two months (as many as three in one day), though nobody in the US government would say where the unmanned flights originated. “A U.S. military official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said there are presently no U.S. military personnel at Shamsi,” the Associated Press reported. “But he could not speak for the CIA or contractors used by any other U.S. agencies. The CIA rarely discusses the covert drone program.”
When reports surfaced that all US operatives finally packed up and left Shamsi about six months later, at the end of 2011, the official word from our government was still … no comment. “If the agency did have such a [covert drone] program,” the Obama administration’s counterterrorism czar told a forum at the president’s alma mater, Harvard Law School, in the fall of 2011, “I’m sure it would be done with the utmost care, precision, in accordance with the law and our values.” Wink-wink. The audience chortled knowingly.
“While we don’t discuss the details of our counterterrorism operations,” a CIA spokeswoman told the Washington Post, “the fact that they are a top priority and effective is precisely what the American people expect.”
By the time the weird Shamsi who’s-on-first disavowal filtered out to the public, there had already been a good bit of reporting on the CIA drones. Thanks to reporters like Jane Mayer at The New Yorker, James Risen and Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times, and Greg Miller and Julie Tate at the Washington Post, the outlines of the program were a fairly open secret. In 2011, the United States had hundreds of armed drones, a few in the air at all times, many of them attached to the CIA, and many of those based at hidden airfields, where America is not permitted by the host country to keep permanent combat troops on the ground. No problem: the drones there were guarded, maintained, and loaded with bombs by, you guessed it, private contractors from companies like the one that used to be called Blackwater, until they committed enough murder and mayhem and overbilling in America’s post-9/11 wars that they had to change their name twice, first to Xe (pronounced “ze,” but let’s all pronounce it “she,” just to annoy them) and then to the comparatively drab Academi. Blackwater ops also provided assistance on the ground with intelligence-gathering and targeting for the drone sorties.
When one of those Blackwater-armed drones takes off with a specific target location programmed into its hard drive, it is operated remotely by a CIA-paid “pilot” on-site, in a setup that looks like a rich teenager’s video-game lair: a big computer tower (a Dell, according to some reporting), a couple of keyboards, a bunch of monitors, a roller-ball mouse (gotta guard against carpal tunnel syndrome), a board of switches on a virtual flight console, and, of course, a joystick. Once the drone is airborne and on its way to the target, the local pilot turns control over to a fellow pilot at a much niftier video-game room at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The “pilot,” sitting in air-conditioned comfort in suburban Virginia, homes the drone in on its quarry somewhere in, say, North Waziristan. Watching the live video feed from the drone’s infrared heat–sensitive cameras on big to-die-for-on-Super-Bowl-Sunday flat-screen monitors, the pilot and a team of CIA analysts start to make what then CIA chief Leon Panetta liked to call “life-and-death decisions.” Maybe not sporting, but certainly effective.
The CIA’s joystick jockey and his copilots, according to Mayer, “can turn the plane, zoom in on the landscape below, and decide whether to lock on to a target. A stream of additional ‘signal’ intelligence, sent to Langley by the National Security Agency, provides electronic means of corroborating that a target has been correctly identified. The White House has delegated trigger authority to C.I.A. officials, including the head of the Counter-Terrorist Center, whose identity remains veiled from the public because the agency has placed him under cover.”
By design, everything the CIA does is at least partially occluded from public view, but there’s a bit more reportable detail about the drones we do admit to, the ones operated by the US military. The Air Force joystick operators show up at their virtual consoles in actual flight suits; they call the video feed there Death TV, and they have a name for the Pakistanis on the ground who make a run for it when they see the drone approach: “squirters.”
The military drone warriors have also insisted they adhere to strict rules of engagement. “Some people are approved for killing on sight,” Mayer wrote in The New Yorker. “For others additional permission is needed. A target’s location enters the equation, too. If a school, or hospital, or mosque is within the likely blast radius of the missile, that, too, is weighted by a computer algorithm before a lethal strike is authorized.” The algorithm apparently provides the acceptable number of innocent civilian “squirters” for any given high-value “squirter.”
The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center remains buttoned-up about its clandestine drone program. Nobody knows if their “pilots” dress themselves up in flight suits too. If they are constrained by any rules or civilian-casualty-ratio algorithms, they aren’t saying. But we do know that one out of every five CIA analysts is now assigned to the mission of hunting terrorism suspects, and that the agency has upgraded “targeting” to an official and nicely euphemistic in-house career track. The CIA’s fundamental mission is still supposedly spying—providing information about the world to the president. So it used to be when the agency missed something truly significant—like, say, the fall of the Soviet Union—there was lamentation and hand wringing about what exactly we had them for anyway, if they couldn’t see something like that coming. Now the CIA can be caught totally unaware by something like the world-transforming Arab Spring movement, and … who cares! We’re just psyched we got bin Laden.
The transformation of America’s spy service into a new, out-of-uniform (and 100 percent deniable) branch of the military is a big decision for us as a country, but for our new assassin corps—long saddled with the effete managerial identity of “the intelligence community”—it’s been like a shot of testosterone. They have trigger authority! They are the Assassins of the Air! “You’ve taken an agency that was chugging along and turned it into one hell of a killing machine,” an anonymous (they’re always anonymous) former intelligence official exclaimed to the Washington Post before thinking better of it. “Instead say, ‘one hell of an operational tool.’ ”
“We are killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them now,” the CIA counterterrorism chief reportedly boasted. Flight suits or no, they have become a bona fide, full-fledged, and very busy US military resource, by another name. Those Washington Post reporters summed up their investigation of the secret drone war like this: “The CIA now functions as a military force beyond the accountability that the United States has historically demanded of its armed services. The CIA doesn’t officially acknowledge the drone program, let alone provide public explanation about who shoots and who dies, and by what rules.”
The CIA has always used force. The agency was only about kindergarten age when they arranged the overthrow of the government of Iran, for crying out loud. And then on to mining the harbors in Nicaragua! But the covert action mission of the CIA has become something different now: the CIA is now a de facto branch of the military, with its own troops and its own robotic air force. President Obama chose for his second CIA director a man with no background whatsoever in civilian intelligence. No matter. Retired general David Petraeus had spent the previous four years running the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, which apparently made him the perfect candidate for the job. Post-9/11, the CIA is a military force that wages war on America’s behalf. And it has the handy feature of being able to do so in places where we are not supposed to be at war. Having a secret military force with no visible chain of command, or recognizable rules of behavior or engagement, has become a most useful thing.
The secrecy extends to the CIA’s budget. In the ten years after the 9/11 attacks, the civilian spy budget doubled, but we taxpayers aren’t allowed to know what the various spy agencies are doing with our ever-more-generous contributions. We are told, after the fact, that the federal government spends around $55 billion a year on civilian intelligence (that’s not counting $27 billion for military intelligence), but what do we spend that on? Dunno. We’ve only been allowed to know the total dollar figure for the US intelligence so-called black budget since 2007. The idea that they’ll ever let us know its line items seems laughable; the 2007 press release noting with some resentment that the overall budget number would now be public also made clear that this was all we were getting: “Beyond the disclosure of the top-line figure, there will be no other disclosures.”
That attitude works for specific operations as well as it works for the overall enterprise. When pressed in 2009 by Pakistani reporters about “relentless” drone strikes in the Waziristans killing civilian bystanders, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demonstrated the political benefit of using the CIA as trigger pullers. She just stonewalled. “I’m not going to comment on any particular tactic or technology.”
The CIA is obligated to brief the handful of souls on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees about their actions, but the briefees are legally required to keep their traps shut about anything they hear inside the closed-door sessions in ultrasecure rooms S-407 and HVC-304. They can’t even share it with fellow senators or House members. This can sometimes lead to an almost comic pantomime of what oversight is supposed to be. In 2010, two senators on the Intelligence Committee decided they were so upset by something they’d been briefed on that they had to alert the public. Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall did send up the alarm that they’d been briefed on something very disturbing; they just couldn’t say what it was. The press tried to report on their concerns, but it was difficult. The New York Times gamely described the senators’ worries about “some other kind of activity” and “some kind of unspecified domestic surveillance,” but they couldn’t explain further. “Unspecified” and “other” aren’t exactly the kinds of details that get the public’s heart pounding. Those senators may have been trying to ring alarm bells by going to the press, but those bells were pretty muffled. Our intel agencies are now well and truly integrated into how we wage war, but intel agencies don’t kowtow to lowly congressmen. You can know it, Mr. Wyden, but you can’t say a word. Sleep tight.
Of course, even that meager level of pseudo-sharing makes many a senior spook uncomfortable. So thank goodness for private contractors. Outfits like the She formerly known as Blackwater are not legally required to show up at HVC-304 and S-407 and tell how many Hellfire missiles they loaded on drones today, or where they did it. In 2011, the New York Times reported that private contractors accounted for about a quarter of the US
intelligence jobs. And if you don’t trust the Times, here’s what the director of national intelligence had to say in October of that year. The director wasn’t against lowering the number of contractors, but he insisted that private contractors would remain an integral and crucial part of our national spy game. “If all the contractors failed to come to work tomorrow,” he said, “the intelligence community would stop.”
Oh, and hey, if private contracts don’t provide sufficient insulation from public oversight, if the White House is queasy about turning over to Congress the civilian-to-bad-guy casualty-ratio algorithms used by the CIA and its for-profit civilian augmentees, not a problem! The executive branch has a work-around for that, too. For operations the White House deems too sensitive or too politically combustible for congressional ears, there is always Joint Special Operations Command.
JSOC was created out of the embarrassments of post-Vietnam military operations: the botched attempt to rescue the Iran hostages, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, and the unholy operational mess of the invasion of Grenada. We needed some elite badass soldiers in every branch, it was decided, whose various talents could be brought to bear, in concert, on difficult problems. JSOC has the use of elite, secretive units from all branches of the military, including the celebrated Navy SEAL Team 6, the Army’s Delta Force, and the Air Force’s Special Tactics Squadron. JSOC squads are sort of like Hasbro’s old Vietnam-era G.I. Joe Adventure Team come to life. (“Five rugged men with lifelike hair, outfitted for action, they’ll dare anything, and risk everything!”) Remember, the Adventure Team had the “flocked” hair, the beards, the Kung Fu Grip, the too-racy-for-regulation uniforms, the “Devil of the Deep” fantail watercraft, the “secret mission to Spy Island.” These were no regular Joes. They were clearly not bound by convention. They made their own rules.
By 2001, JSOC had run occasional and secret and daring operations at real-life Spy Islands in the Persian Gulf, Panama, Kuwait, El Salvador, Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans. But the George W. Bush White House was the first to realize the full potential of Special Ops. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney made them the equivalent of Reagan’s private-war-on-Nicaragua NSC—a thousand Ollie Norths (only more skilled and much more governable) at the ready. As Jeremy Scahill reported in The Nation at the end of 2009, “Special Forces turned into a virtual stand-alone operation that acted outside the military chain of command and in direct coordination with the White House.”
Unlike the Reagan White House, Team Bush didn’t wait around until after the fact to provide a justification for this move. The Bush lawyers (lots of them had worked for Meese) wrote up all the legal findings before the White House started sending Special Ops off with secret orders in their pockets. Essentially, the Bush administration claimed the Special Ops guys could do most anything they wanted in the War on Terror, anywhere the president chose to send them, and without telling anyone.
This is the sort of executive prerogative presidents in general appreciate, and President Obama has not been the exception to that rule. JSOC reportedly runs its own terrorist-targeting and drone-flying operations, with the help of contractors. “Contractors and especially JSOC personnel working under a classified mandate are not [overseen by Congress], so they just don’t care,” an intelligence source told Scahill. “If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s thirty-four people in the building, thirty-five people are going to die. That’s the mentality.… They’re not accountable to anybody and they know that.”
While America has been fighting two of its longest-ever boots-on-the-ground wars in the decade following 9/11, and fighting them simultaneously, less than one percent of the adult US population has been called upon to strap on those boots. “Not since the peacetime years between World War I and World War II,” according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, “has a smaller share of Americans served in the armed forces.” Half of the American public says it has not been even marginally affected by ten years of constant war. We’ve never in our long history been further from the ideal of the citizen-soldier, from the idea that America would find it impossible to go to war without disrupting domestic civilian life.
The reason the founders chafed at the idea of an American standing army and vested the power of war making in the cumbersome legislature was not to disadvantage us against future enemies, but to disincline us toward war as a general matter. Their great advice was that we should structure ourselves as a country in a way that deliberately raised the price of admission to any war. With citizen-soldiers, with the certainty of a vigorous political debate over the use of a military subject to politicians’ control, the idea was for us to feel it—uncomfortably—every second we were at war. But after a generation or two of shedding the deliberate political encumbrances to war that they left us—of dropping Congress from the equation altogether, of super-empowering the presidency with total war-making power and with secret new war-making resources that answer to no one but him, of insulating the public from not only the cost of war but sometimes even the knowledge that it’s happening—war making has become almost an autonomous function of the American state. It never stops.
The war in Afghanistan was an all but foregone conclusion after 9/11. The Taliban overthrow was engineered by CIA operatives, Special Forces, and a smallish contingent of US troops. It took a few weeks, but then we decided we should stay on and save Afghanistan from itself. Starting the war in Iraq took deceit and trickery on the part of the Bush administration (and severe chickenshittery on the part of the Congress). But once we had both those wars under way, what’s more telling—what’s less about specific politicians and temporal politics and more about us as a country—is how freaking long it’s taken to end them. Regardless of the culpability of the Paul Wolfowitzes and Donald Rumsfelds and Dick Cheneys in starting the Iraq War, there’s a national culpability for the fact that we have, without any real debate or thought, settled into a way of waging war that ensures minimal political pushback.
No matter how long the troops slog through the muck, no matter how many deployments they endure, the American public can no longer really be touched by war. Need twenty thousand more soldiers for the surge in Iraq? Military commanders simply extended the combat tours from twelve months to fifteen, no guarantee about how long a rest you’d get between deployments—and this in spite of what the military bosses already knew about the toll on the minuscule slice of American society that would shoulder this burden. “We’ve done these mental-health assessment team studies for six years now—between nine and twelve [months] is where a lot of the stress problems really manifest themselves, where the family problems really manifest themselves,” former Army chief of staff George Casey said recently. “The human mind and body weren’t made to do repeated combat deployments without substantial time to recover.” The suicide rate among active-duty servicemen doubled in the first five years of the Afghanistan War and then kept rising. In the past decade, the US Army lost more soldiers to suicide than to enemy fire in Afghanistan.
Civilian life has rolled on virtually uninterrupted. If you’re not in a military family, you’ve barely even felt it. The country has perfected the art of frictionless war. America’s wars thrum away like Muzak in the background here in the United States, kind of annoying when you tune in, but easy enough to tune out. Three years? Five? Ten? What’s the difference? And where are we fighting, anyway? We’re shooting missiles into Pakistan all the time. Does that count? Are we allowed to know?
In a statement on the House floor in February 2007, arguing against a reduction in US troop levels in Iraq, Congressman Phil Gingrey of Georgia said, “What indeed are we going to save our troops for? Working the rope lines at Fourth of July parades? Helping senior citizens across the street?” The rhetorical answer to his rhetorical question is of course that America should not save the troops for any such peaceable nonsense—they’re there to be used, in combat.
And not just the full-on active-duty military, mind you. We’d found a way to do smaller missions like Rwanda, Haiti, and Somalia without reserve troops—even the Balkans, with some help from our friends at DynCorp and Halliburton. But the Iraq War (and the Iraq War at the same time as the Afghanistan War) was of a different magnitude. The administration had hoped it wouldn’t be. Bush’s war council had hopefully supposed that Iraq would be quick work. “It could last six days, six weeks,” Rumsfeld said the month before the invasion. “I doubt six months.” Yeah, no.
As the war dragged on, the initial Bush administration decision to leave the reserves at home became untenable. So they deployed them—and how. In the third year of the war, at one point in 2005 more than half the soldiers in Iraq were from the National Guard. This was a first in American history, but it was a necessity. Thanks to the good old Abrams Doctrine, it remains true that we can’t do big wars with active-duty forces alone: two-thirds or more of our military’s transportation, engineer, medical, military police, and logistics corps is in the Reserves. But a funny thing about the Reserves now, and about the Abrams Doctrine: through ten years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the connection’s gone bad in the whole idea of the citizen-soldier. That hyphen’s doing way more work than it used to. The Guardsmen and reservists have been called to duty so often in the last ten years that it’s hard to distinguish between regular and reserve forces. Maybe our neighbors in the Guard and Reserves were having their lives turned upside down in the last ten years, maybe they were wounded and killed in staggering numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we got used to it.
The Abrams Doctrine only functions as a constraint on war making to the extent that we’re shocked by Americans being called away from their regular lives to join combat. Through sheer repetition, sheer volume, though, those call-ups eventually just stopped being shocking. The post-9/11 deployment pace has put Guardsmen and reservists and their families squarely on the soldier side of the citizen-soldier ideal. Calling them up no longer ensures a big national debate about the merits of a given war. The Abrams Doctrine still forces us to use the reserves if we want to fight a big war, but that’s ceased to be a check against wars the American public doesn’t want to fight.
We’re using everybody in uniform, right up to the limit, and price has been no object. In this past decade, the United States took what was already the world’s most robust military budget and supersized it (and also funded a slew of permanent and highly operational intelligence agencies, and special adventure teams and privately owned contract-warrior companies). By 2011, the total federal R&D budget for alternative energy sources—derided by the right as a huge Obama-era boondoggle—was about $3 billion a year. Meanwhile, the defense R&D budget was $77 billion a year—derided by no one, ever. If you added up what every other country spent on its military in 2001, the US military budget was about half that total; by 2005, those two numbers were equal. In other words, the United States spent as much on national defense as every other country in the world combined. And the Pentagon can now spend those dollars in a way that insulates the decision makers from the political consequences of making life uncomfortable for the voting public.
When the Pentagon farms out soldiers’ work to contractors, it not only puts extra bodies in the field, it puts a different type of body in the field; the American public doesn’t mourn contractor deaths the way we do the deaths of our soldiers. We rarely even hear about them. Private companies are under no obligation to report when their employees are killed while, say, providing armed security to tractor-trailer convoys running supplies into Iraq. In the 1991 Gulf War, the United States employed one private contract worker for every one hundred American soldiers on the ground; in the Clinton-era Balkans, it neared one to one—about 20,000 privateers tops. In early 2011, there were 45,000 US soldiers stationed inside Iraq, and 65,000 private contract workers there.
Thanks to the skyrocketing use of privateers, and thanks to our new quasi-military institutions empowered to make war while keeping the details of that war making (and often even the simple fact of that war making) hidden from us, and thanks to public relations triumphs like the Bush administration sparing us the sight of the flag-draped caskets of dead American soldiers deplaning week after week at Dover Air Force Base, thanks to all that and more, the American public has been delicately insulated from the actuality of our ongoing wars. While a tiny fraction of men and women fighting our wars are deploying again and again, civilian life remains pretty much isolated in cost-free complacency.
And about those costs …
In June 2001, George W. Bush signed into law a massive, budget-busting tax cut that would add about $2 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. Three months later, the 9/11 attacks happened. US troops (and the CIA) were at war in Afghanistan within weeks, but we decided to keep the tax cuts in place anyway. Less than two years later we’d shipped troops off to a second and simultaneous war, in Iraq. Weeks after that invasion, Bush signed another huge round of tax cuts. We also started massively scaling up on the secret intel side of things. Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, in their seminal 2010 investigative series, detailed more than three thousand government organizations and private companies in ten thousand separate locations at work on counterterrorism. In just less than ten years, the US federal government had deputized 854,000 people with top secret security clearances, invented or reorganized nearly three hundred government agencies, and built office space equivalent to twenty-two US Capitols to create what Priest and Arkin call Top Secret America. The country never debated the need for this vast new superstructure, and still doesn’t, mostly because we’ve never been asked to cover the massive new expense. We just added the cost to the growing deficit, like we have the trillion or two in recent war spending.
This deferred-payment plan has been one of the few bipartisan points of agreement in the last decade. After Bush’s pre-Afghanistan War tax cuts, and the second round after the Iraq invasion, his successor followed suit. In 2010, President Obama added thirty thousand more soldiers to Afghanistan, extended the military stay there until 2014, ordered up a few hundred more drones for the CIA, and then—yes—extended those Bush tax cuts.
When civilians are not asked to pay any price, it’s easy to be at war—not just to intervene in a foreign land in the first place, but to keep on fighting there. The justifications for staying at war don’t have to be particularly rational or cogently argued when so few Americans are making the sacrifice that it takes to stay. When we invaded Iraq in 2003, the first official justification from the White House was that we had to secure Saddam’s dangerous piles of weapons of mass destruction. (“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” was the Bush administration line.) There was plenty of evidence at the time that this threat was bullpucky, and that was proven as soon as we got there. So then we decided we were really there to get rid of Saddam. It took three weeks for Baghdad to fall, and he was caught in his hidey-hole by December.
So why stay after that, for a whole second year? For a third, fourth, sixth … eighth? Our official stated reason for staying in Iraq after Saddam was in his grave was a moving target: we were restoring order, we were protecting Iraqi women, we were keeping the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds from killing one another, we were there until the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds learned how to share power in their new government, we were there to defeat the terrorists, we were trying to reform Iraq as a beacon of Jeffersonian democracy in the Middle East (There would be elections! We would have an ally!), we were there to make sure Iran didn’t undercut our fledgling democracy and make Iraq its Crazy Muslim Theocrat ally. As time went on, it didn’t much matter what the president said. Eventually the Bushies quit trying to be creative and just settled on the accusation that leaving would be cowardly. The entire justification for being at war—“Withdrawal is not an option,” the Senate majority leader offered three years into the Iraq escapade, “surrender is not a solution”—fit neatly on a bumper sticker. As Ford said, we don’t cut and run.
The Bush administration did start to feel some heat about three years into the war: the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress in 2006 and polls showed as much as two-thirds of the voting public opposed the continuation of the war in Iraq. The White House turned for help to the one national institution of sufficient size and public esteem to provide necessary political cover—the military. If the country didn’t trust the president anymore on the war or on foreign policy, the president would get out of the way and let the “commanders on the ground” take the lead. And they wouldn’t simply be in charge of prosecuting the war, they’d be commander-in-chiefing it too.
Bush charged the military with more than just coming up with a plan for how to win the war; he charged them with creating something he never really had: a vision of what a win would look like. And if the military brass was becoming the foreign policy maker in the Middle East, the Pentagon—can-do central—had just the man for the job. He was regarded in most circles as the smartest general we had, David Petraeus, a PhD in international relations from Princeton. And the smartest man in the Army decided the military wasn’t going to simply win a war, it was going to win a country.
General Petraeus had already authored a textbook on how the military would execute this maximalist mission. Field Manual 3–24 was a can-do treatise on how to fight wars that were both indefinite and expandable, a full-on twenty-first-century rewrite of US military doctrine. The new doctrine—counterinsurgency—was basically a plan to double down in Iraq. The US military could do it, if the rest of America could just relax. The general judged his new plan a much easier sell now than it would have been back in the early days of his military career, when the public was so … engaged. “Vietnam was an extremely painful reaffirmation that when it comes to intervention, time and patience are not American virtues in abundant supply,” General Petraeus had written while working on his PhD. He turned out to be right, about the selling part anyway. Field Manual 3–24 was such a hit in Washington policy circles that the University of Chicago Press decided to publish it for the general public under a more marketable title: The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. You can read the reviews at Amazon: “a nifty volume” … “the most important piece of doctrine written in the past 20 years” … “has helped make Counterinsurgency part of the zeitgeist … In short, this is not your parents’ military field manual.”
Counterinsurgency Petraeus-style turns out to be a very intellectually satisfying theory. The study is full of examples of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies from modern history. Perhaps if Napoleon had had the principles of Field Manual 3–24 at hand in Spain in 1808, the study implies, all of Europe and much of the rest of the world would be speaking French and enjoying rich food and fine wine without gaining weight. Counterinsurgency doctrine is elegant and fulfilling as an academic exercise, particularly for liberals: the story of how a public entity (that is, the military) does everything the right way, anticipating and meeting a population’s every need, and thereby wins. The idea is that the Iraqis will love us in the end, and want to be like us, as long as our military applies the correct principles. Americans had already absorbed the belief that our military was our most able institution, the one we could depend on, the one that could do anything we asked; counterinsurgency doctrine went further, arguing that the military not only could do anything, it should do everything. If there was a big national mission outside our borders, the military owned it.
For this new doctrine to work, however, our soldiers were going to be asked to do a lot more than fire their weapons at bad guys, or clear a city block in Baghdad. The new field manual quotes a classic counterinsurgency expert: “To confine soldiers to purely military functions while urgent and vital tasks have to be done, and nobody else is available to undertake them, would be senseless. The soldier must then be prepared to become … a social worker, a civil engineer, a schoolteacher, a nurse, a boy scout.” Deposing a corrupt dictator, finding the proper local leadership, establishing public utilities or judicial systems, running prisons, directing traffic, hooking up sewage pipes, providing medical care was now all the work of the 82nd Airborne. “Arguably,” says Field Manual 3–24, “the decisive battle is for the people’s minds.”
It’s hard not to be sympathetic to the entire enterprise. There are no Americans more impressive or more capable than the post-9/11 generation of Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers and veterans. But they are not superhuman. They cannot do the impossible. The general problem with the entire benighted theory of counterinsurgency is that there are no examples in modern history in which a counterinsurgency in a foreign country has been successful. None! The nearest example we have is in Indochina, where we pretty decisively lost the battle for the South Vietnamese “hearts and minds.” And it seems highly unlikely that Napoleon could have overcome Spanish resistance in 1808 by understanding that the population there was “accustomed to hardship, suspicious of foreigners and constantly involved in skirmishes with security forces.” In fact, you’d have to go back to the Roman Empire to find an army that ran successful counterinsurgency operations. The Romans applied rather different methods from those suggested in Field Manual 3–24. They generally involved the Old Testament tactics of killing the able-bodied males and enslaving the women and children. There wasn’t much social work involved.
But in a can-do institution like the US military, if Washington asks for a way to “win” something like the years-long occupation of Iraq, then win we shall. With infinite resources anything is possible: open checkbook, swivel wrist. “I have always felt that success in Iraq was achievable,” Army chief of staff George Casey assured a gathering of the national press in the summer of 2007. “It will take patience and it will take will. And the terrorists are out to undermine our will, our national will to prosecute this. But as complex and as difficult and as confusing as you may find Iraq—it is—we can succeed there. And we will succeed there if we demonstrate patience and will.… [The Iraqis] have an educated population. They have oil wealth. They have water. They have some of the most fertile land that I’ve ever seen. In a decade or so this will be a remarkable country—if we stick with it. It’s imminently doable.” A decade or so … if we stick with it? At that point we were already four years in. This should be a fourteen-year war?
“It would be fine with me,” Sen. John McCain said while campaigning for president not long after the counterinsurgency doctrine–inspired surge began, if the US military stayed in Iraq a hundred years. Or maybe a thousand, he said, or even a million, as long as the Iraqi government wanted us there, and as long as there were no casualties, which would prove the Iraqis really liked us. The million-year-war proposal didn’t persuade the American public to back Senator McCain. He lost badly to Illinois senator Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. But even for President Obama, a man who made a name for himself as an avowed opponent of the Iraq War, getting out was not easy. In year nine of the war, Obama finally got the Iraqi government to provide the fig leaf of insisting upon our departure.
A few days after we agreed to leave, the Pentagon announced it would be stationing as-yet-undetermined thousands of troops in Kuwait, just across the border, where we could jump into Iraq in case the security situation deteriorated in our absence. Don’t forget to make room for the Predator and Reaper drones in there too. And don’t forget the thousands of private American contractors who could stick around inside Iraq and help out with US foreign policy by proxy, without fear of congressional interference.
The Guard and Reserves were ready at a moment’s notice too. “We’re in a situation now where the soldiers we have recruited … want to serve, and if we don’t continue to challenge them and maintain that combat edge, we think we’re going to see soldiers leave us because what we recruited them for and what we promised them, we weren’t able to deliver on,” the acting director of the National Guard said in 2011. “This country made a huge investment [in the reserve component] to this point, and we think they’ll get short-changed if we don’t take advantage of this operational reserve.”
The military commissioned a study in 2011 of the Guard and Reserve in the post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan era. The lead author told the Army Times: “Why would you want to take that progress and put it on the shelf and let it atrophy? You want to use it.…”
With the World’s Greatest Privately Augmented Standing Army in place, we are, as Jefferson feared, constantly scanning the horizon for “a speck of war.” When Gen. George Casey returned from his job as the honcho of the Iraq War in 2007 to take over as Army chief of staff, one of the first things he did was send his transition team out to take a wide-angle view of the world his Army faced. Then he shared the findings with the national press. “I said, ‘Go talk to people who think about the future. Ask them what they think the world is going to look like in 2020.’ And they did. They went to universities. They went to think tanks. They went around to the intelligence agencies. They went around the government. And they came back and they said, ‘You know, we’re surprised at the almost unanimity that the next decades that we face here will be ones of what they call persistent conflict.’ ” The Army was going to have to grow, he said.
In his farewell-to-the-Army speech in 2011, when he was moving over to the CIA, David Petraeus implored the nation to keep hold of the can-do-everything counterinsurgency doctrine. “We will need to maintain the full-spectrum capability that we have developed over this last decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere,” the general said. “But again I know that that fact is widely recognized.”
In 2011, new secretary of defense Leon Panetta was running around Capitol Hill with his hair on fire saying cuts in the annual increase of the Pentagon budget would “hollow out” the military. “This is not as if we’ve come out of a major war and everything is fine,” Panetta said, lamenting “rising powers … rapidly modernizing their militaries and investing in capabilities to deny our forces freedom of movement in vital regions.” He’s right. But the reason those foreign powers were rising in the first place is not necessarily because of their military strength but because of their economies—something this country had largely neglected in our decade of hot war.
However much blood and treasure we shoveled into the Hindu Kush and the deserts of Al Anbar Province after 9/11, we can look back at that expenditure now from a position of grave, grave weakness. Unless three-ton V-hulled armored MRAP trucks and pilotless flying killer robots are going to provide the basis of America’s new manufacturing base for the twenty-first century, we’ve built ourselves—to the exclusion of all other priorities—a military superstructure we can’t use for anything other than war and that we can no longer afford. And it’s going to be really hard to take this thing apart. Even the manifestly hilariously dangerously stupid parts of it we can’t take apart. Have you heard the one about the wing fungus?