Tomgram: Frida Berrigan, The Pentagon Legacy of the MBA President

September 15, 2008

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Part two of Frida Berrigan’s three-part series on the expansion of the Pentagon is just the sort of post — a major story of the Bush era — that you can only get at this site. The expansion and privatization of the Pentagon should, of course, be the subject of front-page pieces in newspapers across the country as the dark legacy of the Bush presidency begins to be considered. In the light of just this sort of work from TomDispatch, let me mention a new feature at the site. If you look to your right while at the main screen, you’ll see a clickable button (“Resist Empire. Support TomDispatch.”) that leads you to a secure page where, if you wish, you can give modest $$ to help this site fund projects like Berrigan’s and do outreach work of various kinds. I’ve always enjoyed the “freeness” of TomDispatch, but readers, from time to time, have sent in contributions anyway. Now, this added feature makes it easier, if you are so disposed, to do so and, believe me, I’ll be grateful. We’ll use whatever you send our way to improve the site. (Just make sure you never send in even a dollar that you need!) And, by the way, click over to Book TV on C-SPAN2, if you want to catch an appearance I made with Michael Schwartz for the new book, The World According to TomDispatch.]

Having laid out the staggering expansion of a budget-busting Pentagon — as diplomat, arms dealer, spy, intelligence analyst, domestic disaster manager, humanitarian caregiver, nation-builder, and global viceroy — in part one of her series on the Bush military legacy, Frida Berrigan, arms expert at the New America Foundation, turns to the issue of privatization. In these last seven years, the Pentagon’s key role as war fighter has increasingly become a privatized operation. In Iraq, for instance, a Congressional Budget Office report in August revealed that the U.S. has already spent at least $100 billion on private contractors. (Pentagon auditing has, however, been so bad that that’s considered a low-ball figure.)

Approximately one out of every five war dollars spent on the war went private. That’s not so surprising, as James Risen of the New York Times reported, since private contractors now outnumber the 146,000 U.S. troops in that country. At 180,000, they represent, as Risen writes, “a second, private army, larger than the United States military force, and one whose roles and missions and even casualties among its work force have largely been hidden from public view.”

Moreover, as modest drawdowns of U.S. troops occur, American taxpayer dollars going to private contractors in Iraq, especially private security contractors, are actually on the rise. Part of the charm of privatizing war, of course, is that you can also privatize information about it, so we really have little idea just how many armed, Blackwater-style mercenaries there are in that country (though the number may rise into the tens of thousands). No less curious, amid all the talk of drawdowns and withdrawals, you seldom see any serious discussion of those hired guns in the mainstream. When withdrawal does come, who withdraws them? Who decides that? Who knows?

In the meantime, let Frida Berrigan take you past the obvious Blackwater issues and into the deeper quagmire of the massive privatization of the American military. It’s an issue whose time should long ago have arrived, but don’t hold your breath till the media discussion and debate begins. Tom

Military Industrial Complex 2.0

Cubicle Mercenaries, Subcontracting Warriors, and Other Phenomena of a Privatizing Pentagon
By Frida Berrigan

Seven years into George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror, the Pentagon is embroiled in two big wars, a potentially explosive war of words with Tehran, and numerous smaller conflicts – and it is leaning ever more heavily on private military contractors to get by.

Once upon a time, soldiers did more than pick up a gun. They picked up trash. They cut hair and delivered mail. They fixed airplanes and inflated truck tires.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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VIDEO: American Troops Going Insane

September 14, 2008

This YouTube video made by some US soldiers in Iraq shows how the troops have devolved into atavistic creatures their families back home would not recognise. They are shown taunting children and suggesting sexual acts to Iraqi civilians, shooting a herd of sheep, killing a puppy by hurling it against rocks, all the while using steady streams of grossly indecent obscenities. Their actions are interspersed with George Bush’s inane logorrhea… Is it any wonder the Americans are so despised by the Iraqis? Progressing well with winning hearts and minds, aren’t they??

WARNING: THIS VIDEO CONTAINS OBSCENITIES AND BEHAVIOUR THAT SHOULD NOT BE VIEWED BY CHILDREN!!!


Tomgram: Michael Schwartz, Is American Success a Failure in Iraq?

September 8, 2008

Recently, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has shown striking signs of wanting to be his own man in Baghdad, not Washington’s (as has Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul). What happens when parrots suddenly speak and puppets squawk on their own? The answer, it seems, is simple enough: You listen in; so, at least, the lastest revelations of journalist Bob Woodward seem to indicate. “The Bush administration,” reports the Washington Post, “has conducted an extensive spying operation on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his staff and others in the Iraqi government, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward. ‘We know everything [Maliki] says,’ according to one of multiple sources Woodward cites about the practice.” This is perhaps what is meant when it’s claimed that President Bush and Maliki have a “close working relationship.”

An Iraqi government spokesman responded to the revelation with shock: “If it is a fact, it reflects that there is no trust and it reflects also that the institutions in the United States are used to spying on their friends and their enemies in the same way. If it is true, it casts a shadow on the future relations with such institutions.”

“Trust”? Please… Wasn’t that always just a synonym for electronic eavesdropping?

As for “success” in Iraq, which we’ve been hearing quite a lot about lately in the U.S., here’s one way to measure the administration’s trust in its own “success”: The Pentagon, we now learn, has just “recommended” to President Bush that there should be no further troop drawdowns in Iraq until a new president enters office in January 2009 — and even then, possibly in February, that no more than 7,500 Americans should be withdrawn, and only if “conditions” permit. So the administration’s “success” in Iraq could, in terms of troop levels, be measured this way: The U.S. invaded and occupied that country in the spring of 2003 with approximately 130,000 troops. According to Thomas Ricks in his bestselling book Fiasco, by that fall, its top officials fully expected to have only about 30,000 troops still in the country, stationed at newly built American bases largely outside major urban areas.

In January 2007, when the President’s desperate “surge” strategy was launched, there were still approximately 130,000 U.S. troops in the country, and, of course, tens of thousands of hired guns from firms like Blackwater Worldwide. Today, there are approximately 146,000 troops in Iraq (and the U.S. is spending more money on armed “private security contractors” than ever before). By next February, according to Pentagon plans, there would still be about 139,000 troops in Iraq, 9,000 more than in April 2003, as well as more than early in Bush’s second term, as Juan Cole pointed out recently — and that’s if everything goes reasonably well, which, under the circumstances, is a big “if” indeed.

As Michael Schwartz indicates below, for all the talk over the years about “tipping points” reached and “corners” turned, it’s just possible that — while the Bush administration and the McCain campaign are pounding the drums of “success” — the U.S. might be heading for an unexpected and resounding defeat. Moreover, it might well be administered by the very government Washington has supported all these years, whose true allies may turn out to be living not in Camp Victory, the huge U.S. base on the outskirts of Iraq, but in Tehran. Let Schwartz, whose superb new history of this nightmare, War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, is due out later this month, explain to you just how the Bush administration is likely to wrest actual defeat from the jaws of self-proclaimed victory. Tom

Who Lost Iraq?

Is the Maliki Government Jumping Off the American Ship of State?
By Michael Schwartz

Click here to read more of this dispatch.


MidEast Dispatches: IRAQ: Kidnappings Now Become ‘Unofficial’

August 30, 2008

IRAQ: Kidnappings Now Become ‘Unofficial’

Inter Press Service
By Ahmed Ali and Dahr Jamail*

BAQUBA, Aug 29 (IPS) – Residents of Baquba deny police claims that kidnappings are now a matter of the past.

“There are fewer people disappearing, but it continues,” a trader who asked to be referred to as Abu Ali told IPS. “All of us know that several people are still being kidnapped every week.”

A local sheikh, speaking to IPS on condition of anonymity, said that many from his tribe have been kidnapped in just the last three weeks.

“This sectarian security operation is targeting Sunnis,” the sheikh said. “At least ten people from my tribe alone, all of them Sunnis, have been kidnapped, and we suspect it is by people with the government.”

A police captain, Ali Khadem, told IPS that “no kidnapping actions were reported in the city in the last four months.” Baquba is capital of Diyala province, just north-east of Baghdad.

Residents say that while the number of kidnappings may have declined, the fear continues. Underscoring the volatility of the province, the Iraqi government issued an order Aug. 27 banning residents from keeping weapons.

Baquba has seen more than its share of kidnappings. Those responsible are believed widely to be members of various militias, or simply common criminals looking for quick money.

“When we were going to our jobs, we did not know whether we would get back home or not,” Hisham Ibrahim, a local labourer, told IPS. “Everyday, we felt the same fear and horror. And now, even though it’s better, we don’t know when this horror will return.”

The usual kidnapping style is for armed militants to drive up with their faces covered to the victim’s house, office or shop, or sometimes corner him on the street. The victim is overpowered, and dumped into the boot. The kidnappers then demand ransom, usually making video films of the victim.

Often a killing is also filmed. “Near our house, there was a place we used to call the execution zone,” a trader told IPS on terms of anonymity. “I myself saw a cameraman with the militants in every action.”

Another resident, also speaking on terms of anonymity, told IPS he had witnessed executions of kidnapped men. “They brought kidnapped men blindfolded, with their hands tied, lined them up on the street, and shot them one by one.”

“My wife has been sick ever since she saw these killings from our house,” Nasir Abbas, a local resident who lives on Majara Avenue told IPS. Many kidnapped persons have been executed here.

Some of the kidnappings have been at random. “The militants might ask anyone on the street about his identity,” says Abdul-Jalil Khalil, a local trader. “They take him to their stronghold for questioning. When they find he is their sect, they release him. If not, they kill him.”

A local man who was kidnapped told IPS what he went through.

“Militants attacked me in the market. They forced me into the boot of a car. After reaching their place, they got me out of the boot, tied my hands and covered my eyes. They poisoned me with something that made me sick, along with several other people in a room.

“They were shouting and insulting us. They whipped me with a cable and a nylon tube on my back and legs. After a few hours, they took me to another room. There I met the leader, they called him the prince. He asked me about my sect, tribe, job, relatives, etc. The prince decided to release me after three days.”

Many others are never released. Or even recorded as ever having been kidnapped.

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East).

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Tomgram: Chalmers Johnson, Outlaw Administration

August 26, 2008

[Note for TomDispatch readers: This is the first of a “best of TomDispatch” series I’ll be posting in the week leading up to Labor Day, each with a new introduction by the author. Few in the United States give much thought any longer to the looting of Iraq’s cultural heritage, which continues to this day, under American occupation. And yet it has been a cataclysmic event in its own right. As I wrote long ago of the initial moments of destruction after American troops entered Baghdad in April 2003: “Words disappeared instantly. They simply blinked off the screen of Iraqi history, many of them forever. First, there was the looting of the National Museum. That took care of some of the earliest words on clay, including, possibly, cuneiform tablets with missing parts of the epic of Gilgamesh. Soon after, the great libraries and archives of the capital went up in flames and books, letters, government documents, ancient Korans, religious manuscripts, stretching back centuries — all those things not pressed into clay, or etched on stone, or engraved on metal, just words on that most precious and perishable of all commonplaces, paper — vanished forever. What we’re talking about, of course, is the flesh of history. And it was no less a victim of the American invasion — of the Bush administration’s lack of attention to, its lack of any sense of the value of what Iraq held (other than oil) — than the Iraqi people. All of this has been, in that grim phrase created by the Pentagon, ‘collateral damage.'”

Back in July 2005 at this site, Chalmers Johnson wrote a summary piece on that cataclysm of destruction of history, of the past, and — here’s the saddest story – it is no less readable, relevant, or powerful today than it was more than three years ago. This piece, by the way — along with many other TomDispatch pieces that have stood the test of time — has just been republished in a little alternate history of these last years, The World According to TomDispatch, America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), which I hope you’ll consider ordering. Johnson, author of the now-classic Blowback Trilogy, has written a new introduction to his 2005 piece, looking back on the destruction we enabled — or wrought. Tom]

The Past Destroyed: Five Years Later

On April 11, 12, 13, and 14, 2003, the United States Army and United States Marine Corps disgraced themselves and the country they represent in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital city. Having invaded Iraq and accepted the status of a military occupying power, they sat in their tanks and Humvees, watching as unarmed civilians looted the Iraqi National Museum and burned down the Iraqi National Library and Archives as well as the Library of Korans of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Their behavior was in violation of their orders, international law, and the civilized values of the United States. Far from apologizing for these atrocities or attempting to make amends, the United States government has in the past five years added insult to injury.

Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense and the official responsible for the actions of the troops, repeatedly attempted to trivialize what had occurred with inane public statements like “democracy is messy” and “stuff happens.”

On December 2, 2004, President Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, to General Tommy Franks, the overall military commander in Iraq at that time, for his meritorious service to the country. (He gave the same award to L. Paul Bremer III, the highest ranking civilian official in Iraq, and to George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, which had provided false information about Saddam Hussein and Iraq to Congress and the people.)

In the five years since the initial looting and pillaging of the Iraqi capital, thieves have stolen at least 32,000 items from some 12,000 archaeological sites across Iraq with no interference whatsoever from the occupying power. No funds have been appropriated by the American or Iraqi governments to protect the most valuable and vulnerable historical sites on Earth, even though experience has shown that just a daily helicopter overflight usually scares off looters. In 2006, the World Monuments Fund took the unprecedented step of putting the entire country of Iraq on its list of the most endangered sites. All of this occurred on George W. Bush’s watch and impugned any moral authority he might have claimed.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.


Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, The Lessons of Endless War

August 20, 2008

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Andrew Bacevich will discuss his new book — and the limits of American power in the Bush era — for a full hour on “Bill Moyers Journal,” Friday, August 15th. Don’t miss it. If you’re watching the Olympics, TIVO it or look for a repeat.]

To the problem of an overstretched, over-toured military, there is but one answer in Washington. Both presidential candidates (along with just about every other politician in our nation’s capital) are on record wanting to significantly expand the Army and the Marines. In his remarkable new book, The Limits of Power, The End of American Exceptionalism, Andrew Bacevich suggests a solution to the American military crisis that might seem obvious enough, if only both parties weren’t so blinded by the idea of our “global reach,” by a belief, however wrapped in euphemisms, in our imperial role on this planet, and by the imperial Pentagon and presidency that go with it: reduce the mission. It’s a particularly timely observation to which Bacevich returns in part two of his TomDispatch series, adapted from his new book. (Click here for part one, “Illusions of Victory.”)

Unfortunately, the mission looks all-too-ready to expand, no matter who makes it to the White House in January. Just last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, increasingly being mentioned in the media as a possible carry-over appointment for either candidate, endorsed a $20 billion down payment on our future role in Afghanistan — to be used to double the size of the Afghan army — and a restructuring of the U.S. and NATO commands in that country. All of this is meant as preparation for a new president’s agreement to consign yet more American troops to our war there. This, in a phrase Bacevich has used in another context, is no less “the path to perdition” for the globe’s former “sole superpower” than was the dec! ision of a small country in the Caucasus to essentially launch a war, no matter the provocation, against its energy-superpower neighbor. This way to the madhouse, ladies and gentlemen.

Consider, in this context, the immodest lessons our leaders have chosen to learn from the Bush era, and then, with Bacevich, what lessons we might actually learn if we seriously (and far more modestly) considered the real limits of American power. Tom

Is Perpetual War Our Future?

Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Bush Era
By Andrew Bacevich

To appreciate the full extent of the military crisis into which the United States has been plunged requires understanding what the Iraq War and, to a lesser extent, the Afghan War have to teach. These two conflicts, along with the attacks of September 11, 2001, will form the centerpiece of George W. Bush’s legacy. Their lessons ought to constitute the basis of a new, more realistic military policy.

In some respects, the effort to divine those lessons is well under way, spurred by critics of President Bush’s policies on the left and the right as well as by reform-minded members of the officer corps. Broadly speaking, this effort has thus far yielded three distinct conclusions. Whether taken singly or together, they invert the post-Cold War military illusions that provided the foundation for the president’s Global War on Terror. In exchange for these received illusions, they propound new ones, which are equally misguided. Thus far, that is, the lessons drawn from America’s post-9/11 military experience are the wrong ones.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.


Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, The American Military Crisis

August 11, 2008

All you really need to know is that, at Robert Gates’s Pentagon, they’re still high on the term “the Long War.” It’s a phrase that first crept into our official vocabulary back in 2002, but was popularized by CENTCOM commander John Abizaid, in 2004 — already a fairly long(-war-)time ago. Now, Secretary of Defense Gates himself is plugging the term, as he did in April at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, quoting no less an authority than Leon Trotsky:

“What has been called the Long War is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies. To paraphrase the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in the Long War, but the Long War is interested in us.”

The Long War has also made it front and center in the new “national defense strategy,” which is essentially a call to prepare for a future of two, three, many Afghanistans. (“For the foreseeable future, winning the Long War against violent extremist movements will be the central objective of the U.S.”) If you thought for a moment that in the next presidency some portion of those many billions of dollars now being sucked into the black holes of Iraq and Afghanistan was about to go into rebuilding American infrastructure or some other frivolous task, think again. Just read between the lines of that new national defense strategy document where funding for future conventional wars against “rising powers” is to be maintained, while funding for “irregular warfare” is to rise. The Pentagonization of the U.S., in other words, shows no sign of slowing down. Here, by the way, is the emphasis in the new Gates Doctrine — from a recent Pentagon briefing by the secretary of defense — that should make us all worry. “The principal challenge, therefore, is how to ensure that the capabilities gained and counterinsurgency lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the lessons re-learned from other places where we have engaged in irregular warfare over the last two decades, are institutionalized within the defense establishment.” Back to the future?

And here’s a riddle for our moment: How long is a Long War, when you’ve been there before (as were, in the case of Afghanistan, Alexander the Great, the imperial Brits, and the Soviets)? On the illusions of victory and the many miscalculations of the Bush administration when it came to the nature of American military power, no one in recent years has been more incisive than Andrew Bacevich, who experienced an earlier version of the Long War firsthand in Vietnam. His new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, has just been published. Short, sharp, to the point, it should be the book of the election season, if only anyone in power, or who might come to power, were listening. (The following piece, the first of two parts this week at Tomdispatch, is adapted from section three of that book, “The Military Crisis.”) But if you want the measure of our strange, dystopian moment, Barack Obama reportedly has a team of 300 foreign policy advisers — just about everyone ever found, however brain-dead, in a Democratic presidential rolodex — and yet Bacevich’s name isn’t among them. What else do we need to know? Tom

Illusions of Victory

How the United States Did Not Reinvent War… But Thought It Did
By Andrew Bacevich

“War is the great auditor of institutions,” the historian Corelli Barnett once observed. Since 9/11, the United States has undergone such an audit and been found wanting. That adverse judgment applies in full to America’s armed forces.

Valor does not offer the measure of an army’s greatness, nor does fortitude, nor durability, nor technological sophistication. A great army is one that accomplishes its assigned mission. Since George W. Bush inaugurated his global war on terror, the armed forces of the United States have failed to meet that standard.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.