It is difficult to deny the United States operates a de facto Empire: with a network of bases on otherwise-sovereign territory, and the world’s largest military by many orders of magnitude, it would be impossible, or at the least highly improbable, for the U.S. not to insert itself into all variety of struggles that would otherwise not concern it.
The acronym-friendly DoD neatly divides this global administration into geographic regions—the COCOMS, or Combatant Commands, each of which is presided over by a generously-funded regional four star flag officer (once known as regional Commanders in Chief, CinC’s, or “sinks,” and now just Combatant Commanders). This is the most capable, most well-supplied, most mobile, and most deadly deployed force in world history—hundreds of thousands of troops, with their regional commanders, ply the globe, putting boots to American foreign policy. It is the subject Washington Post reporter Dana Priest makes her subject—the incredible opportunity such an infrastructure represents, how it has been mangled by domestic policies, and, finally, where the DoD’s own refusal to train its soldiers for their missions will create failure after failure after failure.
On first glance, this might seem unfair. After all, the soldiers on the ground are not at fault, at least not for the most part (the horrifying rape and murder of Merita Shabiu, an eleven-year old ethnic Albanian in a town in Bosnia called Vitina notwithstanding). It is, as has become a theme in my writing on the military and foreign policy, a fundamental failure of the leadership.
As Priest travels around, from following Anthony Zinni’s attempts as CENTCOM commander to run diplomatic conferences, or Charles Wilhem’s wrecking of Colombia through one of the most misguided and improperly structured drug policy boondoggles since the Opium Wars of the 19th century, or Wesley Clark’s head banging against the wall as he tries to achieve the impossible in Kosovo, a disturbing feeling emerges: the U.S. has no idea what it is doing. It sends generals with zero-to-little training in diplomacy, language, or culture into political bramble patches, and then expects them to work magic by throwing about military aid, training, and support.
This becomes painfully clear when Priest details General Zinni’s relationship with Pervez Musharraf. Just after the coup exactly eight years ago, Musharraf called Zinni, who was in a meeting with then-Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, and convinced him that removing Nawaz Sharif from power was the best thing for Pakistani democracy. However, despite the obvious megalomania behind the move, Zinni had an “in” that no one else, certainly no American, had in the area: a direct and friendly line to the head of state. Only, instead of using Zinni’s connections to develop an early and strong relationship with the head of the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim state, Musharraf was scorned as a second-rate despot (which, to be honest, he was). All of the efforts to coordinate with Pakistan to hunt Osama bin Laden were relegated to the dreadfully incompetent CIA, and not through Zinni’s connection at the top (there is also an excellent chapter on how Zinni tried, and failed, to make permanent positive U.S. engagement with the leadership of the five former Soviet Republics).
There is plenty here about personalities, which is great, but the real problems Priest is getting at are systemic. Probably the best example of this, though it occupies a comparatively small place in her book, is the initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. While it is interesting to see how effective the Special Operations Forces, or SOF, were at uniting and leading the Northern Alliance to temporarily drive the Taliban into hiding, there was a darker undercurrent to this story, and it is as emblematic of the problems facing the American Empire as any others.
One of the men the U.S. supported to retake Afghanistan from the Taliban was Sayed Jaffar. Once known by his American name of Jeff Naderi, Jaffar was an Ismaili Shia who helped one of the special forces teams sweep through Eastern Afghanistan during the first round of fighting with the Taliban in late 2001. All the SOF guys in Team 532 loved Jaffar—he was Americanized, conversant in slang and American culture, and he made the small army they helped him round up shave their beards and march in straight lines. It has all the makings of a dream proxy army.
Until, that is, they tried to take Jaffar’s old home of Pol-e-Khomri. See, there was more to this story than an exiled native son looking to reclaim his home from the Taliban which had stolen it from him. Jeff/Sayed Naderi/Jaffar was in fact the son of Sayid Mansur Nadiri, the former governor of Baghlan province. He was considered a warlord at once point, Vice President of the country another, and developed a rather nasty penchant for harassing followers of a fellow Ismaili Shia, the Aga Khan (founder of the well-known relief organization)—going so far as to stymie AKN relief and welfare efforts.
Additionally, Sayed Jaffar was allied with General Dostum, a prominent warlord in the North but a former ally of the Taliban, who was known for having a rather fluid set of allegiances depending on whichever brought him more power (Dostum himself is a brutal thug, who was known to throw dissenters and other undesirables under his tanks as they slowly ground forward). The town of Pol-e-Khomri was controlled by General Khalil Anderabi, an ally of the Northern Alliance warlord General Daoud—who was also allied with the U.S. to evict the Taliban.
In essence, when he attacked Pol-e-Khomri, Jaffar used the American SOF team 532 to call in air strikes on another allied force. This wound up being hugely embarrassing for the U.S., as they had to explain to two sides of a conflict they didn’t want to fight why they had to pick sides (in this case because an SOF team was at risk). Carlotta Gall, probably the best Western correspondent in Afghanistan, wrote two alarming stories detailing more fully what happened. Priest ends her account of the battle by recounting the attitude of the SOF unit commander: “He didn’t have a clue what the two Afghan commanders were fighting about and, he said, he didn’t care.”
This is not “bashing” the troops, but it is indicative of a general mindset that continues to infect all of the U.S.’s war fighting: it jumps into conflicts it does not understand with the best of intentions but without any reasonable way to achieve them. It takes good, honorable soldiers trained to fight wars and asks them to navigate horrendously impenetrable tribal and sectarian conflicts—which is deeply unfair to them.
Priest recounts time after time of this happening, from the tangled mess of East Timor to the continued mess of Kosovo (which includes stomach-churning parallels to Iraq on a smaller scale, and the sad treatment of Drita, an Albanian-American translator, at the hands of her Army handlers).
But even that possible misuse, and definite undertraining, of soldiers is not the most depressing part of Priest’s book. Rather, it is the way in which U.S. foreign policy was so aggressively militarized under Bill Clinton (thanks to bad blood sewed early in his first administration), and how, even in a self-declared “information war” of ideas and ideologies, the military consumes 95% of the foreign policy budget. There are more full time professional musicians in the various branches of the U.S. military than there are diplomats in U.S. embassies; this disparity “worried every U.S. ambassador in [Central Asia],” according to Priest. “How could the leaders of these countries take U.S. pressure toward democracy seriously if most of Washington’s handouts were for surveillance, weapons, and counter-terrorism training?”
This imbalance can sometimes play itself in obviously counterproductive ways, such as the conflict between Ambassador Robert Gelbard and Admiral Dennis Blair over how to properly handle Indonesia’s bloody crackdown on East Timor. An ambassador’s opinion is supposed to be the official opinion in any country with which the U.S. has formal relations, including over the military. Yet, the combatant commander’s fanboys routinely overwhelmed and outmaneuvered the ambassador’s diplomatic and policy objections to the military’s continued engagement with a regime that was actively slaughtering democracy and independence activists. As Priest puts it:
Officials in Washington saw the decision as a military triumph that underscored the growing foreign-policy clout of the regional CinCs. Blair’s regular visits to Washington, his aircraft, his permanent Washington liason office, the Joint Staff colonels working on his behalf at the Pentagon, and his 1,000 person Pacific Command simply swamped Gelbard and his comparatively smaller staff, who operated from [Jakarta, which is] 6,000 miles away. Gelbard had an armored car, a small plane to fly him around Indonesia, and secure telephone lines. He had an over-worked embassy staff—most of whom were assigned to other government departments—and an ineffective State Department bureaucracy in Washington. That was about it.
So what is to be done about such a lopsided approach? When she was finishing her manuscript in late 2003, Priest was already seeing the counterproductive impact such a lopsided approach to global governance produces. In Afghanistan, she contrasted President Bush’s invocations of George Marshall with the pathetic amounts of money he dedicated to reconstruction (and the frustration the soldiers on the ground felt at seeing their lack of progress translate directly into increased restlessness, even violence, among the Afghans). General Babajan, one of the warlords who teamed with the SOF in 2001, said something dark:
If you don’t help us, you know, we’re all a little crazy and we may start fighting again. You promised many things for Afghanistan and we want you to keep your promise.
So far, we have not. So long as we continue to break our promises, so long as we adapt a military-first strategy to conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction (in money and actions, that is, not rhetoric), we will continue to see failure after failure. Has the current, military-centric approach resulted in a single successful mission over the last twenty years? I cannot think of any—with the possible exceptions of Panama and Grenada. The rest—Iraq I, Somalia, Bosnia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Philippines, Iraq II—are all either failures or merely qualified defeats. It is possible to do better, because we have done better—post-War Europe comes immediately to mind, which involved taking an economics-centric approach to engagment, rather than a military one. Yet, as Priest documents, these lessons have been available for decades, both in military and civilian lore, yet they continue to be ignored by those in charge. So history will repeat itself until we either stop nation-building or until we bother to prepare properly for it.
I highly recommend this book as a primer on the practical ways the lopsided handling of civilian-military relations can produce mutated and ineffective foreign policy.