While the Obama administration continues to affirm its intention to withdraw US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the US’ military presence in the Muslim world is actually expanding and this is exacerbating tensions and inflaming animosities.
Barack Obama’s promise to open a new page with the Muslim world on the basis of mutual respect and interests – supplemented and enforced by the use of soft rather than hard power – now rings hollow.
This is most evident in the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq and the corresponding surge in Afghanistan – an exercise in redeploying military forces, not extracting them.
As the gap between words and deeds declarations and policies public diplomacy and military strategy deepens, so the political and strategic crisis facing the Obama administration continues to deepen.
There are now more than 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan – from the 100,000 Americans to the three Austrians – in an estimated 400 bases.
But, almost a decade after it invaded and a year after the adoption of a new AfPak strategy, the escalation of fighting there serves to underline the failure of the US to implement an effective counter-insurgency strategy.
The complete military and political failure in places such as Marjah, in Helmand province – which was presented as a prototype for future operations – has further complicated the military mission in the country.
But Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, have been unequivocal in insisting that their priority is to ‘get the job done’ – which places a big question mark over previous presidential commitments to draw troops down by the end of next year.
The US generals are adamant and are lobbying their Nato allies to also expand their presence in the country.
And in Iraq …
US and Iraqi generals question the wisdom of a total US troop withdrawal by the end of next year, with some like Lieutenant-General Babaker Zebari, going as far as to speak of another decade of US deployment in the country.
Moreover, the US state department’s decision to hire and deploy a private army of some 7,000 additional mercenaries in Iraq – to add to the estimated 200,000 private contractors already deployed there and in Afghanistan, is further militarising its diplomatic presence in the region.
As of next month, there will still be some 50,000 US soldiers in more than 100 military bases in Iraq.
As former US Colonel Andrew Bacevich, the author of an insightful new book called Washington Rules and whose son was killed in Iraq, told EMPIRE: If it looks and sounds like an occupation, the US presence in Iraq will still be just that.
The political paralysis in the country and recent escalation of violence aren’t making matters any easier.
The wider region
A new report show that the Obama administration is intensifying its secret war and covert operations in the Muslim world, including assassinations through the use of drones.
Much of this is being executed by the CIA, turning the intelligence agency into, in the words of The New York Times, a “paramilitary organisation”.
Other covert operations are being carried out by unaccountable private contractors who are complicating US missions and rules of engagement.
Although the covert operations are defended as less costly in terms of “collateral damage” or human losses, their use comes in addition to, not instead of, military operations – or, in the words of the ‘terrorismologists’, using the “scalpel” in addition to, not instead of, the “hammer”.
According to the report, the CIA’s operations have been expanded in Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Yemen.
US military attacks in Pakistan and Yemen have led some to warn that, just as George Bush got America stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama might get the US trapped in these two complex countries.
At a crossroads
Unfortunately, despite its continuous and costly military fiascos, Washington persists in using military power to impose its political will, resulting in terrible human and political losses.
The US fiasco in Iraq and Afghanistan has exposed the limits of the superpower’s military capacity to win wars, let alone hearts and minds, in faraway lands. Instead, Western wars in Eastern lands have spread chaos and exposed its weaknesses.
And yet, in addition to hundreds of military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military continues to deploy its forces in more than 100,000 structures in over 700 bases in more than 100 countries around the world.
Indeed, for decades Washington has further redeployed, not withdrawn, its forces from the world.
Since the end of the World War II, and over the last six decades, the US fought three major wars – Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.
It is still deployed heavily between the Koreas, lost Vietnam and remains an occupying power in Iraq two decades after it first attacked in 1991 and seven years after it invaded in 2003.
Some reckon Obama, a liberal who never served in the military, is worried about being seen as a wimp.
Others lament that he has been out-manoeuvred by powerful forces in Washington, including the Pentagon and its generals.
And yet others remain hopeful that he will prevail and eventually downsize the US military presence overseas.
Consider me a realist, but I doubt the empire will be downsized any time soon.
However, the good news is that the majority of Americans today – like the absolute majority of the Greater Middle East – would like to see the US mind its own business and stop interfering militarily around the world.
Call me an idealist, but I think in a democracy, it is the people and their political representatives that have the last word, not the generals.
I guess a “readealist” (realist/idealist) reading of the US empire shows it’s better to keep your expectations of its generals low, and your hopes regarding the people high.
This episode of Empire can be seen from Wednesday, August 25, at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 1900 Thursday: 0300, 1400 Friday: 0600 Saturday: 1900 Sunday: 0300.