By replacing his commanding general in Afghanistan, President Obama has taken authorship of the two-front war in the Middle East.
This was not an orderly succession, but a rare event fraught with historical significance. The firing of battlefield commanding General David D. McKiernan — and his replacement by his former subordinate Lt. General Stanley A. McChrystal — is the first since President Truman famously removed General Douglas A. MacArthur from the Korean command. And before that headline producing event, Lincoln’s replacement of McClellan with Grant stands as its most noteworthy precedent.
Certainly this dramatic change of command is not comparable to those momentous occasions, but it does mark the beginning of a new battlefield strategy in Afghanistan. Perhaps more significantly, it stakes out the main thrust of Obama’s Middle East foreign policy: the use of dramatically escalated violence in a continuing effort to establish United States dominance in the “arc of instability” — the repository of the world’s remaining oil reserves.
Even the usually mute New York Times allowed it reporters, Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, to gesture at the true meaning of this leadership change in the very first sentence of their coverage: “The top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, was forced out Monday in an abrupt shake-up intended to bring a more aggressive and innovative approach to a worsening seven-year war.”
The tip-off here is the phrase “more aggressive and innovative approach” — code for the use of the most vicious military tactics in the U.S. arsenal.
In the body of the article, Bumiller and Shanker veer close to overtly stating that the new strategy will drastically increase civilian casualties, make torture a routinized method for intelligence gathering, and proliferate all manner of brutal tactics that constitute the tool kit of ‘counterinsurgency.” The article is laced with pregnant phrases that are code for these actions. For example, they tell us that McChrystal “recent ran all commando operations in Iraq.” They do not, however, spell out what these “commando operations in Iraq” featured: incursions into Syria and Iran, selective assassination, the training and supervision of Iraqi military death squads, and, of course, the detention and of Iraqis suspected of having information about insurgent activities, and their delivery to torture chambers in Iraqi and American prisons.
Or consider this short paragraph reporting McChrystal’s signal qualifications for his new responsibility:
Forces under General McChrystal’s command were credited with finding and capturing Saddam Hussein and with tracking and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. His success in using intelligence and firepower to track and kill insurgents, and his training in unconventional warfare that emphasizes the need to protect the population, made him the best choice for the command in Afghanistan, Defense Department officials said.
The phrase “using intelligence and firepower to track and kill insurgents” is truly fraught. Those who recall the demise of Zarqawi will remember that the “intelligence” developed in chasing Zarqawi involved the most brutal forms of torture — it coincided with “taking off the gloves” in Abu Ghraib and other detention centers. But beyond this, it was a period when torture was used not just on suspected insurgents, but primarily on community residents suspected of helping or harboring insurgents. It was a classic form of terrorism (a replication of virtually all imperial occupations) in which torture and detention of civilians are utilized as a warning against any support for resistance to the occupying power.
That was the “intelligence” part of his use of “unconventional warfare.” The “firepower” part of his training involved indiscriminant attacks on civilians. Remember that Zarqawi was killed by dropping a bomb in the house in which he was eating dinner. Also eating dinner in that house were 11 civilians who also died — collateral damage in military parlance. But this is only the tip of the “firepower” iceberg (to mix metaphors). Before killing Zarqawi, McChrystal’s troops had targeted dozens of other houses in which he they thought he might be present, and in doing so, they produced large numbers of collateral damage casualties. And, more broadly, his strategy of “intelligence and firepower” translated into assaulting or bombing hundreds of homes where insurgents were suspected of being present. McChrystal and the “forces” under his command were well aware that these hundreds and hundreds of assaulted or bombed dwellings contained thousands and thousand of Iraqi civilians. But this is the logic of “unconventional warfare”: if a building contains a suspected insurgent, full lethal firepower is applied, regardless of the presence of “human shields.”
Bumiller and Shanker do not tell the reader that McChyrstal and the other commander’s utilizing this strategy, produced the bloodbath in Iraq that yielded over one million deaths and five million refugees — and counting.
The irony in all this is the assertion that McChyrstal’s style of warfare “emphasizes the need to protect the population.” This sad distortion rests on the idea that full scale assaults on cities are indiscriminate attacks; whereas McChyrstal’s “intelligence and firepower” strategy utilize “precision bombs” that hit only those buildings suspected of harboring insurgents. Left unsaid is that fact that the targeted buildings contain the people who live there as well as “suspected insurgents.” Left unsaid is the fact that most houses in insurgent strongholds are suspected of containing insurgents.
As horrible as the Afghanistan war already is, the ascension of McChrystal signals a new level of carnage — and the economic and social immiseration of the hundreds of thousands who survive the onslaught.
But the most devastating part of this terrible tale is its significance as the most visible evidence that Obama’s foreign policy — like Bush’s discredited foreign policy — rests on using the most vicious and destructive military strategies aimed at intimidating the Afghan and Iraqi populations into accepting United States domination of their countries.
But even worse is the fact that the Obama administration expects to use the same tactics throughout the “arc of instability,” extending from the borders of China to the Horn of Africa. This was almost explicitly stated by Secretary of Defense Gates in his visit to “Camp Leatherneck” in Afghanistan, where, according to New York Times reporter Thom Shanker, “Mr. Gates predicted more of these messy, unconventional wars.”
The Obama administration is not planning to end the military attempt to conquer Iraq and Afghanistan; it fully expects the current escalation into Pakistan to be the first of several (or many more) such extensions of these wars.
President Obama and his cohort seek to succeed where Bush failed: to establish U.S. domination of the primary oil bearing region of the world.