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Andrew Bacevich
Tom Dispatch / Op-Ed
Published: Sunday 19 February 2012
“The United States is now in the business of using missile-armed drones and special operations forces to eliminate anyone (not excluding U.S. citizens) the president of the United States decides has become an intolerable annoyance.”

Scoring the Global War on Terror

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With the United States now well into the second decade of what the Pentagon has styled an “era of persistent conflict,” the war formerly known as the global war on terrorism (unofficial acronym WFKATGWOT) appears increasingly fragmented and diffuse.  Without achieving victory, yet unwilling to acknowledge failure, the United States military has withdrawn from Iraq.  It is trying to leave Afghanistan, where events seem equally unlikely to yield a happy outcome. 

Elsewhere -- in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, for example -- U.S. forces are busily opening up new fronts.  Published reports that the United States is establishing “a constellation of secret drone bases” in or near the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula suggest that the scope of operations will only widen further.  In a front-page story, the New York Times described plans for “thickening” the global presence of U.S. special operations forces.  Rushed Navy plans to convert an aging amphibious landing ship into an “afloat forward staging base” -- a mobile launch platform for either commando raids or minesweeping operations in the Persian Gulf -- only reinforces the point. Yet as some fronts close down and others open up, the war’s narrative has become increasingly difficult to discern.  How much farther until we reach the WFKATGWOT’s equivalent of Berlin?  What exactly is the WFKATGWOT’s equivalent of Berlin?  In fact, is there a storyline here at all?

Viewed close-up, the “war” appears to have lost form and shape.  Yet by taking a couple of steps back, important patterns begin to appear.  What follows is a preliminary attempt to score the WFKATGWOT, dividing the conflict into a bout of three rounds.  Although there may be several additional rounds still to come, here’s what we’ve suffered through thus far.

The Rumsfeld Era

Round 1: Liberation.  More than any other figure -- more than any general, even more than the president himself -- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dominated the war’s early stages.  Appearing for a time to be a larger-than-life figure -- the “Secretary at War” in the eyes of an adoring (if fickle) neocon fan club -- Rumsfeld dedicated himself to the proposition that, in battle, speed holds the key to victory.  He threw his considerable weight behind a high-tech American version of blitzkrieg.  U.S. forces, he regularly insisted, were smarter and more agile than any adversary.  To employ them in ways that took advantage of those qualities was to guarantee victory.  The journalistic term adopted to describe this concept was “shock and awe.”

No one believed more passionately in “shock and awe” than Rumsfeld himself.  The design of Operation Enduring Freedom, launched in October 2001, and of Operation Iraqi Freedom, begun in March 2003, reflected this belief.  In each instance, the campaign got off to a promising start, with U.S. troops landing some swift and impressive blows.  In neither case, however, were they able to finish off their opponent or even, in reality, sort out just who their opponent might be.  Unfortunately for Rumsfeld, the “terrorists” refused to play by his rulebook and U.S. forces proved to be less smart and agile than their technological edge -- and their public relations machine -- suggested would be the case.  Indeed, when harassed by minor insurgencies and scattered bands of jihadis, they proved surprisingly slow to figure out what hit them.

In Afghanistan, Rumsfeld let victory slip through his grasp.  In Iraq, his mismanagement of the campaign brought the United States face-to-face with outright defeat.  Rumsfeld’s boss had hoped to liberate (and, of course, dominate) the Islamic world through a series of short, quick thrusts.  What Bush got instead were two different versions of a long, hard slog.  By the end of 2006, “shock and awe” was kaput.  Trailing well behind the rest of the country and its armed forces, the president eventually lost confidence in his defense secretary’s approach.  As a result, Rumsfeld lost his job.  Round one came to an end, the Americans, rather embarrassingly, having lost it on points.

The Petraeus Era

Round 2: Pacification.  Enter General David Petraeus.  More than any other figure, in or out of uniform, Petraeus dominated the WFKATGWOT’s second phase.  Round two opened with lowered expectations.  Gone was the heady talk of liberation.  Gone, too, were predictions of lightning victories.  The United States was now willing to settle for much less while still claiming success. 

Petraeus offered a formula for restoring a semblance of order to countries reduced to chaos as a result of round one.  Order might permit the United States to extricate itself while maintaining some semblance of having met its policy objectives.  This became the operative definition of victory.

The formal name for the formula that Petraeus devised was counterinsurgency, or COIN.  Rather than trying to defeat the enemy, COIN sought to facilitate the emergence of a viable and stable nation-state.  This was the stated aim of the “surge” in Iraq ordered by President George W. Bush at the end of 2006. 

With Petraeus presiding, violence in that country did decline precipitously. Whether the relationship was causal or coincidental remains the subject of controversy.  Still, Petraeus’s apparent success persuaded some observers that counterinsurgency on a global scale -- GCOIN, they called it -- should now form the basis for U.S. national security strategy.  Here, they argued, was an approach that could definitively extract the United States from the WFKATGWOT, while offering victory of a sort.  Rather than employing “shock and awe” to liberate the Islamic world, U.S. forces would apply counterinsurgency doctrine to pacify it.

The task of demonstrating the validity of COIN beyond Iraq fell to General Stanley McChrystal, appointed with much fanfare in 2009 to command U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.  Press reports celebrated McChrystal as another Petraeus, the ideal candidate to replicate the achievements already credited to “King David.” 

McChrystal’s ascendency came at a moment when a cult of generalship gripped Washington.  Rather than technology being the determinant of success as Rumsfeld had believed, the key was to put the right guy in charge and then let him run with things.  Political figures on both sides of the aisle fell all over themselves declaring McChrystal the right guy for Afghanistan.  Pundits of all stripes joined the chorus.

Once installed in Kabul, the general surveyed the situation and, to no one’s surprise, announced that “success demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign.”  Implementing that campaign would necessitate an Afghan “surge” mirroring the one that had seemingly turned Iraq around.  In December 2009, albeit with little evident enthusiasm, President Barack Obama accededto his commander’s request (or ultimatum).  The U.S. troop commitment to Afghanistan rapidly increased.

Here things began to come undone.  Progress toward reducing the insurgency or improving the capacity of Afghan security forces was -- by even the most generous evaluation -- negligible.  McChrystal made promises-- like meeting basic Afghan needs with “government in a box, ready to roll in” -- that he proved utterly incapable of keeping.  Relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai remained strained.  Those with neighboring Pakistan, not good to begin with, only worsened.  Both governments expressed deep resentment at what they viewed as high-handed American behavior that killed or maimed noncombatants with disturbing frequency.

To make matters worse, despite all the hype, McChrystal turned out to be miscast -- manifestly the wrong guy for the job.  Notably, he proved unable to grasp the need for projecting even some pretence of respect for the principle of civilian control back in Washington.  By the summer of 2010, he was out -- and Petraeus was back in.

In Washington (if not in Kabul), Petraeus’s oversized reputation quelled the sense that with McChrystal’s flame-out Afghanistan might be a lost cause.  Surely, the most celebrated soldier of his generation would repeat his Iraq magic, affirming his own greatness and the continued viability of COIN. 

Alas, this was not to be.  Conditions in Afghanistan during Petraeus’s tenure in command improved -- if that’s even the word -- only modestly.  The ongoing war met just about anyone’s definition of a quagmire.  With considerable understatement, a 2011 National Intelligence Estimate called it a “stalemate.” Soon, talk of a “comprehensive counterinsurgency” faded.  With the bar defining success slipping ever lower, passing off the fight to Afghan security forces and hightailing it for home became the publicly announced war aim.

That job remained unfinished when Petraeus himself headed for home, leaving the army to become CIA director.  Although Petraeus was still held in high esteem, his departure from active duty left the cult of generalship looking more than a little the worse for wear.  By the time General John Allen succeeded Petraeus -- thereby became the eighth U.S. officer appointed to preside over the ongoing Afghan War -- no one believed that simply putting the right guy in charge was going to produce magic.  On that inclusive note, round two of the WFKATGWOT ended.

The Vickers Era

Round 3: Assassination.  Unlike Donald Rumsfeld or David Petraeus, Michael Vickers has not achieved celebrity status.  Yet more than anyone else in or out of uniform, Vickers, who carries the title Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, deserves recognition as the emblematic figure of the WFKATGWOT’s round three.  His low-key, low-profile persona meshes perfectly with this latest evolution in the war’s character.  Few people outside of Washington know who he is, which is fitting indeed since he presides over a war that few people outside of Washington are paying much attention to any longer.

With the retirement of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Vickers is the senior remaining holdover from George W. Bush’s Pentagon.  His background is nothing if not eclectic.  He previously served in U.S. Army Special Forces and as a CIA operative.  In that guise, he played a leading role in supporting the Afghan mujahedeen in their war against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s.  Subsequently, he worked in a Washington think tank and earned a PhD in strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University (dissertation title: “The Structure of Military Revolutions”). 

Even during the Bush era, Vickers never subscribed to expectations that the United States could liberate or pacify the Islamic world.  His preferred approach to the WFKATGWOT has been simplicity itself. “I just want to kill those guys,” he says -- “those guys” referring to members of al-Qaeda. Kill the people who want to kill Americans and don’t stop until they are all dead: this defines the Vickers strategy, which over the course of the Obama presidency has supplanted COIN as the latest variant of U.S. strategy. 

The Vickers approach means acting aggressively to eliminate would-be killers wherever they might be found, employing whatever means are necessary.  Vickers “tends to think like a gangster,” one admirer comments. “He can understand trends then change the rules of the game so they are advantageous for your side.”

Round three of the WFKATGWOT is all about bending, breaking, and reinventing rules in ways thought to be advantageous to the United States.  Much as COIN supplanted “shock and awe,” a broad-gauged program of targeted assassination has now displaced COIN as the prevailing expression of the American way of war. 

The United States is finished with the business of sending large land armies to invade and occupy countries on the Eurasian mainland.  Robert Gates, when still Secretary of Defense, made the definitive statement on that subject.  The United States is now in the business of using missile-armed drones and special operations forces to eliminate anyone (not excluding U.S. citizens) the president of the United States decides has become an intolerable annoyance.  Under President Obama, such attacks have proliferated. 

This is America’s new MO.  Paraphrasing a warning issued by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Washington Post dispatch succinctly summarized what it implied: “The United States reserved the right to attack anyone who it determined posed a direct threat to U.S. national security, anywhere in the world.” 

Furthermore, acting on behalf of the United States, the president exercises this supposed right without warning, without regard to claims of national sovereignty, without Congressional authorization, and without consulting anyone other than Michael Vickers and a few other members of the national security apparatus.  The role allotted to the American people is to applaud, if and when notified that a successful assassination has occurred.  And applaud we do, for example, when a daring raid by members in SEAL Team Six secretly enter Pakistan to dispatch Osama bin Laden with two neatly placed kill shots.  Vengeance long deferred making it unnecessary to consider what second-order political complications might ensue. 

How round three will end is difficult to forecast.  The best we can say is that it’s unlikely to end anytime soon or particularly well.  As Israel has discovered, once targeted assassination becomes your policy, the list of targets has a way of growing ever longer. 

So what tentative judgments can we offer regarding the ongoing WFKATGWOT?  Operationally, a war launched by the conventionally minded has progressively fallen under the purview of those who inhabit what Dick Cheney once called “the dark side,” with implications that few seem willing to explore.  Strategically, a war informed at the outset by utopian expectationscontinues today with no concretely stated expectations whatsoever, the forward momentum of events displacing serious consideration of purpose.  Politically, a war that once occupied center stage in national politics has now slipped to the periphery, the American people moving on to other concerns and entertainments, with legal and moral questions raised by the war left dangling in midair.

Is this progress?

Click here to read Tom Engelhardt's response.

that perhaps Hillary did over

that perhaps Hillary did over drmzitaae the event. What?Over drmzitaae the event? What? She out right lied about the event..That's not being over dramatic thats flat out lying!!Now with that said I stand by all my claims about equalizing valor and there are many who desire to do so to be heros to themselves in their own minds. Many get combat pay..and never see combat..never see it!Because they are in a war zone..and combat pay is mandated for all in the war zone.Hillary should have gotten combat pay LOL but also extra pay for the novel she could have written, from the drama she conjured up when she embelished her story to make it appear that she had something to do with foreign policy and combat. Her experience needed a little tweeking.She made it up as she went along for political reasons. Could that revelation be any more clear? She's no better than Congressman Phil Graham when he said he didn't go to Vietnam, because he believed they wouldn't use him in the proper capacity(he was far too intelligent) and the service probably wouldn't have recognize it!..he later changed it to the claim that he had a heart problem at the time. Graham is a Republican.(that would be a negative claim agaist Phil Graham from my point of view) Both are liars/aka politicians.Do some objective research on Barack Obama. But PLEASE, take off the rose colored glasses when you read. It will help you better fit the Nic you so proudly cherish.Clear to come right..not to the fabricated reality..not to the delusional reality but the pure..unadulterated reality.This clear to come Right is meant for both Republicans and Democrats or what ever your political persuations are.

The War Machine always wins.

The War Machine always wins. This country's ideals are being disproved daily by these aggressive war campaigns all around the Earth. Weapons-makers instigate unrest and draw out profit-making conflicts as long as they can make them last.While the people gain nothing from wars, we are commanded to give all. We not only do not Export Democracy, we now have Deported Democracy as the new world order begins by removing our jobs, our homes, our retirements and the essential Constitutional Rights which have defined this nation.

Man oh man! This fairly cool

Man oh man! This fairly cool summary of the bureaucratic surface of U.S. death-policy since 2001 would be OK, if what we needed was a mere description of the leading administrators of the process, along with a superficial look at their policies and techniques.

And arguably we must develop such basic tools as that. But it is so grossly inadequate as a more sophisticated mechanism either to understand or to undertake to alter what has transpired in the course of the past decade or so.

Even a basic capacity to discuss and wrestle with what has happened, which in time can lead to citizen-policy-making-capacity, which is what we desperately need, requires three levels of analysis that are completely missing here. The first is an examination of the historical record of U.S. foreign policy, which might profitably begin with William Appleman Williams, "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy," proceed to the formation of the Central Intelligence, Agency, and conclude with a brief of the fifty years from 1950-2000. The second is a dissection of how military spending and industries impact the domestic political economy, perhaps starting with a review of the Nye-Committee's "Merchants of Death" reports from the 1930's, along with Smedley Butler's "War Is a Racket," and then covering in a quick-time march the Cold War and war on terror's Keynesian aspects. The final rubric essential to investigate is the assumption of imperial primacy--including policies to 'protect' and control key commodities such as oil--by the U.S. Government, foreshadowed under the leadership of FDR and brought to fruition in the aftermath of WWII.

Until such a thoroughgoing, serial, and continuing analysis takes place, efforts such as this essay will continue to be primarily fluff, providing the ability to name a few names without proffering any of the real knowledge and critical thinking necessary to make coherent sense of things. In such a context of blithe ignorance and surface awareness, the lunacy of labeling Islam as terrorist will continue, tantamount to equating the Catholic Church to the Inquisition or to Pope Pius' support for Fascism and thereby damning as a terrorist every human on earth who seeks some measure of solace, meaning, and liberation as a believer in 'Holy Mother Church.'

Dude! Dialog is good. Thanks


Dialog is good. Thanks for the input. However, I must demur from seeing your point.

I'm not bullying. I'm pointing out the limited utility for grassroots policymaking of such a limited analytical framework.

In other words, except in a fashion that accepts our arrival 'here,' this does not "summ(arize) where we are and how we got here." The point is not to "create a doctoral dissertation," but to be able, fluidly and incisively on occasion, deeply and rigorously on occasion, to deal with the historical, political-economic, and dynamic elements of what's happening in Southwest Asia.

I have sought the right to post on "Nation of Change," alas to no avail. And that is my point too. Whether my word limit were equal to this, less or more, I could help people make more sense of Iraq, Iran, Israel, and the rest of the imperial foreign policy that shows up in these pages, with very few exceptions, in facile or even apologist form.

I also like acronyms. Let me know how, and I'll link you to some of what I've written on this stuff. I'm an able and willing correspondent, so long as ideological blinders do not prohibit Marxist or otherwise radical assessments.

Come on, SpinDoctor, don't be

Come on, SpinDoctor, don't be a bully. I thought the article was a useful AND READABLE summation of where we are and how we got here. He wasn't trying to create a doctoral thesis, extracting every level of meaning from the War on Terror. The Nye Committee's reports from the 1930s? Keynesian aspects of the Cold War? An audience's eyes would glaze over before the 4th paragraph. That said, as someone who never truly understood what we were doing in Iraq, I would love to read your take on WFKATGWOT, including all those levels of analysis. Please do investigate & write your own article. (You have to use that awesome acronym, though -- and expand on Dick Cheney's "dark side!")

more scare tactics to

more scare tactics to legislate fear and SPENDING on very profitable, non-productive, "activities" to ensure our "safety"

Re: “The United States

Re: “The United States reserved the right to attack anyone who it determined posed a direct threat to U.S. national security, anywhere in the world.”

This M.O. sounds exactly like islam itself (except for the word "direct," of course)!


The 'War On Terror' has been

The 'War On Terror' has been nothing but a cruel joke. It's really the war of terror that began in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the CIA terrorist coup of a democratic Iran in 1953. And, the covert actions of the CIA are actions of terror. This would make the USA the biggest exporter of terror in our world.

Maybe so, but in "their

Maybe so, but in "their world" (the Eastern parts of this planet) islam still holds the record, with over 270 million murders (that's over a quarter-BILLION innocent humans sacrifices to allah, so far) under their belts!

And they did it with a historical average of a lot less than 1% of the global population! Which means that even today's moslems, who have bred themselves up to be 1/5th of the world, are still from between four and several hundred TIMES more likely to indulge in murder (and all other forms of crime) than everyone else (than all other human creed, both secular AND religious) combined!

The only problem with the "War On Terror" is that it's a salesman's war, which avoids solving the problem by correctly defining it, in favour of exploiting the endless symptoms that ignoring it creates! (There's no money in solutions)!

To correctly define the problem: the oil we want is in lands where hostage-taking & ransom has been a cultural pastime since before islam (which itself only codified same into 'holy law' forever)!

Arabic culture is based on "us-versus-them," and on "me and my brother against my cousin, and all of us against the world" and on might-makes-right, where each man has several wives to produce multiple (hopefully male warrior) children every year (in stead of only one child) while also thereby depriving other tribes of those same women and warrior-creating capacity.

islam itself claims it is SO superior to all non-moslems, that it's not only their right, but their holy duty to their god, to extort, enslave, and kill all the non-moslems in the world. Their Qur'an is a permanent, written death-threat to all non-moslems.

All non-defensive threats are psychological attacks (i.e: coercion, duress, extortion, "terrorism"") and all non-defensive attacks are, by definition, crimes.

There are only two cultures in the universe: Civilization, which is achieved by everyone agreeing to obey the Golden Rule of law, which defines morality as "Do Not Attack First," and so enables trust and progress,


Barbarism (the exact opposite) where at least one group decides it's their holy right and duty to attack all 'the others' first, so there, nyah (i.e: islam) which gains them only distrust, and so stagnation.

After all, when you decide to attack first, then, by definition, you are the predatory criminal aggressor, and they are your innocent victims; there's no two ways about it!

Here's islam's "holy Message from god" as exemplified in the words & deeds of it's Founder:

"I will save humanity by lying to, extorting, robbing, kidnapping, ransoming, enslaving, torturing, burning, raping and murdering everyone who even only verbally disagrees with me - and you can, too!"


So, obviously, islam is only an extortion ("terrorism") racket, an ancient yet ongoing CRIME-syndicate, and the only "religious" part in it, is where they say:

"God told us to commit these crimes!"



Seems we've tried, lately, to become that which we despise.

By his own pre-emptive actions, it's clear that GW Bush WAS A MOSLEM!

The only thing making us different from them, now, is that they did indeed declare war on all of humanity, forever, 1,400 years ago. Thus it's still (by their own rules) impossible for any of us, to ever really attack them, first)!


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