WASHINGTON -- Every article out of Afghanistan these days speaks primarily about the U.S. preparing to leave, but not until it can leave behind an Afghan army well-trained enough to police the country.
Even President Obama, in his important speech from Bagram Air Base last week, stressed that although our troops would leave in 2014, the world should be assured that the Afghans were ready to take responsibility for their own security, a transition that will start next year.
President Obama saw a new relationship between the two dramatically different countries, "a future in which war ends, and a new chapter begins." Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that the speech opened "a new chapter in the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan," one marked by "mutual respect."
No one pretends the transition will be easy -- or even successful. A number of Afghan troops have murdered Western troops recently, for instance. Still, what is happening -- or better, what is supposed to happen -- is quite remarkable. If it works, the U.S. will leave behind, in the wild netherlands of that world, an institutionalized army.
For the underdeveloped world, that would truly be an accomplishment. Yet it would come as an irony, for it is America, with its "most powerful army on Earth," that now is being DEINSTITUTIONALIZED.
This means that, in any other adventures like Iraq and Afghanistan, or even in necessary wars with serious intent, America stands on the brink of using drone strikes, electronic surveillance and stealth engagements with special forces as the dominant military strategy. As professor Juan Cole, specialist on Afghanistan from the University of Michigan, wrote recently in The Nation:
"... (D)ependence on private corporations, mercenary armies and terrorist groups are now arguably more common as tools of U.S. foreign policy than conventional warfare or diplomacy. But these tools lend themselves to rogue operations that create peril for the United States when they blow back on us. And they often make the United States deeply unpopular."
As Cole defines it, "blowback" is the common term for a covert operation that boomerangs on its initiator. One of the most bedeviled of the art was President Reagan, who indirectly provided funds to the Contras in Nicaragua and gave billions of dollars in arms and aid to the fundamentalist mujahedeen in Afghanistan; it was those "freedom fighters" who later devised and carried through 9/11!
Yet in the world to come, military spokesmen have already revealed, American attacks on other countries will be conducted in the form of the military "irregular." What is this going to do to them, and to us?
"American drone strikes on individuals and groups in the tribal belt of northwestern Pakistan, as well as in Yemen, also typify Washington's global shadow wars," Cole maintains. "The United States has 7,000 unmanned aerial vehicles, which it has deployed in strikes in six countries. Both the CIA and the U.S. military operate the drones. Rather than being adjuncts to conventional war, drone strikes are mostly carried out in places where no war has been declared ... They operate outside the framework of the Constitution."
Right now, relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, supposedly our most important ally in the deep Mideast, have been at total diplomatic deadlock. In fact, the latest high-level talks aimed at overcoming that deadlock ended in failure last week when Pakistan demanded an "unconditional apology" from the Obama administration for airstrikes last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border.
Also, as a result of the successful SEAL attack that killed Osama bin Laden, aid groups in Pakistan, many of them manned by foreigners, have been attacked on all levels. And anti-Americanism in Pakistan has swelled to numbers never before seen. If Washington is concerned about preserving even a minimum of American popularity in the world, there is no question that this is not the way to get it.
Think about the consequences of this 'irregular' warfare. You are in your house, or garden, or in the village square, and suddenly a bomb comes out of the sky like some mysterious winged killer, wiping out everyone nearby. Sometimes it kills the terrorist it is intended for, and many times it hits others, women and children. You imagine it is sent by America -- who else has the wealth to send such expensive vehicles around the world?
Even when other countries or movements or tiny irregular groups do get weapons like drones -- and they will -- do we really think that the people they fall on will not think they came from the U.S? When they land in America -- and they will -- do we dare imagine that the peoples of the world will not applaud?
Why can we never seem to consider a third way: Keep our institutionalized military, with its great traditions and its built-in restraints on the misuse of power, and use the special forces mode of irregular warfare only when necessary and when we are in a real war, like World War II? Why can't we better figure out when we are in true danger and when wars like Iraq and Afghanistan are really only the adventures of a few ambitious men?
Fact: If we were not in these unnecessary, or as I call them, hypothetical, wars, we would not need to use these irregular forces and methods at all.