The elephant in the living room that is being denied in recent discussions about U.S. foreign policy and the global war on terrorism, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, is incompetence.
Among the assumptions made by many critics and supporters of the U.S. foreign policy is that the United States has a committed military, reasonably good intelligence, and capable civilian, diplomatic and military infrastructures that are led by smart people who, after weighting their policy options, can implement the wisest course of action. Most differences of opinion revolve around the best course of action. However, there is precious little evidence to support all of those assumptions.
The recent U.S. airstrikes in the Farah province of western Afghanistan in which upwards of 147 civilians, many of whom were children, were killed, according to local authorities, is but the latest example that reveals that the United States military is woefully ill-prepared for this kind of war. The Pentagon and the obsequious mainstream news media love to drone endlessly about the sophistication of U.S. weapons systems, replete with their “smart” technology and surgical-like, precision capabilities. This missile can zero in one room on the 17th floor of a crowed high rise, we are told. Wonderful, but how do we know who is in that room? That requires human intelligence on the ground and no amount of sophisticated surveillance technology can replace that.
As I see it, there are three possible explanations for the staggering inability of the U.S. military to determine the difference between, for instance, a convoy of armed fighters and a civilian wedding party. The first is that the U.S. is intentionally targeting civilians, which I discount. The second, which is similar to first, is that the U.S. military really doesn’t care whether it kills insurgents or civilians because they are equally part of the “enemy.” While I don’t think this is the most likely explanation in Afghanistan, the U.S. airstrikes against Iraq that destroyed water, sanitation and electricity-generating plants starting in 1991, the economic sanctions that denied chlorine and pharmaceuticals to treat the diseases and health problems created by those airstrikes, and the “shock and awe” campaign that initiated the War on Iraq and was openly designed to destroy the will of the Iraqi populace clearly shows that the United States does not consider non-combatants off limits. However, the most likely explanation is that U.S. intelligence in Afghanistan isn’t good enough to tell the difference between a convoy of armed fighters and a civilian wedding party.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The best analysis of the prison populations at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib has revealed that most of the detainees had no involvement in terrorist activities. Many were singled out by people motivated by revenge or the bounties that the finger-pointers collected. Others were at the wrong place at the wrong time or were nabbed on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. How else is it possible to explain the inability of the United States to produce virtually any convictions of these “detainees” after in many cases years of unlawful detention and torture, and nothing even close to fair legal representation.
We also know that agencies like CIA are willing to “cook” their intelligence to suit the ideological demands of the presidency. As former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson has convincingly argued, the CIA has become a private army of the presidency, much like Praetorian Guard that served Roman emperors.
In many cases, the military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq are unfairly expected to fight a kind of war for which they have little or inadequate training. Soldiers in the field, many of whom are highly trained for combat, are negotiating with village and tribal leaders, while the skilled negotiators and experts in cross-cultural communication are hunkered down in the fortified Embassy buildings too terrified to leave. As in so many wars, the soldier on the ground and civilian populations pay the price for incompetence and, in many cases, cowardice at the top.
In Afghanistan, a popular refrain to explain the lack of measurable U.S. success is the rampant corruption of Afghan authorities. This explanation ignores the fact that U.S. aid efforts are also riddled with corruption. The privatization of war that came into full bloom in Iraq often resulted in huge contracts being awarded without an adequate bidding process to well-placed political operatives who had neither the qualifications nor the experience to perform the work for which they were grossly overpaid. So what we have in both countries are unscrupulous western contractors in cahoots with equally unscrupulous local contractors, none of which are adequately monitored. The result is the virtual certainty that only a small percentage of every aid dollar will reach its intended beneficiaries. Pervasive corruption in Afghan society is inarguable, but many Americans’ obsession with it is a smokescreen to mask their unwillingness to address U.S. fraud, bribery and dishonesty.