War is a Sticky Business

The killing of Osama bin Laden, which could have signaled an end to the global war on terror and a retrenchment from interventionism by Washington, appears to be going the other way, with government hawks extolling the virtues of torture and singing the praises of special operations directed against nations with which the US is not at war.  If the United States of America survives another fifty years and historians begin to chart the decline of the Great Republic, they will undoubtedly reach the conclusion that post-9/11 Washington found it very easy to use continuous conflict as a substitute for any real foreign policy while also finding it extremely difficult to exit from what it had begun. Empires frequently exhibit such a failure of imagination, thinking themselves invincible. Rome sought absolute security by invading and conquering much of central Europe, Mesopotamia, and Scotland, only to find itself defending territory that was largely indefensible, at great cost in manpower and treasure.  The British should have learned their lesson with the American Revolution, but a repeat performance against Boer farmers served as a prelude to the utter collapse of their Empire after the Second World War.

Remember back how Iraq, a war based on lies, was going to be quick, surgical, and paid for by oil revenue.  Eight years, some trillions of dollars, nearly five thousand dead Americans, and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis later, the war is still going on.  Recently Senator Lindsey Graham has warned that America in Iraq could go on forever because Iraq will "go to hell" without a continued US military presence. Ironically, Senator Graham notwithstanding, it is unlikely that any Iraqi government will agree to an open ended invitation to the US Army, meaning that all those fine bases with their Burger Kings and the Embassy-Mausoleum on the Tigris will be little more than hugely expensive monuments to America’s failure to understand what makes a foreign nation tick.

And then there is Afghanistan, which many, including the current president of the United States, still believe to be the "necessary" war.  The United States intervened in the country at the end of 2001 to remove al-Qaeda, which had used Afghanistan as a sanctuary for training and organizing its cadres.  It was an objective that most Americans at the time supported, though it would have been nice if Congress had closed the circle by properly declaring war as required by the constitution.  Now, ten years later, al-Qaeda is gone and bin Laden dead but the US military presence in the country exceeds 100,000.  Nearly two thousand Americans have died while the tally of dead Afghan civilians is difficult to assess but certainly exceeds thirty thousand.  Neighboring nuclear-armed Pakistan has meanwhile been reduced to something approaching a failed state by the conflict, was recently caught concealing Osama bin Laden, and is now refusing to cooperate with the CIA and Pentagon.  President Obama has promised to begin a drawdown of soldiers next year, but he also promised to close Guantánamo prison, so his pre-electoral pledges should not be regarded as completely reliable.  The president’s top military advisers have also been more cautious, warning that a US presence in the country could easily continue until 2015 and even beyond.  It costs the United States $80 billion a year to conduct military operations to provide security in Afghanistan.  The entire annual gross domestic product of the country is estimated to be around $20 billion, meaning that the American taxpayer spends four times as much to defend the country as its entire economy produces in a year. Those numbers reveal that there is something definitely wrong. It hardly sounds as if the Afghan Army will be able to take up responsibility for security anytime soon, particularly as they are too busy shooting their foreign trainers.

And then there is ever expanding and continuing war number three – Libya.  Even though Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that providing a UN mandated no-fly zone would be an act of war, the president began bombing on what he presumed to be his own authority on a Friday without consulting anyone and then went off on a foreign trip the next day.  The American public was assured that there would be no American ground troops sent to Libya.  Fortunately, no Americans have been killed, though one F-15 has crashed.  The barrage of cruise missiles and bombs raining down on Libya have so far cost nearly $800 million, with total expenses for the American involvement coming in at $1 billion and counting.

But the issue of the presence of ground troops is a little bit more sticky, in spite of the soothing commentary from the White House.  The revelation at the end of March that CIA teams have been active in Libya should come as no surprise due to the poor intelligence that Washington possesses relating to the rebel movement. Both the CIA and State Department found it difficult to develop any contacts with opposition movements inside Libya due to the heavy security presence and opted instead to communicate with exiles in the US and Europe, which is what one always does when at a complete loss for any information.  As a result, there has been considerable concern within policy making circles in Washington that the United States is being drawn into an Iraq-type situation where "intelligence" coming from several Libyan exiles who have been advising both the Agency and Defense Department might conceal other multiple agendas, as Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress succeeded in doing in 2002-3, working with the neocons to skew policy towards war.  It is widely believed that Khalifa Hefta, head of the in-exile Libyan National Army, has been a resident of Northern Virginia for the past twenty years and has been a fixture both at Langley and at the Pentagon.

The CIA teams on the ground in Libya consist of operations officers familiar with the country who are attempting to learn more about the rebel leadership while simultaneously assessing both the opposition’s capabilities and its needs relative to the Gadhafi government.  Protecting the operations officers are armed teams drawn from the Agency’s Special Activities Division, its paramilitary wing.  The Obama Administration insistence that there will be no "boots on the ground" in Libya is consequently somewhat of a fiction.  The SAD officers are in most cases former special operations soldiers who shifted over to the Agency after leaving the uniformed services.  Though non-uniformed, they are equipped and trained in exactly the same fashion as spec-ops soldiers and will react using their weapons if threatened.  If they engage in training or advising the Libyan rebels it will be de facto exactly the same as if the army were doing the training but without having to admit that American soldiers are involved.  There is little substantive difference between CIA paramilitaries and actual US Army advisers.  And they will become more vulnerable as the rebel cause continues to collapse, placing them in situations in which they must join in the fighting.  When the first American dies in Libya, the fraudulence of Obama’s case for going to war there in the first place will be exposed for all to see.

And the war in Libya could easily grow bigger, possibly even much bigger.  The CIA teams are in Libya as part of a presidential finding which authorized the action.  Under the finding, it will be possible to considerably expand the Agency role without any additional approval and only limited oversight. Bay of Pigs, anyone? At the present time, no one at Langley believes that the effort in Libya will be getting any smaller any time soon.  As the rebels grow weaker, there will be serious pressure from Congress and other interested parties to get more deeply involved.  Senator John McCain visited Benghazi two weeks ago and stopped just short of declaring "We are all Libyans" as he egged the rebels on while calling for increased US support.  President Obama obliged by ordering in pilotless drones armed with hellfire missiles to target Gadhafi’s forces.

And just to demonstrate that Washington continues to live in a complete fantasy world, wars four and five just might be hovering on the horizon.  Last week Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham all called on the Obama Administration to get tough with Syria.  They had better check first with their minders in Israel since it is by no means clear whether Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu would welcome the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is, at least, predictable compared to whatever kind of regime would succeed him.  And then there is Iran, always the enemy of choice, with a constant drumbeat from Tel Aviv and Washington.  Previously highly touted Yemen and Somalia have apparently fallen off the Pentagon’s short list, but that might only be temporary.

Now that the president of the United States has indicated that Washington is willing to fight more wars based on humanitarian principles and furthermore that presidential prerogatives make it unnecessary to go to Congress for a proper declaration of war, these new interventions could easily take place as the administration becomes more comfortable with throwing its weight around overseas.  Jingoism fueled imperialism is a formula for failure and is particularly discouraging in that candidate Barack Obama clearly saw the problems with the policy and has done a flip flop to become little more than a Democratic version of George W. Bush.  It is up to the American people to demand accountability from Washington.  Accountability would mean returning to the old standard, that war should be infrequent, a last resort, properly authorized by Congress, and only fought in response to a threatened vital interest.  The Obama wars, both current and impending, do not satisfy any of those requirements.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.