Who needs dystopian novelists or absurd satirists when otherwise banal bureaucrats of the U.S. national security state do the job for them? It’s an old story with a new tech-savvy twist. The late great Joseph Heller knew a thing or two about war’s foundational farce. He joined the army air corps at age 19 and flew 60 combat missions as a bombardier on World War II’s Italian front.
In his classic 1961 novel Catch-22, his wounded protagonist lamented that "outside the hospital the war was still going on. Men went mad and were rewarded with medals." Yet in today’s confusing modern twist, with the citizenry and even soldiery now opposing America’s endless wars, the only men going mad are inside Washington. Even now they’re looking for reasons to keep awarding medals to overtaxed and unenthused overseas warriors.
It makes for a strange state of affairs here in year 20 of the crusade formerly known as the "war on terror." Just last week, two assumedly unrelated stories offered case studies (or are they clinics) in America’s national security politics and procedures of absurdity.
Fit for Heller: An (Open) Secret Intel Budget
First, there was a passing annual footnote in the Pentagon’s bland bureaucratic budget line.
Part of that military budget goes to what DefenseNews labeled the "Pentagon’s secret intelligence fund" – last year they went with "black intel funding." Its officially titled the more mundane Military Intelligence Program, or MIP. Last week’s obligatory announcement was that Congress appropriated $23.1 billion for its operations in fiscal year 2020, a nine year high. In fact, the boys on the Hill tacked on a $100 million dollar bonus on top of the Pentagon’s request. So super sleuth are the MIP’s black ops, that the DOD waits until after the fiscal year to admit how many tax dollars unknowingly funded missions the tax-payers aren’t allowed to know about.
It’s a shadowy program by its very nature, separate from the "white-side" National Intelligence Program (NIP), and vaguely described as "defense intelligence activities intended to support operational and tactical level intelligence priorities supporting defense operations." That’s a 15-word method of saying nothing at all.
Per annual tradition, the Pentagon’s four sentence statement declared that beyond the top line amount, "No other MIP budget figures or program details will be released, as they remain classified for national security reasons." But have no fear, the war department – which hasn’t even eked out a minor war since Gorbachev sat in the Kremlin – assures us all that cash "is aligned to support the National Defense Strategy." After all the abject adventurism and counter-productivity of America’s agents and analysts, this seems explanation feels exceedingly inadequate.
No one is asking for the Pentagon – or Langley, for that matter – to release info on their sources and methods for stymying still active terror plots. Then again, these days, odds are Langley’s spooks (at least) might do just that if it served the designedly "politically independent" Agency’s political interests. But why aren’t check-writing citizens entitled to more than the current description – which clocks in at $6 billion-per-sentence – of what’s being cashed in their name?
After all, given the hardly distinguished recent track record of America’s 17 different intelligence agencies – eight of them within the DOD – a bit more oversight and skepticism seems sensible. Especially since, in any given year, combined intelligence programs account for some 11 percent of the total defense budget. Call me crazy, but it seems that an Intel community known for their mischievousness can do plenty of mischief carrying a cool $23 billion in unsupervised cash.
Even ex-Captain Joseph Heller might chuckle at a secret Intel program too vital not to fund, but too secret to reveal what’s being funded. He might mumble, "That’s some catch, that Catch-2020;" to which a better read Defense Secretary Mark Esper might quip: "It’s the best there is."
In other words, trust us. And, after lying on, then botching up, minor matters like 9/11, Iraq’s WMD, torture, Libyan regime change, Syria’s "moderate rebels," and Russian "bounties" – why of why wouldn’t we? The whole thing strikes me as an Obi-Wan Kenobi "These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” mind-trick. Welcome to the Star Wars universe…come to think of it, didn’t Trump recently stand-up a literal Space Force?
Fit for Orwell: JSOC’s "Taliban Air Force"
Which brings us to last week’s second textbook profile in absurdity: according to a Washington Post (no, an Onion) headline, "The U.S. is secretly helping the Taliban fight ISIS in Afghanistan." Beyond their shared commitment to that S-word, the two reports may be more linked than it seems.
That’s because, thanks to a 2019 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report we do have some vague idea of who nets some of those black intel bucks: US Special Operations Command, to pursue "several current acquisition efforts focused on outfitting aircraft — both manned and unmanned, fixed and rotary wing…that will work in multiple environments." And guess which outfit has reportedly been surveilling and bombing on the Taliban’s behalf in our impalable 19-year enemy’s fight with the local chapter of ISIS-wannabes? The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) counterterrorism task force, of course – which has been "using strikes from drones and other aircraft to help the Taliban." According to a member of the elite team, "What we’re doing with the strikes against ISIS is helping the Taliban move,” by pinning down or destroying ISIS defenders.
In reality, most foot-soldiers for the "Khorasan Province” (ISIS-K) of the now defunct Iraq-Syria-centered caliphate aren’t Arab – but disgruntled Afghans (often ex-Taliban), or Pakistani Tehrik-i-Taliban refugees from Islamabad’s crackdown on its own incubated Islamists. Furthermore, much of the fighting and US airstrike assistance described in recent reports unfolded in Kunar Province’s Korengal Valley – where some 40 US troops have been killed in rather infamous combat over the years. There, as even WaPo admits, the Taliban, U.S.-backed Kabul government, local criminal gangs, and now ISIS(K), have often really "tussled for control of the Korengal and its lucrative timber business." It’s about wood as much as Wahhabism.
If the US taking and switching sides in a 10,000 miles-from-home lumber war seems strange, remember that what the CIA – these days in tandem with JSOC – lacks in competence it compensates with consistency. Notice that every time – and there’ve been a lot of times – the Agency founds or fuels some jihadi Frankenstein’s Monster, it quickly loses control of it. Then it all but inevitably turns on America or its allies As if that wasn’t bad enough, another more monstrous splinter or offshoot rises like a problematic Phoenix. This, of course, prompts panic and expedient alliances with the original ogres – themselves threatened by more radical challengers. Only it turns out "enemy of my enemy" friendships rarely endure.
Patient Zero: "American" Iraq
Indeed, Washington – spearheaded by its intelligence agencies and special operators – has a long and sordid history of switching enemies without skipping a beat or bothering to explain. Take just Iraq:
Long before President George H.W. Bush hinted that he was a Hitler-reprise, Sunni-secularist Saddam Hussein was seen as a necessary counterweight to revolutionary Iran. Thus, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan essentially green-lighted, then definitively backed, Iraq’s 1980-88 invasion of the Islamic Republic. Saddam was our autocrat; that is until he invaded Kuwait in 1990. After a touch of waffling, Bush’s team rhetorically transformed Saddam into the fuhrer himself. Therefore, anything less than a full-fledged U.S.-led counterattack was akin to "Munich" style appeasement.
Just before kicking Saddam’s overrated army out of Kuwait, Bush’s had perhaps a triumphal flight of fancy and – speaking at a Raytheon plant! – encouraged Iraqi Shia to "take matters into their own hands" and rise up. Yes, the very same Shia Washington once feared as a potential Iranian Fifth Column. Sure enough, they did revolt; but Bush lost his nerve (or thought better of it) and abandoned them. Saddam slaughtered at least 30-60,000 of them.
In 2003, when Bush’s less-savvy son conquered a country that hadn’t an iota to do with the 9/11 attacks, the once-jettisoned Iraqi Shia were suddenly back in favor. They’d form the democracy’s vanguard for the whole Arab World. Unfortunately it turned out their leaders largely sprung from expat-Shia Islamist parties, militias, and terror outfits. Having sought refuge in Iran – some even fighting against their countrymen in the eight-year war – many were uncomfortably close to their recent hosts. Plenty were a tad too authoritarian, to boot.
By 2005-06, we US military occupiers found ourselves propping-up a corrupt, legitimacy-challenged Shia sectarian regime. American troops were also regularly attacked by Shia militias, various Sunni (nationalist and Islamist) factions, and jihadi foreign fighters. Bush II’s team finally realized something had to give. So, in a fresh turnabout, the Sunni tribes – many with ample American blood on their hands – were rebranded the "Awakening," and billed as the next last great hope for democracy on the Tigris. That let President Barack Obama tardily pull US troops, but the Shia plurality clung to power and proceeded to sideline and suppress America’s Sunni frenemies.
Boosted by the U.S.-aggravated chaos over Syria’s porous border, Iraq’s Al Qaeda faction (AQI) staged a striking comeback and regained the allegiance of alienated Sunnis. Radicalized, empowered, and fed on a healthy diet of triumphalist delusions of caliphate grandeur, a significant AQI splinter pronounced itself the Islamic State (ISIS) and ran roughshod over Iraq’s hollow U.S.-raised and -trained army. After conquering huge swathes of the country’s west/northwest and driving to Baghdad’s outskirts, Iraq’s desperate government announced a wholesale Shia levée en masse – conscripting all comers, who counted a cornucopia of militia loyalties. Many were vaguely aligned with Iran.
Unwilling to see America’s troubled Iraqi progeny go extinct, Obama sent drones, planes, and "non-combat" combat advisors to steady a wavering Iraq’s soldiers and melange of green militiamen. The US advisers were advised to avoid getting themselves killed, and stay mute about embarrassing contradictions and cleavages among the sundry Shia cannon-fodder sent to the front. Appearances and all. By December 2017, when Baghdad’s U.S.-assisted gypsy army had retaken all significant caliphate territory, some 26,000 Iraqi and at least 20 American soldiers had been killed – along with a mid-range estimate of 8,000 civilians killed.
One might think Washington would make nice with its tacit Iranian allies and the Tehran-backed Shia militias after their shared victory over ISIS, then bolt back out of Baghdad. No such luck. Instead the aptly-titled US mission "Inherently Resolved” to inevitably persist under the guise of an ISIS-mop-up operations. The real reason for staying constitutes another American open secret – admitted by hawkish think-tankers, mainstream Democrats, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, alike: to "balance" and/or "contain" Iran and "reign in" its Shia militias. Of course, the latter only attack US forces because they’re there – uninvited, I’d add. American service members have overstayed their welcome by almost 11 months – Iraq’s parliament voted to expel them last January. Details, mere details.
Finally (for now), in the wake of ISIS’s de facto defeat, its aggressive escalation of tensions with Iran – including assassinating its top general and national icon in Baghdad – and Iraq’s parliamentary expulsion vote, Washington’s tacked back towards the wayward Sunnis and any pliant Shia figureheads willing to work with their sectarian rivals. One of the "sophisticates" over at the Brookings Institution even recommends the Baghdad government pin its post-ISIS, post-COVID recovery hopes on petro-princelings heading the Sunni Gulf States – the very countries who’ve long-fueled assorted Islamist groups, including (initially) ISIS itself.
To review Iraq’s cursory case study by the numbers: since 1979, the loosely Shia side has switched from American enemy-to-ally at least four times; the sketchy Sunni squad did so five times and counting.
Orwell in Afghanistan
That’s just one extreme example among among many. In other words, there’s plenty of precedent for the Taliban-ISIS-K swap – and the latter group is itself consequence and outgrowth of counterproductive US policies in Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan. Plus, the merger between ISIS-K and Tehrik-i-Taliban was a product of Washington’s sometime Pakistani proxies own devil’s bargains. They raised and fostered Pashtun Islamists to control Afghanistan and harass India’s occupation of Kashmir. When these groups predictably turned on on the state, Islamabad’s resultant bloody crackdown sent plenty of fighters to the Afghan hills – whence many offered bayat (loyalty pledge) to the Taliban’s ISIS-K competitors.
Washington’s and its proxies’ games of ally-enemy musical chairs have almost been too easy. The sad fact that those few citizens keeping tabs and throwing rational barbs have generally been dismissed as cranks and conspiracy theorists counts as proof positive.
Look to the breezy, offhanded nature JSOC-jocularity. The operators’ inside jokes about serving as the "Taliban’s Air Force" go beyond the standard darkness of soldierly sarcasm. There’s something resignedly fatalistic about their acceptance – almost expectation – of such absurd mission twists. After all, the more senior leaders among them have likely swapped sides, ditched friends, and befriended ex-enemies a time or two – and on a few continents – during their own careers. According to recent headlines Afghan veteran fathers are now watching their sons deploy to the same war. This grotesque scenario conjures Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984:
Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war…war had literally been continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil.
Americans were once told by Reagan that the Soviets represented an absolute "evil empire." Therefore helping raise, fund, and arm the Taliban’s Islamist precursors to fight off Moscow’s invasion was deemed obligatory – in fact it had already begun, under President Carter. After 9/11, the Taliban – which Washington had long tolerated even as they terrorized the populace – became the new absolute evil incarnate. We had to win what Bush called, nineteen Octobers ago, "a war between good and evil" – and save those embattled Afghan women we hadn’t cared a lick about a few months before.
Only we couldn’t. It took an utterly ridiculous president, Donald J. Trump, to admit as much and try making messy peace instead of endless war with the Taliban. Now the US has not-so-tacitly allied with evil to defeat an ostensibly eviler evil ISIS-K outfit birthed by America’s ludicrous folly in Iraq.
The American people aren’t meant not to notice. Orwell described such matters in 1984 – when Great Britain’s fictional facsimile suddenly switched enemies in its own forever war:
The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.
Funny, if – and I’m just spit-balling here, of course – a vocal wing of senior military officers, their now retired superiors-turned-pundits, plus a basically conjoined political-media establishment wanted to indefinitely prolong the Afghan zombie war, shifting its justification to a nasty franchise facsimile of ISIS might seem just the trick. Especially if Trump’s "peace" deal appeared to end US involvement in a wildly unpopular war had rendered Taliban-baiting obsolete. No one much cares about the reigning king of the pundit-generals, H.R. McMaster, and his protestations that the done-deal is (you guessed it!) a "Munich" appeasement "travesty."
Which raises the question: when do conspiracy theories stop being conspiratorial? Unlike their black budget’s details, the intelligence community’s past policy fiascoes are public record, and they read like broken ones. Time and again the spooks find an enemy to justify their funding and relevance – short of that, they’ll produce or provoke one.
Establishment Republican and Democratic politicians and their media mouthpieces – who are utterly out-of-step rank-and-file – have prolonged the Afghan War and the broader interventionist apparatus that funds it (and their campaigns) for a good while. Even those who once opposed the war now oppose ending it because they don’t like the ender. Informed citizens ought fear the new U.S.-Taliban anti-ISIS alliance will be used to justify and breathe life into a walking dead Afghan deployment. Washington’s war-hawks have done it before, and they’ll try it again – regardless of who wins the White House a week from today.
Joking about serving as a Taliban air force is clearly counterintuitive, paradoxical, and absurd – but taken to its logical conclusion it’s also dangerously dystopian. The thing about an empire shuffling and substituting enemies is that eventually the war-state’s shuffled substitute becomes the citizenry itself. In 1984, the state’s ultimate targets were domestic dissenters like the novel’s protagonist, Winston. Brought before the government’s torturers, he assumes he’s meant to confess but is quickly corrected by the inquisitor:
We are not interested in those stupid crimes that you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.
After two decades, the America’s military and intelligence forces are clearly incapable of destroying the Taliban, so now Washington may once again change enemies and ally with its old jihadi friends and reminisce about the good old Cold War battles against those bad old Soviets. The real target though, the real audience, is us. Victory for the state isn’t defined militarily anymore – that ship has sailed. True victory comes when the people hardly notice the foe-flipping at all. Changing thought, compliance through apathy – that’s the trick.
In Heller’s classic satirical antiwar novel Catch-22, when the semi-autobiographical protagonist, the bombardier Captain Yossarian, takes shrapnel in the thigh, he awakes to find the lead pilot of tending his wound mid-flight. Confused and suddenly struck with growing horror, Yossarian asked "Who’s minding the store?" Though quickly assured that Lieutenant Nately (played by Art Garfunkel in the 1970 film version) was "at the controls" of the soaring bomber, it’s clear that Heller – through Yossarian – was really asking about the cockpit of the broader war. And so should we still.
Whether it’s the annual furtive funding gymnastics or another round of friend-foe contortionism in Afghanistan, such stories never fail to engender head shakes at my youthful naïveté. Back when, at 17, I followed uncritical patriotism, aspirational masculinity, and visions of martial glory to West Point – and for much of the next five years – whenever a U.S. policy seemingly failed efficacy or ethics tests, I, like most Americans, assumed some "they" must know something a Main Street "we" didn’t. Trust the process and policy, no matter how strange, became way of life and sanity-defense mechanism.
I wanted to believe, needed to believe – even in the face of mounting evidence of early blunders and own goals – that some omniscient and benevolent insiders were manning the nation’s controls. In my case, the delusion had an expiration date of October 2006 – as I took the reins in tiny sub zones of treacherous backwater sub-districts of Southeast Baghdad.
It’s remarkable how stark a turnabout can result from fighting two wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) sold and waged on lies, watching two others (Libya and Syria) born of the same, plus launching countless raids against innocents – instigated by embarrassingly bad intel. What first I feared, then suspected, and finally knew at ground-level applies to the aggregate – and Americans ought learn it fast:
Whether in Washington, Arlington, or Langley – there are no adults "in the room"…or minding the store.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), and director of the soon-to-launch Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen