Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com.
He donned a bomber's jacket with an Air Force One logo on it, got up in front of a boisterous crowd of about 2,000 military personnel in a hangar at Bagram Air Base, and gave a tub-thumping, "support the troops" campaign speech. I'm talking about Barack Obama on his six-hour visit to Afghanistan. Of course, any presidential trip to "the front" is always essentially a domestic political phenomenon, destined to trump all other news and be covered uncritically. In this case, it was undoubtedly part of the post-health-care run up to election 2010, emphasizing an area -- the Afghan War -- in which Americans are, at the moment, remarkably supportive of the president's policies.
Starting with that bomber's jacket, the event even had a certain eerie similarity to George W. Bush's visits to Iraq. As Bush once had sworn that we would never step down until the Iraqis stepped up, so Obama declared his war to be "absolutely essential." Above all, whatever the talk about beginning to draw down his surge troops in mid-2011 -- and he has so far committed more than 50,000 American troops to that country -- when it comes to the Afghan War, he seemed to signal that we're on Pentagon time.
Particularly striking was his assurance that, while there would be "difficult days ahead... we also know this: The United States of America does not quit once it starts on something. You don't quit, the American armed services does not quit, we keep at it, we persevere, and together with our partners we will prevail. I am absolutely confident of that." He assured his listeners, and assumedly Americans at home as well, that we will "finish the job," which remained undefined, and while he was at it, he made another promise as well: "I'm looking forward," he told the troops, "to returning to Afghanistan many times in the years to come."
Many times in the years to come. Think about that and fasten your seatbelts. The U.S. evidently isn't about to leave Afghanistan any time soon and the president seems to have set his watch to the Pentagon's clock.
Back in 2007, when General David Petraeus was the surge commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, he had a penchant for clock imagery. In an interview in April of that year, he typically said: “I'm conscious of a couple of things. One is that the Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock, so we're obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit and to produce some progress on the ground that can perhaps give hope to those in the coalition countries, in Washington, and perhaps put a little more time on the Washington clock.” And he wasn’t alone. Military spokespeople and others in the Bush administration right up to the president regularly seemed to hear one, two, or sometimes as many as three clocks ticking away ominously and out of sync.
Hearing some discordant ticking myself of late, I decided to retrieve Petraeus’s image from the dustbin of history. So imagine three ticking clocks, all right here in the U.S., one set to Washington time, a second to American time, and the third to Pentagon time.
In Washington -- with even the New York Times now agreeing that a “majority” of 100 is 60 (not 51) and that the Senate’s 41st vote settles everything -- the clock seems to be ticking erratically, if at all. On the other hand, that American clock, if we’re to believe themembers of the tea party movement, is ticking away like a bomb. Americans are impatient, angry, and “in revolt” against Washington time. That's what the media have told us ever since the Massachusetts Senate upset.
A Blank Check for the Pentagon
It’s worth noting, however, that they’re not angry about everything -- and that the Washington clock, barely moving on a wide range of issues, is still ticking away when it comes to one institution. I’m speaking, of course, about the Pentagon, for which Congress has just passed a record new budget of $708 billion (with an Afghan war-fighting supplemental request of $33 billion, essentially a bail-out payment, still pending but sure to pass). This happened without real debate, much public notice, or even a touch of anger in Washington or around the nation. And keep in mind that the Pentagon’s real budget is undoubtedly close to a trillion dollars, without even including the full panoply of our national security state.
The tea party crews don’t rail against Pentagon giveaways. Unfettered Pentagon budgets pass in the tick-tock of a Washington clock and no one seems fazed when the Wall Street Journal reveals that military aides accompanying globe-hopping parties of congressional representatives regularly spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on snacks, drinks, and other “amenities” for them, even while, like some K Street lobbying outfit, promoting their newest weaponry. Think of it, in financial terms, as Pentagon peanuts shelled out for actual peanuts, and no one gives a damn.
It’s hardly considered news -- and certainly nothing to get angry about -- when the Secretary of Defense meets privately with the nation’s top military-industrial contractors, calls for an even “closer partnership,” and pledges to further their mutual interests by working “with the White House to secure steady growth in the Pentagon's budgets over time.” Nor does it cause a stir among the denizens of inside-the-Beltway Washington or the tea party movement when the top ten defense contractors spend more than $27 million lobbying the federal government, as in the last quarter of 2009 (a significant increase over the previous quarter), just as plans for the president’s Afghan War surge were being prepared.
Nor is it just tea-party organizers or Republicans stalwarts who hear no clock ticking when it comes to “national security” expenditures, who see no link between our military-industrial outlays, our perpetual wars, and our economic woes. When, for instance, was the last time you saw a bona fide liberal economist/columnist like Paul Krugman include the Pentagon and our wars in the litany of things potentially bringing this country down?
Yes, striking percentages of Americans attend the church (temple, mosque) of their choice, but when it comes to American politics and the economy, the U.S. military is our church, “national security” our Bible, and nothing done in the name of either can be wrong.
Pentagon Time Horizons
Which brings us to Pentagon time. Yes, that third clock is ticking, but at a very different tempo from those in Washington or in Massachusetts.
Americans are evidently increasingly impatient for “change” of whatever sort, whether you can believe in it or not. The Pentagon, on the other hand, is patient. It’s opted for making counterinsurgency the central strategy of its war in Central and South Asia, the sort of strategy that, even if successful, experts claim could easily take a decade or two to pull off. But no problem -- not when the Pentagon’s clock is ticking on something like eternal time.
And here’s the thing: because the media are no less likely to give the Pentagon a blank check, it’s hard indeed to grasp the extent to which that institution, and the military services it represents, are planning and living by their own clock. Though major papers have Pentagon “beats,” they generally tell us remarkably little, except inadvertently and in passing, about Pentagon time.
So, for the next few minutes, just keep that Pentagon clock ticking away in your head. In the meantime, we’ll go looking for some hints about the Pentagon’s war-fighting time horizons buried in news reports on, and Pentagon contracts for, the Afghan War.
Take, as a start, a January 6th story from the inside pages of my hometown paper. New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt began it this way: “The military’s effort to build a seasoned corps of expert officers for the Afghan war, one of the highest priorities of top commanders, is off to a slow start, with too few volunteers and a high-level warning to the armed services to steer better candidates into the program, according to some senior officers and participants.” At stake was an initiative “championed” by Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal to create a “912-member corps of mostly officers and enlisted service members who will work on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues for up to five years.”
The news was that the program, in its infancy, was already faltering because it didn’t conform to one of the normal career paths followed in the U.S. military. But what caught my eye was that phrase “up to five years.” Imagine what it means for the war commander, backed by key figures in the Pentagon, to plan to put more than 900 soldiers, including top officers, on a career path that would leave them totally wedded, for five years, to war in the Af-Pak theater of operations. (After all, if that war were to end, the State Department might well take charge.) In other words, McChrystal was creating a potentially powerful interest group within the military whose careers would be wedded to an ongoing war with a time-line that extended into 2015 -- and who would have something to lose if it ended too quickly. What does it matter then that President Obama was proclaiming his desire to begin drawing down the war in July 2011?
Or consider the plan being proposed, according to Ann Scott Tyson, in a January 17th Washington Post piece, by Special Forces Major Jim Gant, and now getting a most respectful hearing inside the military. Gant wants to establish small Special Forces teams that would “go native,” move into Afghan villages and partner up with local tribal leaders -- “one tribe at a time,” as an influential paper he wrote on the subject was entitled. “The U.S. military,” reported Tyson, “would have to grant the teams the leeway to grow beards and wear local garb, and enough autonomy in the chain of command to make rapid decisions. Most important, to build relationships, the military would have to commit one or two teams to working with the same tribe for three to five years, Gant said.” She added that Gant has “won praise at the highest levels [of the U.S. military] for his effort to radically deepen the U.S. military's involvement with Afghan tribes --- and is being sent back to Afghanistan to do just that.” Again, another “up to five year” commitment in Afghanistan and a career path to go with it on a clock that, in Gant’s case, has yet to start ticking.
Or just to run through a few more examples:
* In August 2009, the superb Walter Pincus of the Washington Post quoted Air Force Brigadier General Walter Givhan, in charge of training the Afghan National Army Air Corps, this way: "Our goal is by 2016 to have an [Afghan] air corps that will be capable of doing those operations and the things that it needs to do to meet the security requirements of this country." Of course, that six-year timeline includes the American advisors training that air force. (And note that Givhan’s 2016 date may actually represent slippage. In January 2008, when Air Force Brig. Gen. Jay H. Lindell, who was then commander of the Combined Air Power Transition Force, discussed the subject, he spoke of an “eight-year campaign plan” through 2015 to build up the Afghan Air Corps.)
* In a January 13th piece on Pentagon budgeting plans, Anne Gearan and Anne Flaherty of the Associated Press reported: “The Pentagon projects that war funding would drop sharply in 2012, to $50 billion” from the present at least $159 billion (mainly thanks to a projected massive draw-down of forces in Iraq), “and remain there through 2015.” Whether the financial numbers are accurate or not, the date is striking: again a five-year window.
* Or take the “train and equip” program aimed at bulking up the Afghan military and police, which will be massively staffed with U.S. military advisors (and private security contractors) and is expected to cost at least $65 billion. It’s officially slated to run from 2010-2014 by which time the combined Afghan security forces are projected to reach 400,000.
* Or consider a couple of the long-term contracts already being handed out for Afghan war work like the $158 million the Air Force has awarded to Evergreen Helicopters, Inc., for “indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract for rotary wing aircraft, personnel, equipment, tools, material, maintenance and supervision necessary to perform passenger and cargo air transportation services. Work will be performed in Afghanistan and is expected to start Apr. 3, 2009, to be completed by Nov. 30, 2013.” Or the Pentagon contract awarded to the private contractor SOS International primarily for translators, which has an estimated completion date of September 2014.
Ending the Pentagon’s Free Ride
Of course, this just scratches the surface of long-term Afghan War planning in the Pentagon and the military, which rolls right along, seemingly barely related to whatever war debates may be taking place in Washington. Few in or out of that city find these timelines strange, and indeed they are just symptomatic of an organization already planning for “the next war” and the ones after that, not to speak of the next generation bomber of 2018, the integrated U.S. Army battlefield surveillance system of 2025, and the drones of 2047.
This, in short, is Pentagon time and it’s we who fund that clock which ticks toward eternity. If the Pentagon gets in trouble, war-fighting or otherwise, we bail it out without serious debate or any of the anger we saw during the health care vote. No one marches in the streets, or demands that Pentagon bailouts end, or votes ‘em (or at least their supporters) out of office.
In this way, no institution is more deeply embedded in American life or less accountable for its acts; Pentagon time exists enswathed in an almost religious glow of praise and veneration -- what might once have been known as “idolatry.” Until the Pentagon is forced into our financial universe, the angry, impatient one where most Americans now live, we’re in trouble. Until candidates begin losing because angry Americans reject our perpetual wars, and the perpetual war-planning that goes with them, this sort of thinking will simply continue, no matter who the “commander-in-chief” is or what he thinks he’s commanding.
It’s time for Americans to stop saluting and end the Pentagon’s free ride before America’s wars kill us.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt