An American World of War: What to Watch for in 2010

2. Will the U.S. Air Force be the final piece in the Afghan surge?

As 2010 begins, almost everything is in surge mode in Afghanistan, including rising numbers of U.S. troops, private contractors, State Department employees, and new bases. In this period, only the U.S. Air Force (drones excepted) has stood down. Under orders from Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal, based on the new make-nice counterinsurgency strategy he’s implementing, air power is anything but surging. The use of the Air Force, even in close support of U.S. troops in situations in which Afghan civilians are anywhere nearby, has been severely restricted. There has already been grumbling about this in and around the military. If things don’t go well — and quickly — in the expanding war, expect frustration to grow and the pressure to rise to bring air power to bear. Already unnamed intelligence officials are leaking warnings that, with the Taliban insurgency expanding its reach, “time is running out.” Counterinsurgency strategies are notorious for how long they take to bear fruit (if they do at all). When Americans are dying, maintaining a surge without a surge of air power is sure to be a test of will and patience (neither of which is an American strong suit). So keep your eye on the Air Force next year. If the planes start to fly more regularly and destructively, you’ll know that things aren’t looking up for General McChrystal and his campaign.

3. How big will the American presence in Pakistan be as 2010 ends?

Let’s start with the fact that it’s already bigger than most of us imagine. Thanks to Nation magazine reporter Jeremy Scahill, we know that, from a base in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, officers of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, with the help of hired hands from the notorious private security contractor Xe (formerly Blackwater), “plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, ‘snatch and grabs’ of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan.” Small numbers of U.S. Special Forces operatives have also reportedly been sent in to train Pakistan’s special forces. U.S. spies are in the country. U.S. missile- and bomb-armed drones, both CIA- and Air Force-controlled, have been conducting escalating operations in the country’s tribal borderlands. U.S. Special Operations forces have conducted at least four cross-border raids into Pakistan’s tribal borderlands unsanctioned by the Pakistani government or military (only one of which was publicly reported in this country). And the CIA and the State Department have been attempting (against some Pakistani resistance) to build up their personnel and facilities in-country. This, mind you, is only what we know in a situation in which secrecy is the order of the day and rumors fly.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has been threatening to widen its drone war (and possibly other operations) to the powder-keg province of Baluchistan, where most of the Afghan Taliban’s leadership reportedly resides (evidently under Pakistani protection) and to the fighters of the Haqqani network, linked to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in the Pakistani border province of North Waziristan. Right now, these threats from Washington are clearly meant to motivate the Pakistani military to do the job instead. But as that is unlikely — both groups are seen by its military as key players in the country’s future anti-Indian policies in Afghanistan — they may not remain mere threats for long. Any such U.S. moves are only likely to widen the Af-Pak war and further destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan. In addition, the Pakistani military is not powerless vis-à-vis the U.S. For one thing, as Robert Dreyfuss of the Nation’s “Dreyfuss Report” recently pointed out, it has a potential stranglehold on the tortuous U.S. supply lines into Afghanistan, already under attack by Taliban militants, that make the war there possible.

Pakistan is the Catch-22 of Obama’s surge. As in the Vietnam War years, sanctuaries across the border ensure limited success in any escalating war effort, but going after those sanctuaries in a major way would be a war-widening move of genuine desperation. As with the Air Force in Afghanistan, watch Pakistan not just for spreading drone operations, but for the use of U.S. troops. If by year’s end Special Operations forces or U.S. troops are periodically on the ground in that country, don’t be shocked. However it may be explained, this will represent a dangerous failure of the first order.

4. How much smaller will the American presence in Iraq be?

Barack Obama swept into office, in part, on a pledge to end the U.S. war in Iraq. Almost a year after he entered the White House, more than 100,000 U.S. troops are still deployed in that country (about the same number as in February 2004). Still, plans developed at the end of the Bush presidency, and later confirmed by President Obama, have set the U.S. on an apparent path of withdrawal. On this the president has been unambiguous. “Let me say this as plainly as I can,” he told a military audience in February 2009. “By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end… I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.” However, Robert Gates, his secretary of defense, has not been so unequivocal. While recently visiting Iraq, he disclosed that the U.S. Air Force would likely continue to operate in that country well into the future. He also said: “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see agreements between ourselves and the Iraqis that continues a train, equip, and advise role beyond the end of 2011.”

For 2010, expect platitudes about withdrawal from the President and other administration spokespeople, while Defense Department officials and military commanders offer more “pragmatic” (and realistic) assessments. Keep an eye out for signs this year of a coming non-withdrawal withdrawal in 2011.

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