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

8. How brutal will the American way of war be in 2010?

When it comes to war, American-style, the key word of 2009 was “counterinsurgency” or COIN. Think of it as the kindly version of war the American way, a strategy based on “clearing and holding” territory and “protecting” the civilian population. Its value, as expounded by Afghan War commander McChrystal, lies not in killing the enemy but in winning over “the people.” On paper, it sounds good, like a kinder, gentler version of war, but historically counterinsurgency operations have almost invariably gone into the ditch of brutality. So here’s one word you should keep your eyes out for in 2010: “counterterrorism.” Consider it the dark underside of counterinsurgency. Instead of boots on the ground, it’s bullets to the head.

General McChrystal was, until recently, a counterterrorism guy. He ran the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq and Afghanistan. His operatives were referred to, more or less politely, as “manhunters.” Think: assassins. With McChrystal, a general who credits his large-scale assassination program for a great deal of the Iraq surge’s success in 2007, it was just a matter of time before counterterrorism — which is just terrorism put in uniform and given an anodyne name — was ramped up in Afghanistan (and undoubtedly Pakistan as well). Though the planes may still be grounded, the special ops guys who kick in doors in the middle of the night and have often been responsible for grievous civilian casualties will evidently be going at it full tilt.

As 2009 ended, the news that black-ops forces were being loosed in a significant way was just hitting the press. So watch for that word “counterterrorism.” If it proliferates, you’ll know that the expanding Afghan War is getting down and dirty in a big way. For Americans, 2010 could be the year of the assassin.

9. Where will the drones go in 2010?

If there’s one thing to keep your eye on in the coming year, it might be the unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — flown secretly, in the case of the Air Force, from distant al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and, in the case of the CIA, even more distantly out of Langley, Virginia. American drones are already in a widening air war in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, while Washington threatens to create an even wider one. Think of these robotic planes as the leading edge of global war, American-style. While “hot pursuit” into Pakistan may still be forbidden to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the drones have long had a kind of hot-pursuit carte blanche in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands.

Perhaps more important, they can, to steal a Star Trek line, boldly go where no man has gone before. Since the first drone assassination attack of the Global War on Terror — in Yemen in 2002 — in which several men, reputedly al-Qaeda militants, were incinerated inside a car, drones have been taking war into new territory. They have already struck in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and possibly Somalia. As the first robot terminators of our age, they symbolize the loosing of American war-making powers from the oversight of Congress and the American people. In principle, they have made borders (hence national sovereignty) increasingly insignificant as assassination attacks can be launched 24/7 against those we deem our enemies, on the basis of unknown intelligence or evidence.

With our drones, there is little price to be paid if, as has regularly enough been the case, those enemies turn out not to be in the right place at the right time and others die in their stead. Globally, we have become the world’s leading state assassins — a judge, jury, and executioner beyond the bounds of all accountability. In essence, those pilot-less planes turn us into a law of war unto ourselves. It’s a chilling development. Watch for it to spread in 2010, and keep an eye out for which countries, fielding their own drones, follow down the path we’re pioneering, for in our age all war-making developments invariably proliferate — and fast.

The Element of Surprise

We know one thing: 2010 will be another year of war for the United States and, from assassination campaigns to new fronts in what is no longer called the Global War on Terror but is no less global or based on terror, it could get a lot uglier. The Obama administration may, from time to time, talk withdrawal, but across the Middle East and Central Asia, the Pentagon and its contractors are digging in. In the meantime, more money, not less, is being put into preparations and planning for future wars. As William Hartung points out, “if the government’s current plans are carried out, there will be yearly increases in military spending for at least another decade.”

When it comes to war, the only questions are: How wide? How much? Not: How long? Washington’s answer to that question has already been given, not in public pronouncements, but in that Pentagon budget and the planning that goes with it: forever and a day.

Of course, only diamonds are forever. Sooner or later, like great imperial powers of the past, we, too, will find that the stress of fighting a continuous string of wars in distant lands in inhospitable climes tells on us. Whether we “win” or not in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Yemen, we lose.

Which brings us to our last question:

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