THE drone strike that accidentally killed two hostages held by Al Qaeda, one of them American, in Pakistan’s northwest frontier was a rare moment of media attention for a seemingly endless military campaign. It’s six years old if you date it to President Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, 11 if you date it to the first American drone strike inside Pakistan, and 14 if you date it to when United States Special Forces first slipped into Afghanistan after 9/11. By any estimate, our AfPak intervention has lasted longer than most major wars in American history. By the third estimate, it’s lasted longer than several of the biggest ones combined.
There have been periods in this long conflict when the United States was arguably fighting with some hope of final victory. But that possibility went the way of most victories sought by foreigners in Central Asia, and now we’re in a very different mode. Our AfPak war today, with its drones and Special Forces and deliberately light footprint, is open-ended by design, a war of constant attrition that aims just to keep our friends (such as they are) in power and our enemies from gaining ground.
In essence, what we’ve chosen in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan is a kind of “frozen conflict,” in which a war is pursued without any vision of an endgame, and that’s actually the point. “Frozen conflict” is a term you’re more likely to hear applied to the borderlands of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the Kremlin has encouraged low-grade civil wars (in the Caucasus, in Moldova, now Ukraine) thatare designed to just percolate and fester, keeping Moscow’s former satellites from turning fully to the West.
But while America’s motives are very different, we have this much in common with Putin: We, too, see advantages in managing conflicts, intervening just so far and no further, keeping a hand in (or a drone above) without seeking a final victory or a final peace. That’s true of the AfPak wars; it’s true for now of our interventions against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; it’s true of smaller antiterrorism forays the world over. It’s even true of our quasi-conflict with Putin himself: He wants to divide and destabilize Ukraine without actually conquering it, we want to limit his gains without provoking escalation, and the result is grinding violence without much chance of resolution.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that President Obama’s grand strategy (such as it is) is defined by a desire to lay down some of the burdens of the Pax Americana. I also wrote that it’s nearly impossible for a superpower to simply slip into a supporting role. Combine Obama’s vision with that Atlas-Can’t-Shrug reality, and frozen conflicts are the near-inevitable result: In theater after theater, this administration has us in just far enough to shape events, but without a plan to win it.
Over the next 18 months, you’re going to hear Republican politicians and — barring a Rand Paul upset — the eventual Republican nominee campaigning vigorously against this state of play, and arguing that America should be fighting more to win and less to draw. Napoleon’s maxim, “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna,” will be repurposed as a critique of this president and all his many half-fought, un-won wars.
That critique will have some teeth. Even frozen conflicts cost lives and treasure (and invite blowback), the world has grown more dangerous and chaotic across Obama’s second term, and the sense that American policy makers are constantly playing not to lose is plainly informing the calculations made in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing.
The problem is that Republican hawks have too many wars where they seem intent on turning up the heat, too many Viennas that they want to take at once. There is no sign as yet that the president’s would-be successors have clear strategic priorities; instead, the tendency is to treat every conflict that comes into the headlines, whether it involves Libya or Iran, Syria or Ukraine, AfPak or the Islamic State, as a theater where there’s no substitute for American-led victory.
Some of this is just posturing, and if elected no G.O.P. president (well, except maybe Lindsey Graham) would actually escalate militarily on every front at once. But it isn’t exactly clear what they would do, because their critique of Obama scores points without acknowledging the real limits on American power — and the structural, and not just ideological, realities behind the decisions that he’s made.There may be cases where America needs to fight to win, enemies that we need to actually defeat instead of managing. But there are also wars that shouldn’t be joined at all, and situations where a kind of frozen conflict really is the best out of our bad options. So the test facing this president’s would-be successors, the challenge that should be posed to them as candidates, is to tell us which kind of war is which.
The U.S. government has developed a specially designed, secret missile for pinpoint airstrikes that kill terrorist leaders with no explosion, drastically reducing damage and minimizing the chances of civilian casualties, multiple current and former U.S. officials said.
Both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon have used the weapon while closely guarding its existence. A modified version of the well-known Hellfire missile, the weapon carries an inert warhead. Instead of exploding, it is designed to plunge more than 100 pounds of metal through the tops of cars and buildings to kill its target without harming individuals and property close by.
To the targeted person, it is as if a speeding anvil fell from the sky, the officials said. But this variant of the Hellfire missile, designated as the R9X, also comes equipped with a different kind of payload: a halo of six long blades that are stowed inside and then deploy through the skin of the missile seconds before impact, shredding anything in its tracks.
The R9X is known colloquially to the small community of individuals who are familiar with its use as “the flying Ginsu,” for the blades that can cut through buildings, car roofs or other targets. The nickname is a reference to the popular knives sold on TV infomercials in the late 1970s and early 1980s that showed them cutting through both tree branches and tomatoes. The weapon has also been referred to as the Ninja bomb.
The missile was born of an emphasis, under former President Obama, on avoiding civilian deaths in long U.S. campaign of airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and other locales. Aside from humanitarian and legal considerations, civilian casualties can undermine popular and allied support for U.S. strategic goals.
But there was another reason for the weapon, officials said: Increasingly, terrorist fighters were adapting to U.S. airstrikes, hiding among groups of women and children to put themselves out of reach.
The weapon was under development as early as 2011. A missile with similar capabilities was considered as a “Plan B” to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that year, according to several of the officials.
In the end, officials opted to target bin Laden using select special-operations force fighters who confronted and killed bin Laden.
The weapon is used infrequently, employed only in specific circumstances, particularly when a senior terrorist leader has been pinpointed but other weapons would risk killing innocent bystanders, the officials said. Conventional Hellfire variants are more typically used against groups of targeted individuals or against a so-called high-value target who is convening with other militants.
But when a lone individual is targeted, the R9X is a sought-after weapon. The Defense Department has used it only about a half-dozen times, officials said, including in operations in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.
.. The aftermath of such operations has prompted speculation about a possible new weapon among those who were there or viewed photos. The strikes bore no resemblance to the damage normally wrought by U.S. airstrikes.
.. A Hellfire, which is a little more than five feet long and weighs just over 100 pounds, typically leaves behind mangled, burned-out shells of vehicles, surrounded by debris and scorch marks over a large radius.
The R9X leaves no such signature. Photographs of the aftermath of the strike on Mr. Masri show an oblong hole torn into the roof of the car in which he was riding. There are no burn marks suggesting an explosion. The windshield of the Kia sedan is cracked, but the car’s windshield wipers are still in place.
What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.
Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.
.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.
.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.
.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.
Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.
.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.
When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.
A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.
.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.
It’s ironic on so many levels. The first level is, of course, the irony of refusing to do military work at a company that only exists because of defense contractors working on a military project (ARPANET).
More generally, the irony is that the U.S. military has made a far greater positive contribution to the world than Google. Under the Pax Americana, we have seen the greatest number of people rise out of abject poverty in human history. The stable, liberal world order that has been beneficial to so many people has been bankrolled by the U.S. and backed by the U.S. military.
This world where people in India and Pakistan are using Gchat Facebook to talk to each other instead of waging nuclear war against each other is not the result of Google or Facebook. It’s not the result of humans evolving beyond their tendencies towards warfare. It’s because the U.S. military has made entire classes of armed conflicts untenable... This country only exists because of Puritan persecution in England, but you don’t see me thanking the Anglican church for America. Bad means result in good ends all the time; that doesn’t mean we should celebrate bad means.I agree that the US military has made positive contributions to the world, but I don’t think it’s the main source of the Pax Americana — strong international bodies (NATO, UN, &c), the tendency for democratic nations (the dominant sort in the 20th century) to avoid wars with each other, and advancements in crop science are all individually more responsible for the relative global stability of the last 30 years.
I don’t deny that the military had a role (usually financial) in any or all of the above, but I wouldn’t call it a causal role: virtually all academic research funding hits the defense world eventually (“food security”, “ecological security”, &c), especially during the Cold War. That’s the result of political contrivances, not any sort of deep connection between the U.S. military and scientific progress.
Finally, I wonder about drawing comparisons between the past U.S. military and current ventures. The Google engineers in question probably wouldn’t be designing waterproof radios for fastboats; they’d be training models that “recognize” “terrorists” from afar and systems that pass that information to drones for remote killing. Put another way: the shift away from conventional warfare changes the moral dimensions of working for the military.
.. It’s not that NATO and the UN are powerful or effective as bodies independent of the US, it’s that their greatest achievements have occurred without direct US military intervention.NATO and the UN both benefit (and suffer) from the power and presence of the US military, but their proudest moments (the German economic miracle, smallpox eradication, historic decreases in child mortality and malnutrition) all stem from smart policy and liberal principles, not from the looming threat of American tanks... The fact that people are spurred into action by violence doesn’t mean that we ought to be violent, or that violence is even the most effective way to get people to act in the way you want.
.. At the risk of sort of invoking Godwin, I’m curious if you’d apply the same logic to Stalin and the fall of Nazi Germany. What does the victory in the Battle of Berlin say about whether Stalin was good or bad?.. an academic institution is a public institution focused on advancing science and teaching it to the public. A corporation or contractor is in it for the profit. Notably, the academics involved were able to publish their work as the TCP/IP standard (and others), and anyone was able to use it.If it had actually been military contractors we would not have the internet as it is today... Cerf (Stanford) and Kahn (DARPA) designed TCP. But BBN (now a subsidiary of Raytheon) built ARPANET... The best the military does is keep stability. Google changed everything. One is static; the other, change. I don’t see them as comparable at all.Anyway I’ve heard it said that the container ship has done more to lift the world standard up, than all the political action of the last 1000 years. By distributing goods to all the corners of the world at a cheap price.
.. > Under the Pax Americana, we have seen the greatest number of people rise out of abject poverty in human history. The stable, liberal world order that has been beneficial to so many people has been bankrolled by the U.S. and backed by the U.S. military.It’s perfectly coherent to support the overall ends (relative world peace) and oppose the means (extrajudicial drone strikes, invasion of Iraq, etc.)