The Opposites Game: All the Strangeness of Our American World in One Article

Have you ever thought about just how strange this country's version
of normal truly is? Let me make my point with a single, hardly noticed Washington Post news
story that's been on my mind for a while. It represents the sort of
reporting that, in our world, zips by with next to no reaction, despite
the true weirdness buried in it.

Have you ever thought about just how strange this country's version
of normal truly is? Let me make my point with a single, hardly noticed Washington Post news
story that's been on my mind for a while. It represents the sort of
reporting that, in our world, zips by with next to no reaction, despite
the true weirdness buried in it.

The piece by
Craig Whitlock appeared on June 19th and was headlined, "U.S. military
criticized for purchase of Russian copters for Afghan air corps." Maybe
that's strange enough for you right there. Russian copters? Of
course, we all know, at least vaguely, that by year's end U.S. spending on its protracted Afghan war and nation-building project will be heading for$350 billion dollars. And, of course, those dollars do have to go somewhere.

Admittedly, these days in parts of the U.S., state and city governments are having a hard time finding the money just to pay teachers or the police. The Pentagon, on the other hand, hasn't hesitated to use at least $25-27 billion
to "train" and "mentor" the Afghan military and police -- and after
each round of training failed to produce the expected results, to ask
for even more money, and train them again. That includes the Afghan
National Army Air Corps which, in the Soviet era of the 1980s, had nearly 500 aircraft
and a raft of trained pilots. The last of that air force -- little
used in the Taliban era -- was destroyed in the U.S. air assault and
invasion of 2001. As a result, the "Afghan air force" (with about 50
helicopters and transport planes) is now something of a misnomer, since
it is, in fact, the U.S. Air Force.

Still, there are a few Afghan pilots, mostly in their forties,
trained long ago on Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters, and it's on a
refurbished version of these copters, Whitlock tells us, that the
Pentagon has already spent $648 million. The Mi-17 was specially built
for Afghanistan's difficult flying environment back when various
Islamic jihadists, some of whom we're now fighting under the rubric of "the Taliban," were allied with us against the Russians.

Here's the first paragraph of Whitlock's article: "The U.S.
government is snapping up Russian-made helicopters to form the core of
Afghanistan's fledgling air force, a strategy that is drawing flak from
members of Congress who want to force the Afghans to fly American
choppers instead."

So, various congressional representatives are upset over the lack of a
buy-American plan when it comes to the Afghan air force. That's the
story Whitlock sets out to tell, because the Pentagon has been planning
to purchase dozens more of the Mi-17s over the next decade, and that, it
seems, is what's worth being upset about when perfectly good American
arms manufacturers aren't getting the contracts.

But let's consider three aspects of Whitlock's article that no one is
likely to spend an extra moment on, even if they do capture the
surpassing strangeness of the American way of war in distant lands --
and in Washington.

1. The Little Training Program That Couldn't:
There are at present an impressive 450 U.S. personnel in Afghanistan
training the Afghan air force. Unfortunately, there's a problem. There
may be no "buy American" program for that air force, but there is a
"speak American" one. To be an Afghan air force pilot, you must know
English -- "the official language of the cockpit," Whitlock assures us
(even if to fly Russian helicopters). As he points out, however, the
trainees, mostly illiterate, take two to five years simply to learn the
language. (Imagine a U.S. Air Force in which, just to take off, every
pilot needed to know Dari!)

Thanks to this language barrier, the U.S. can train endlessly and
next to nothing is guaranteed to happen. "So far," reports Whitlock,
"only one Afghan pilot has graduated from flight school in the United
States, although dozens are in the pipeline. That has forced the air
corps to rely on pilots who learned to fly Mi-17s during the days of
Soviet and Taliban rule." In other words, despite the impressive Soviet
performance in the 1980s, the training of the Afghan Air Force has been
re-imagined by Americans as a Sisyphean undertaking.

And this offers but a hint of how bizarre U.S. training programs for
the Afghan military and police have proven to be. In fact, sometimes it
seems as if exactly the same scathing report, detailing the same
training problems and setbacks, has been recycled yearly without anyone
who mattered finding it particularly odd -- or being surprised that the
response to each successive piece of bad news is to decide to pour yet
more money and trainers into the project.

For example, in 2005, at a time when Washington had already spent
$3.3 billion training and mentoring the Afghan army and police, the U.S.
Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report
indicating that "efforts to fully equip the increasing number of
[Afghan] combat troops have fallen behind, and efforts to establish
sustaining institutions, such as a logistics command, needed to support
these troops have not kept pace." Worse yet, the report fretted, it
might take "up to $7.2 billion to complete [the training project] and
about $600 million annually to sustain [it]."

In 2006, according to the New York Times,
"a joint report by the Pentagon and the State Department... found that
the American-trained police force in Afghanistan is largely incapable of
carrying out routine law enforcement work, and that managers of the
$1.1 billion training program cannot say how many officers are actually
on duty or where thousands of trucks and other equipment issued to
police units have gone." At best, stated the report, fewer than half of
the officially announced number of police were "trained and equipped to
carry out their police functions."

In 2008, by which time $16.5 billion had been spent on Army and police training programs, the GAO chimed in again,
indicating that only two of 105 army units were "assessed as being
fully capable of conducting their primary mission," while "no police
unit is fully capable." In 2009, the U.S. Special Inspector General for
Afghan Reconstruction reported
that "only 24 of 559 Afghan police units are considered ready to
operate without international help." Such reports, as well as repeated
(and repetitive) news investigations and stories
on the subject, invariably are accompanied by a litany of complaints
about corruption, indiscipline, illiteracy, drug taking, staggering
desertion rates, Taliban infiltration, ghost soldiers, and a host of
other problems. In 2009, however, the solution remained as expectable
as the problems: "The report called for more U.S. trainers and more

This June, a U.S. government audit, again from the Special Inspector General, contradicted the latest upbeat American and NATO training assessments, reporting
that "the standards used to appraise the Afghan forces since 2005 were
woefully inadequate, inflating their abilities." The usual litany of
training woes followed. Yet, according to Reuters, President Obama
wants another $14.2 billion for the training project "for this year and next." And just last week, the Wall Street Journal's Julian Barnes reported
that new Afghan war commander General David Petraeus is planning to
"retool" U.S. strategy to include "a greater focus on how Afghanistan's
security forces are being trained."

When it comes to U.S. training programs then, you might conclude that
Afghanistan has proved to be Catch-22-ville, the land where time stood
still -- and so, evidently, has the Washington national security
establishment's collective brain. For Washington, there seems to be no
learning curve in Afghanistan, not when it comes to "training" Afghans

And here is the oddest thing of all, though no one even bothers to
mention it in this context: the Taliban haven't had tens of billions of
dollars in foreign training funds; they haven't had years of advice from
the best U.S. and NATO advisors that money can buy; they haven't had
private contractors like DynCorp
teaching them how to fight and police, and strangely enough, they seem
to have no problem fighting. They are not undermanned, infiltrated by
followers of Hamid Karzai, or particularly corrupt. They may be
illiterate and may not be fluent in English, but they are ready, in up-to platoon-sized units, to attack heavily fortified U.S. military bases, Afghan prisons, a police headquarters, and the like with hardly a foreign mentor in sight.

Consider it, then, a modern miracle in reverse that the U.S. has
proven incapable of training a competent Afghan force in a country where
arms are the norm, fighting has for decades seldom stopped, and the
locals are known for their war-fighting traditions. Similarly, it's
abidingly curious that the U.S. has so far failed to train a
modest-sized air force, even flying refurbished Italian light transport planes
from the 1980s and those Russian helicopters, when the Soviet Union,
the last imperial power to try this, proved up to creating an Afghan
force able to pilot aircraft ranging from helicopters to fighter

2. Non-Exit strategies: Now, let's wade a little
deeper into the strangeness of what Whitlock reported by taking up the
question of when we're actually planning to leave Afghanistan. Consider
this passage from the Whitlock piece: "U.S. military officials have
estimated that the Afghan air force won't be able to operate
independently until 2016, five years after President Obama has said he
intends to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But [U.S. Air
Force Brig. Gen. Michael R.]Boera said that date could slip by at least two years if Congress forces the Afghans to fly U.S. choppers."

In other words, while Americans argue over what the president's July
2011 drawdown date really means, and while Afghan President Hamid Karzai
suggests that Afghan forces will take over the country's security
duties by 2014, Whitlock's anonymous "U.S. military officials" are clearly operating on a different clock, on, in fact, Pentagon time,
and so are planning for a 2016-2018 target date for that force simply
to "operate independently" (which by no means indicates "without U.S.

If you were of a conspiratorial mind, you might almost think that the
Pentagon preferred not to create an effective Afghan air force and
instead -- as has also been the case in Iraq, a country that once had
the world's sixth largest
air force and now, after years of U.S. mentoring, has next to nothing
-- remain the substitute Afghan air force forever and a day.

3. Who Are the Russians Now?: Okay, let's move even
deeper into American strangeness with a passage that makes up most of
the 20th and 21st paragraphs of Whitlock's 25-paragraph piece: "In
addition," he reports, "the U.S. Special Operations Command would like
to buy a few Mi-17s of its own, so that special forces carrying out
clandestine missions could cloak the fact that they are American. 'We
would like to have some to blend in and do things,' said a senior U.S.
military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the
clandestine program."

No explanation follows on just how -- or where -- those Russian
helicopters will help "cloak" American Special Operations missions, or
what they are to "blend" into, or the "things" they are to do. There's
no further discussion of the subject at all.

In other words, the special op urge to Russianize its air transport
has officially been reported, and a month later, as far as I know, not a
single congressional representative has made a fuss over it; no
mainstream pundit has written a curious, questioning, or angry editorial
questioning its appropriateness; and no reporter has, as yet, followed

As just another little factoid of no great import buried deep in an
article focused on other matters, undoubtedly no one has given it a
thought. But it's worth stopping a moment and considering just how odd
this tiny bit of news-that-won't-ever-rise-to-the-level-of-news actually
is. One way to do this is to play the sort of opposites game that
never quite works on this still one-way planet of ours.

Just imagine a similar news item coming out of another country.

*Hot off the wires from Tehran: Iranian special forces teams
are scouring the planet for old American Chinook helicopters so they
can be well "cloaked" in planned future forays into Afghanistan and
Pakistan's Baluchistan Province.

*The People's Daily reports: Chinese special forces
operatives are buying relatively late model American helicopters so
that... Well, here's one problem in the opposites game, and a clue to
the genuine strangeness of American activities globally: why would the
Chinese need to do such a thing (and, in fact, why would we)? Where
might they want to venture militarily without being mistaken for Chinese
military personnel?

That might be a little hard to imagine right now, but I guarantee you
one thing: had some foreign news source reported such a plan, or had
Craig Whitlock somehow uncovered it and included it in a piece -- no
matter how obscurely nestled -- there would have been pandemonium in
Washington. Congress would have held hearings. Pundits would have
opined on the infamy of Iranian or Chinese operatives masking themselves
in our choppers. The company or companies that sold the helicopters
would have been investigated. And you can imagine what Fox News
commentators would have had to say.

When we do such things, however, and a country like Pakistan reacts
with what's usually described as "anti-Americanism," we wonder at the
nationalistic hair-trigger they're on; we comment on their
over-emotionalism; we highlight their touchy "sensibilities"; and our
reporters and pundits then write empathetically about the difficulties
American military and civilian officials have dealing with such edgy

Just the other day, for instance, the Wall Street Journal's Barnes reported
that U.S. Special Operations Forces are expanding their role in the
Pakistani tribal borderlands by more regularly "venturing out with
Pakistani forces on aid projects, deepening the American role in the
effort to defeat Islamist militants in Pakistani territory that has been
off limits to U.S. ground troops." The Pakistani government has not
been eager to have American boots visibly on the ground in these areas,
and so Barnes writes: "Because of Pakistan's sensitivities, the U.S. role has developed slowly."

Imagine how sensitive they might prove to be if those same forces
began to land Russian helicopters in Pakistan as a way to "cloak" their
operations and blend in? Or imagine just what sort of hair-trigger the
natives of Montana might be on if Pakistani special operations types
were roaming Glacier National Park and landing old American helicopters
outside Butte.

Then consider the sensitivities of Pakistanis on learning that the just appointed
head of the CIA's National Clandestine Service turns out to be a man of
"impeccable credentials" (so says CIA Director Leon Panetta). Among
those credentials are his stint as the CIA station chief in Pakistan
until sometime in 2009, his involvement in the exceedingly unpopular drone warin
that country's tribal borderlands, and the way, as the Director put it a
tad vaguely, he "guided complex operations under some of the most
difficult circumstances imaginable."

Here's the truth of the matter, as Whitlock's piece makes clear: we
carry on in the most bizarre ways in far-off lands and think nothing of
it. Historically, it has undoubtedly been the nature of imperial powers
to consider every strange thing they do more or less the norm. For a
waning imperial power, however, such an attitude has its own dangers.
If we can't imagine the surpassing strangeness of our arrangements for
making war in lands thousands of miles from the U.S., then we can't
begin to imagine how the world sees us, which means that we're blind to
our own madness. Russian helicopters, that's nuthin' by comparison.

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