President Obama recently reshuffled his top Washington warriors, sending CIA Director Leon Panetta, a man who knows Congress well, on to the Pentagon to replace retiring Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In turn, the president is bringing in General David Petraeus, present Afghan War Commander, former Centcom commander, and former Iraq War commander (as well as “Bush’s general”), to run the Agency.
Whatever the local politics involved, and the Petraeus appointment ensures that the potentially popular general will be on the political sidelines for campaign year 2012, these moves catch the zeitgeist of our Washington moment. Since the bin Laden assassination, in which U.S. military special operations forces “commanded” by Panetta took out the al-Qaeda leader, a new face of American war, “where sovereignty is irrelevant, armies tangential, and decisions are secret,” has been emerging according to Foreign Policy in Focus analyst Conn Hallinan.
With the latest news (revealed last week by the New York Times) that the U.S. has launched a significant “intensification” of its secret air campaign against Yemeni tribesmen believed to be connected with al-Qaeda, the U.S. is now involved in no less than six wars. Count ‘em, if you don’t believe me: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and what used to be called the Global War on Terror.
In anyone’s book, that certainly qualifies as a working definition of “endless” war, but that doesn’t mean endlessly the same kind of war. Let’s look at this, war by war:
Iraq: Now largely the dregs of a counterinsurgency operation, this war will not end in 2011. At his confirmation hearings, for instance, Panetta cited the existence of al-Qaeda in Iraq as a reason for U.S. troops to remain beyond an agreed-upon year-end withdrawal date. Should those troops actually leave, however, the war will still go on, even if in quite a different form. A gargantuan, increasingly militarized State Department “mission” in that country, complete with its own “army” and “air force” of perhaps 5,100 mercenaries, will evidently keep the faith.
Afghanistan: This remains a full-scale U.S. Army-run counterinsurgency war, backed by a major special operations/CIA counterterror war.
Pakistan: A full-scale CIA-run drone war in the Pakistani borderlands is actually expanding. In the post-9/11 era, this has been the first of Washington’s “covert” or "shadow" wars (which no longer means “secret” -- it’s all over the news almost daily -- but something closer to “off the books,” as in beyond the reach of any form of significant popular or congressional oversight or accountability). Panetta is calling for more emphasis on such off-the-books wars in which U.S. military operatives might, as in the bin Laden operation, temporarily find themselves under the command of the CIA.
Libya: Officially a NATO air war, this one is nonetheless partially run by the Pentagon with targeting assistance from various U.S. intelligence agencies. It involves both direct U.S. air strikes and support for strikes by various NATO and Arab allies fronting the operation. It is also, for Americans, a “war” in name only since, except in the case of engine malfunction, there is essentially no way the Libyans can harm a U.S. pilot. It is also an example of another air war that, while destructive, has proven itself incapable of fulfilling its stated aims. Months later, Gaddafi remains alive and more or less in power, while NATO flags.
Yemen: Another of those “covert” air wars, being run, according to the Times, by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, closely coordinated with the CIA out of a secret office in the Yemeni capital.
The Global War on Terror: While the Obama administration officially discarded the Bush-era name, it expanded the war and the forces meant to fight it in places like Somalia. U.S. special operations forces now pursue war-on-terror tasks in at least 75 countries and who knows how many CIA and other intelligence agents are involved as well.
Think of all this as a kind of mix-and-match version of war that increasingly integrates civilian branches of the government like the State Department, an ever more warlike CIA (once known as “the president’s private army”), the regular Army, Marines, and Air Force, ever-growing drone air power (split between an officially civilian intelligence agency and the military), and a secret combined military force of perhaps 20,000 special operatives.
With the face of American war changing in striking ways and at least six wars, none going particularly well, on or off the books, no one should be surprised if, as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore makes clear in his latest piece, Washington as a war capital increasingly looks like a new kind of town. In the meantime, when it comes to how many wars Americans can fight at once, Washington is reaching for the record books.