It is remarkable that the most powerful military in the world is utterly incapable of beating insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. And for this we should be grateful, as Washington clearly needs to learn again, post Vietnam, that its desire to expand empire has limits.
In late December, the lot was just a big blank: a few burgundy metal shipping containers sitting in an expanse of crushed eggshell-colored gravel inside a razor-wire-topped fence. The American military in Afghanistan doesn’t want to talk about it, but one day soon, it will be a new hub for the American drone war in the Greater Middle East.
Next year, that empty lot will be a two-story concrete intelligence facility for America’s drone war, brightly lit and filled with powerful computers kept in climate-controlled comfort in a country where most of the population has no access to electricity. It will boast almost 7,000 square feet of offices, briefing and conference rooms, and a large “processing, exploitation, and dissemination” operations center — and, of course, it will be built with American tax dollars.
Nor is it an anomaly. Despite all the talk of drawdowns and withdrawals, there has been a years-long building boom in Afghanistan that shows little sign of abating. In early 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had nearly 400 bases in Afghanistan. Today, Lieutenant Lauren Rago of ISAF public affairs tells TomDispatch, the number tops 450.
The hush-hush, high-tech, super-secure facility at the massive air base in Kandahar is just one of many building projects the U.S. military currently has planned or underway in Afghanistan. While some U.S. bases are indeed closing up shop or being transferred to the Afghan government, and there’s talk of combat operations slowing or ending next year, as well as a withdrawal of American combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the U.S. military is still preparing for a much longer haul at mega-bases like Kandahar and Bagram airfields. The same is true even of some smaller camps, forward operating bases (FOBs), and combat outposts (COPs) scattered through the country’s backlands. “Bagram is going through a significant transition during the next year to two years,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gerdes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Bagram Office recently told Freedom Builder, a Corps of Engineers publication. “We’re transitioning… into a long-term, five-year, 10-year vision for the base.”
Whether the U.S. military will still be in Afghanistan in five or 10 years remains to be seen, but steps are currently being taken to make that possible. U.S. military publications, plans and schematics, contracting documents, and other official data examined by TomDispatch catalog hundreds of construction projects worth billions of dollars slated to begin, continue, or conclude in 2012.
While many of these efforts are geared toward structures for Afghan forces or civilian institutions, a considerable number involve U.S. facilities, some of the most significant being dedicated to the ascendant forms of American warfare: drone operations and missions by elite special operations units. The available plans for most of these projects suggest durability. “The structures that are going in are concrete and mortar, rather than plywood and tent skins,” says Gerdes. As of last December, his office was involved in 30 Afghan construction projects for U.S. or international coalition partners worth almost $427 million.
In Afghanistan, the CIA feels like the most unaccountable organisation of all. Since late 2001/early 2002, it has been headquartered in the old Ariana Hotel, near ISAF headquarters (itself in the old Kabul Army Sports Club). The Agency squats on one of the main east-west routes across Kabul. All normal traffic has been banned from using the thoroughfare for a decade in what was one of the first grabs of public space in post-Taleban Afghanistan. It has always felt symbolic that, while protected from public gaze, the Agency causes bottle necks, traffic jams and bother elsewhere. Those with the right ID can still walk along the road. That includes schoolboys at the nearby Amani High School who get frisked at the check post on their way to school every day. And everyone walking past is scrutinised by the guards in watchtowers set up outside the Ariana Hotel and at the nearby Ariana roundabout, the place where the Taleban strung up Dr Najibullah and his brother in 1996 and where Taleban commander, the late Mulla Dadullah, hanged alleged would-be assassins in 2001.* And that is about as near to the CIA in Afghanistan as you can get.
The Agency’s influence on recent Afghan history is, of course, immense, given its role in funding the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad via the plausibly denial conduit of the Islamist dictator in Pakistan, General Zia ul-Haq. (Old Man Haqqani, among others, was one of their assets back then, according to Steve Coll in his book, Ghost Wars.) The CIA was also, as it likes to boast, the first US group into Afghanistan after 9/11, closely followed by the Special Operations Forces (SOF). The hasty victory they engineered against the Taleban, brought about by their funding and arming of anti-Taleban commanders, has locked Afghanistan into ten years of militia and factional leaders being in power. The CIA’s future in the country may also be bright – although that makes Afghanistan’s future look less so.