What The Empire Creates, It Can Also Destroy   (May 5, 2011)

The American Empire excels at ad hoc projects and abandoning the pawns after the game ends.

Although the public thinks prison is all about punishing wrong-doers, a prison is simply a factory for producing criminals. After the typical "war on drugs" inmate exits the gulag, he has learned how to be a much better criminal than he was when he entered. Indeed, he has little opportunity to learn anything else inside, and is remarkably ill-prepared for any sort of life other than criminality.

In a similar way, the American Empire produced insurgents to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. They learned how to organize networks of loosely allied insurgencies, command and control, and all the principles of asymmetric warfare.

When the Soviets gave up and left, the insurgents knew no other life or skills, and the U.S. had no interest in offering them anything else. They were pawns in our Imperial game of revenge for the Soviets supplying the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, and once the game ended we had no use for the insurgents or Afghanistan.

Why should we be surprised that many continued plying their "trade" against the "other" Empire that was still active in the region? When you only know one life, then you continue that life because there are no other alternatives.

The Empire creates what it needs in the moment, and then abandons what it has created. The world is littered with the remains of America's various proxy wars; the C.I.A. recruited hill tribes as a proxy army in Vietnam, and when that war was abandoned, so were the hill tribes.

The Kurds were promised support in the first Gulf War, but when it became expedient to forget the promises, then Saddam was allowed to slaughter them with his air power, until a few guilty consciences hit upon the "no fly zone" to limit Saddam's campaigns of annihilation.

The American Empire is not the first empire that operates on a largely ad hoc basis. I covered this topic in Japan and the U.S.: Ad Hoc War, Ad Hoc "Recovery" (June 14, 2010). The U.S. had no plans for Afghanistan after the Soviet departure in 1989, and it had no plan in Iraq after the first few weeks of combat ended. It was all ad hoc, made up as we went along. Voices that pleaded for a real plan were quashed, fired, suppressed, sent to bureaucratic Siberia or ignored.

Like the rest of America, the Empire operates on the principle of convenience. The Empire does what's convenient and expedient; supporting dictators and kleptocracies is easier than resisting them, and what the Empire seeks is the same thing America seeks in all things: a comfortable, maintain-the-Status Quo stability that allows us to seek out a profitable trade.

That's really all we've ever wanted from our Empire: Status Quo stability. We react to threats such as the Soviet Empire, but once the threat subsides, we have no grand ambition: we lack, as Bush I characterized it, "the idea thing."

The Empire does have its pride, and so destroying embarrassments and proxies who turn against us is always a high prority. The U.S. did not have a problem with Osama bin Laden as long as he was a pawn supplied by our proxy in 1980s Afghanistan, the Pakistani intelligence service and Army.

(Some claim the C.I.A. did not directly fund OBL; but who funded the Pakistani intelligence service's efforts in Afghanistan? Did they magically come across hundreds of U.S.-made Stinger missiles to give to the insurgents? Who had ties to Pakistani intelligence and the Army going back to the 1970s?)

All of this was laid out in Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.

These books fill in the rest of the blanks:

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
(Read the first page of reader reviews on Amazon, down to the one written by a someone who had just returned from the author's public lecture. Fascinating additional context.)

State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III

Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America

See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism

Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude

Osama Bin Laden
The author served in the bin Laden unit of the C.I.A.

Osama Bin Laden--not the individual, but the operator who'd learned his craft and established his network battling the Soviets in the late 1980s--was a creation of the Empire. Without the Empire's funding, proxies and guidance, OBL the threat would never have developed the tools and knowledge base to become a threat.

It was convenient to fund a complex insurgency to bloody the Soviet Empire's nose, and play whatever games were expedient at the time: allowing the Afghan drug trade to expand, solidify the Pakistani Army's role as the arbiter of that nation's government, and increase the power of the Pakistani intelligence service.

When it was no longer convenient and no longer served our ad hoc goal, the entire project was abandoned. We lost interest; we'd won the game, so we left to celebrate. The broken pawns were not our concern, and neither were broken countries, a rising drug trade, etc.

The Pakistani Army and intelligence service, meanwhile, had also learned a lot, and Afghanistan wasn't some distant desert of marginal interest to jockeying superpowers, it was the failed state next door.

And of course the Pakistani proxies learned how to play the U.S.: as long as you seemed to be helping the U.S. meet its ad hoc goal of the season, then you were golden, and the money spigots were wide open. The game might change next season, so it was wise not to commit too much to the sport; if you did, you risked ending up like the Hmong or the Kurds, abandoned to their fates when the Empire lost interest or chose a more convenient option.

You put drug dealers in prison and give them no other skills or resources, and you're surprised they exit prison as hardened criminals? What else could they be? Ask yourself the same question of insurgents that are created to fight proxy wars.

As many others have noted, the grand irony in all this is that the Arab world has moved beyond OBL's revisionist creed of violent rejection of the West as the solution to what ails the Arab world. Now if only the Empire could move beyond "fighting terrorism" and the goal du jour (pack up the Predators and drones and send them to....) to a long-term goal of providing the greatest weapons, information and knowledge, to those seeking an end to the Status Quo autocracies the U.S. has supported for decades because it was expedient and convenient.

I suspect OBL was an "asset" of depreciating value to his allies in Pakistan. (He was, after all, a figurative stone's throw from Pakistan's equivalent to West Point). Whether some factions in Pakistan approved the raid and others did not is immaterial. The game the Pakistanis are playing is bigger than OBL; at the end he was once again merely a piece in a larger game.

The Pakistani Army and intelligence service know the rules; they've been playing since the 1970s. If the Empire suspects you're not supporting its goal of the season, it can always destroy that which it created.

The Pakistanis have gotten a little sloppy in their play-acting of support for the Empire's goal of the season, and the Empire is not pleased. I suspect that some faction in Pakistan offered up OBL or played along with the raid as a way of showing that yes, we really do care about supporting your goal of the season; now that OBL is out of the way, could you please remind us what your goal is now?

The Pakistani Status Quo, which is to say the Army and intelligence service, may just find history is about to bypass them as well.

The Pakistanis are trying to curry favor with the Chinese, hoping to find a new spigot of money and weaponry, but the Chinese are playing a different game and the Pakistanis are unfamilar with the board and the rules. Their odds of gaming a game they don't understand are poor.

The Chinese and the Empire have all sorts of games in play; right now, the Chinese must be noticing that their grand oil play in Libya is in shambles. NATO just swooped in and knocked over their apple cart, and their oil play in Sudan might not be too secure, either. They're on "the wrong side of history" there as well, supporting an evil dictatorship, tsk-tsk. A funny thing happens in regime change--all those oil leases are voided and all your people on the ground left the country during the chaotic war. The Empire has a knack for filling voids where oil is up for grabs and abandoning those that don't.

The Empire hates inconvenience, and if you insist on becoming inconvenient, then the sights might just swing over to you, and your downfall might become the goal of next season.

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