While we were watching bejeweled balls drop in Times Square, or fireworks over San Francisco Bay, pyrotechnics of a different sort were going on as usual around the globe, some of them more or less our fault — because people don’t like us or our government policies or our religious persuasions — some of them happening in our name. The news-making American casualties were not military personnel this time, but civilians in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The report of this attack sums up where we are, in the last few words of the first paragraph: America’s far-flung wars.
The deaths of seven Central Intelligence Agency operatives at a remote base in the mountains of Afghanistan are a pointed example of the civilian spy agency’s transformation in recent years into a paramilitary organization at the vanguard of America’s far-flung wars.
Is it possible we are fighting too many wars, too far-flung?
If you Google around a while, you can discover (for instance, on a college librarian’s eponymous and aptly named site, topsy.org) that many of the lists of exactly where and with whom we are fighting battles have been removed — but that there are a lot of them out there. We have “overseas operating sites,” which our thankfully now-former president sought to have “optimally positioned to respond to potential 21st century military threats” all over the globe.
PBS NewsHour on New Year’s Day featured one segment in which Georgetown University professor Christine Fair attempted to articulate the various factors involved in current impossible wars going on in the mountainous regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan etc. The Pakistan Taliban, she explained, are actually “a network of networks;” the insurgents include Afghan soldiers, or perhaps non-soldiers dressed in some of the uniforms acquired by stealing a truckload of them, which happened not long ago. PBS’ Ray Suarez then asked if there were any way of stopping this chaos. “I don’t think so,” was the answer.
Hello? Could we think about our foreign policy a while?
Even without easily accessible lists (it is somewhat comforting to know that amateurs can’t Google up strategic maps of these overseas operating sites,) everybody knows we have personnel, uniformed and otherwise scattered around from Germany to South Korea to Thailand to Honduras to wherever. We don’t know how many of them are fighting little wildfire battles, either in person or through U.S.-trained surrogates. In the recent C.I.A. tragedy, the survivors can be forgiven for anger and grief, but some of the response is still unsettling:
There was an air of defiance among intelligence officials on the day after the attack, and some spoke of their fallen comrades using military language.
“There is no pullout,” the American intelligence official said. “There is no withdrawal or anything like that planned.”
Is anybody, anywhere, considering the fact that we can’t keep fighting everybody everywhere, forever? The pundits (reinforced by Defense Department spokespeople) like to say that if we were to pull out — of Iraq, Afghanistan, Uganda, pick your piece of the globe where we’re actively or just-behind-the-lines at war — there would be chaos. But there’s already chaos.
What if we started taking a few of those trillions currently funding endless wars and diverting them into building schools, hospitals, community centers, friends? After the chaos, could we then emerge with more friends and fewer aspiring-martyr enemies?
Maybe not. But it would be nice, just once, in all the interminable debates about terrorists and security and rooting out the bad guys, to hear someone suggest changing course, waging peace. For now, we seem mired in countless un-winnable wars. It would be heartening to think we could get off the Through the Looking Glass course outlined by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 and quoted by columnist David Sirota today:
As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there’re some things we do not know. But there’re also unknowns unknowns; the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
We know how many wars we are fighting. We know we’re not winning many of them. We know that peace on earth isn’t getting any closer these days.