Kabul gets its own stimulus package
By Tom Engelhardt
You must have had a moment when you thought to yourself: It really isn't going
to end, is it? Not ever. Rationally, you know perfectly well that whatever your
"it" might be will indeed end, because everything does, but your gut tells you
I had that moment recently when it came to the American way of war. In the past
couple of weeks, it could have been triggered by an endless string of
ill-attended news reports like the Christian Science Monitor piece headlined
"US involvement in Yemen edging toward 'clandestine war'." Or by the millions
of dollars in US payments reportedly missing in Afghanistan, thanks to
under-the-table or unrecorded handouts in unknown amounts to Afghan
civilian government employees (as well as Afghan security forces,
private-security contractors, and even the Taliban).
Or how about the news that the F-35 "Joint Strike Fighter," the cost-overrun
poster weapon of the century, already long overdue, will cost yet more money
and be produced even less quickly?
Or what about word that our Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has officially
declared the Obama administration "open" to keeping US troops in Iraq after the
announced 2011 deadline for their withdrawal?
Or how about the news from McClatchy's reliable reporter Nancy Youssef that
Washington is planning to start "publicly walking away from what it once touted
as key deadlines in the war in Afghanistan in an effort to de-emphasize
President Barack Obama's pledge that he'd begin withdrawing US forces in July
Or that bottomless feeling could have been triggered by the recent request from
the military man in charge of training Afghan security forces, Lieutenant
General William Caldwell, for another 900 US and North Atlantic Treaty
Organizations (NATO) trainers in the coming months, lest the improbable
"transition" date of 2014 for Afghan forces to "take the lead" in protecting
their own country be pushed back yet again. ("No trainers, no transition,"
wrote the general in a "report card" on his mission.)
Or it could have been the accounts of how a trained Afghan soldier turned his
gun on US troops in southern Afghanistan, killing two of them, and then fled to
the Taliban for protection (one of a string of similar incidents over the last
year). Or, speaking of things that could have set me off, consider this passage
from the final paragraphs of an Elisabeth Bumiller article tucked away inside
the New York Times on whether Afghan War commander General David Petraeus was
(or was not) on the road to success: "'It is certainly true that Petraeus is
attempting to shape public opinion ahead of the December [Obama administration]
review [of Afghan war policy],' said an administration official who is
supportive of the general. 'He is the most skilled public relations official in
the business, and he's trying to narrow the president's options.'"
Or, in the same piece, what about this all-American analogy from Bruce Riedel,
the former CIA official who chaired President Obama's initial review of Afghan
war policy in 2009, speaking of the hundreds of mid-level Taliban the US
military has reportedly wiped out in recent months: "The fundamental question
is how deep is their bench." (Well, yes, Bruce, if you imagine the Afghan War
as the basketball Nightmare on Elm Street in which the hometown team's
front five periodically get slaughtered.)
Or maybe it should have been the fact that only 7% of Americans had reports and
incidents like these, or evidently anything else having to do with our wars, on
their minds as they voted in the recent midterm elections.
The largest 'embassy' on Earth
Strange are the ways, though. You just can't predict what's going to set you
off. For me, it was none of the above, nor even the flood of Republican war
hawks heading for Washington eager to "cut" government spending by "boosting"
the Pentagon budget. Instead, it was a story that slipped out as the midterm
election results were coming in and was treated as an event of no importance in
The Associated Press covered US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry's
announcement that a $511 million contract had been awarded to Caddell
Construction, one of America's "largest construction and engineering groups",
for a massive expansion of the US Embassy in Kabul. According to the
ambassador, that embassy is already "the largest ... in the world with more
than 1,100 brave and dedicated civilians ... from 16 agencies and working next
to their military counterparts in 30 provinces," and yet it seems it's still
not large enough.
A few other things in his announcement caught my eye. Construction of the new
"permanent offices and housing" for embassy personnel is not to be completed
until sometime in 2014, approximately three years after Obama's July 2011
Afghan drawdown is set to begin, and that $511 million is part of a $790
million bill to US taxpayers that will include expansion work on consular
facilities in the Afghan cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat.
And then, if the ambassador's announcement was meant to fly below the media
radar screen in the US, it was clearly meant to be noticed in Afghanistan.
After all, Eikenberry publicly insisted that the awarding of the contract
should be considered "an indication ... an action, a deed that you can take as
a long-term commitment of the United States government to the government of
(Note to Tea Party types heading for Washington: this contract is part of a new
stimulus package in one of the few places where President Barack Obama can, by
executive fiat, increase stimulus spending. It has already resulted in the
hiring of 500 Afghan workers and when construction ramps up, another 1,000 more
will be added to the crew.)
Jo Comerford and the number-crunchers at the National Priorities Project have
offered TomDispatch a hand in putting that $790 million outlay into an American
context: "$790 million is more than 10 times the money the federal government
allotted for the State Energy Program in FY2011. It's nearly five times the
total amount allocated for the National Endowment for the Arts (threatened to
be completely eliminated by the incoming congress). If that sum were applied
instead to job creation in the United States, in new hires it would yield more
than 22,000 teachers, 15,000 healthcare workers, and employ more than 13,000 in
the burgeoning clean energy industry."
Still, to understand just why, among a flood of similar war reports, this one
got under my skin, you need a bit of backstory.
Singular spawn or forerunner deluxe?
One night in May 2007, I was nattering on at the dinner table about reports of
a monstrous new US Embassy being constructed in Baghdad, so big that it put
former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's grandiose Disneyesque palaces to shame.
On 104 acres (42 hectares) of land in the heart of the Iraqi capital (always
referred to in news reports as almost the size of Vatican City), it was slated
to cost $590 million. (Predictable cost overruns and delays - see F-35 above -
would, in the end, bring that figure to at least $740 million, while the cost
of running the place yearly is now estimated at $1.5 billion.)
Back then, more than half a billion dollars was impressive enough, even for a
compound that was to have its own self-contained electricity-generation,
water-purification, and sewage systems in a city lacking most of the above, not
to speak of its own antimissile defense systems, and 20 all-new blast-resistant
buildings including restaurants, a recreation center, and other amenities. It
was to be by far the largest, most heavily fortified embassy on the planet with
a "diplomatic" staff of 1,000 (a number that has only grown since).
My wife listened to my description of this future colossus, which bore no
relation to anything ever previously called an "embassy", and then, out of the
blue, said, "I wonder who the architect is?" Strangely, I hadn't even
considered that such a mega-citadel might actually have an architect.
That tells you what I know about building anything. So imagine my surprise to
discover that there was indeed a Kansas architect, BDY (Berger Devine Yaeger),
previously responsible for the Sprint Corporation's world headquarters in
Overland Park, Kansas; the Visitation Church in Kansas City, Missouri; and
Harrah's Hotel and Casino in North Kansas City, Missouri. Better yet, BDY was
so proud to have been taken on as architect to the wildest imperial dreamers
and schemers of our era that it posted sketches at its website of what the
future embassy, its "pool house," its tennis court, PX, retail and shopping
areas, and other highlights were going to look like.
Somewhere between horrified and grimly amused, I wrote a piece at TomDispatch,
entitled "The mother-ship Lands in Baghdad" and, via a link to the BDY
drawings, offered readers a little "blast-resistant spin" through former
president George W Bush's colossus. From the beginning, I grasped that this
wasn't an embassy in any normal sense and I understood as well something of
what it was. Here's the way I put it at the time:
As an outpost, this
vast compound reeks of one thing: imperial impunity. It was never meant to be
an embassy from a democracy that had liberated an oppressed land. From the
first thought, the first sketch, it was to be the sort of imperial control
center suitable for the planet's sole 'hyperpower,' dropped into the middle of
the oil heartlands of the globe. It was to be Washington's dream and Kansas
City's idea of a palace fit for an embattled American proconsul - or a khan.
In other words, a US "control center" at the heart of what George W Bush
administration officials then liked to call "the Greater Middle East" or the
"arc of instability". To my surprise, the piece began racing around the
Internet and other sites - TomDispatch did not then have the capacity to post
images - started putting up BDY's crude drawings. The next thing I knew, the
State Department had panicked, declared this a "security breach," and forced
BDY to take down its site and remove the drawings.
I was amazed. But (and here we come to the failure of my own imagination) I
never doubted that BDY's bizarre imperial "mother-ship" being prepared for
landing in Baghdad was the singular spawn of the Bush administration. I saw it
as essentially a vanity production sired by a particular set of fantasies about
imposing a Pax Americana abroad and a Pax Republicana at home. It never crossed
my mind that there would be two such "embassies."
So, on this, call me delusional. By May 2009, with Obama in the White House, I
knew as much. That was when two McClatchy reporters broke a story about a
similar project for a new "embassy" in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, at
the projected cost of $736 million (with a couple of hundred million more
slated for upgrades of diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan).
Now, with the news in from Kabul, we know that there are going to be three
mother-ships. All gigantic beyond belief. All (after the usual cost overruns)
undoubtedly in the three-quarters of a billion dollar range, or beyond. All
meant not to house modest numbers of diplomats acting as the face of the United
States in a foreign land, but thousands of diplomats, spies, civilian
personnel, military officials, agents, and operatives hunkering down long-term
for war and skullduggery.
Connect two points and you have a straight line. Connect three points and you
have a pattern - in this case, simple and striking. The visionaries and
fundamentalists of the Bush years may be gone and visionless managers of the
tattered American imperium are now directing the show. Nonetheless, they and
the US military in the region remain remarkably devoted to the control of the
Greater Middle East. Even without a vision, there is still the war momentum and
the money to support it.
While Americans fight bitterly over whether the stimulus package for the
domestic economy was too large or too small, few in the US even notice that the
American stimulus package in Kabul, Islamabad, Baghdad, and elsewhere in our
embattled Raj is going great guns. Embassies the size of pyramids are still
being built; military bases to stagger the imagination continue to be
constructed; and nowhere, not even in Iraq, is it clear that Washington is
committed to packing up its tents, abandoning its billion-dollar monuments, and
In the US, it's clearly going to be paralysis and stagnation all the way, but
in Peshawar and Mazar-i-sharif, not to speak of the greater Persian Gulf
region, we remain the spendthrifts of war, perfectly willing, for instance, to
ship fuel across staggering distances and unimaginably long supply lines at
$400 a gallon to Afghanistan to further crank up an energy-heavy conflict. Here
in the United States, police are being laid off. In Afghanistan, we are paying
to enroll thousands and thousands of them and train them in ever greater
numbers. In the US, roads crumble; in Afghanistan, support for road-building is
still on the agenda.
At home, it's peace all the way to the unemployment line, because peace, in our
American world, increasingly seems to mean economic disaster. In the Greater
Middle East, it's war to the horizon, all war all the time, and creeping
escalation all the way around. (And keep in mind that the escalatory stories
cited above all occurred before the next round of Republican warhawks even hit
Washington with the wind at their backs, ready to push for far more of the
The folks who started us down this precipitous path and over an economic cliff
are now in retirement and heading onto the memoir circuit: our former president
is chatting it up with Matt Lauer and Oprah; his vice president, Dick Cheney,
is nursing his heart while assumedly writing about "his service in four
presidential administrations"; his first secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld,
is readying himself for the publication of his memoir in January; and his
national security advisor, then secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice (for whom
Chevron once named a double-hulled oil tanker), is already heading into her
second and third memoir.
But while they scribble and yak, their policy ghosts haunt us, as does their
greatest edifice, that embassy in Baghdad, now being cloned elsewhere. Even
without them or the neo-conservatives who pounded the drums for them, the US
military still pushes doggedly toward 2014 and beyond in Afghanistan, while
officials "tweak" their drawdown non-schedules, narrow the president's
non-options, and step in to fund and build yet more command-and-control centers
in the Greater Middle East.
It looks and feels like the never-ending story, and yet, of course, the
imperium is visibly fraying, while the burden of distant wars grows ever
heavier. Those "embassies" are being built for the long haul, but a decade or
two down the line, I wouldn't want to put my money on what exactly they will
represent, or what they could possibly hope to control.