Remember when the globe’s imperial policeman, its New Rome, was going to wield its unsurpassed military power by moving from country to country, using lightning strikes and shock-and-awe tactics? We’re talking about the now-unimaginably distant past of perhaps 2002-2003. Afghanistan had been "liberated" in a matter of weeks; "regime change" in Iraq was going to be a "cakewalk," and it would be followed by the reordering of what the neoconservatives liked to refer to as "the Greater Middle East." No one who mattered was talking about protracted guerrilla warfare; nor was there anything being said about counterinsurgency (nor, as in the Powell Doctrine, about exits either). The U.S. military was going to go into Iraq fast and hard, be victorious in short order, and then, of course, we would stay. We would, in fact, be welcomed with open arms by natives so eternally grateful that they would practically beg us to garrison their countries.
Every one of those assumptions about the new American way of war was absurd, even then. At the very least, the problem should have been obvious once American generals reached Baghdad and sat down at a marble table in one of Saddam Hussein’s overwrought palaces, grinning for a victory snapshot — without any evidence of a defeated enemy on the other side of the table to sign a set of surrender documents. If this were a normal campaign and an obvious imperial triumph, then where was the other side? Where were those we had defeated? The next thing you knew, the Americans were printing up packs of cards with the faces of most of Saddam’s missing cronies on them.
Well, that was then. By now, fierce versions of guerrilla war have migrated to the narrow streets of the poorest districts of Baghdad and, in Afghanistan, are moving ever closer to the Afghan capital, Kabul. U.S. troops are, at present, in block by block fighting in Baghdad’s vast Shiite Sadr City slum and they’re wheeling in the Abrams tanks and calling in helicopters, Hellfire-missile-armed drones, and jets for help in brutal urban warfare as the bodies pile higher.
As in Vietnam, so four decades later, we are observing a full-scale descent into madness and, undoubtedly, into atrocity. In 2003, American troops were heading for Baghdad. They thought they had a goal, a city to take. Now, five years later, they are heading for the heart of a slum city, which they cannot hold, in a guerrilla war where the taking of territory and the occupying of neighborhoods is essentially beside the point. They are heading for oblivion, while trying to win hearts and minds by shooting missiles into homes and enclosing neighborhoods in giant walls which break families and communities apart, while destroying livelihoods. No matter what the Bush administration has tried to do (including the already long-dead-and-gone "surge strategy," the last war, the one in Iraq, won’t end (so that troops can be transferred to the even older war in Afghanistan that is, now, spiraling out of control). And oh, while we’re at it, welcome to future wars in the slum cities of the planet. Inside the Pentagon, some are thinking not about how to get out of Sadr City, but about how to fight Sadr City wars more effectively. They are pondering "the next war."