As last week ended, the American and British military in Afghanistan finally launched a long awaited operation to occupy the city of Marja in Taliban-controlled Helmand Province. According to Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal, to win “hearts and minds,” the US Army and Marines were arriving with “a government in a box”—Afghan governing and security structures evidently ready to be unpacked as part of the sort of nation-building operation that once would have staggered the American officer corps.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to the Afghan War, “hearts and minds” pieces are now a dime a dozen in the US press. (Can McChrystal’s new counterinsurgency strategy of “protecting the people” work? Will the Afghans start to love us, love themselves, and reject the Taliban?) In one recent piece about Marines in a Taliban “stronghold” near the southern city of Kandahar, “Forces Strain to Hire Afghans,” Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov described the crisis a US Army captain faced. He had more than a million dollars to spend on reconstruction projects meant to gain local loyalties, and few Afghan takers. The third paragraph of his piece went like this: “Yet, the only construction work here so far has been the hammering of US Navy Seabees, or construction troops, erecting a vast American base overlooking Senjaray. The town’s unemployed men prefer to stay home, for fear of Taliban retribution.”
This is fairly typical of US press coverage of the Afghan War. That “vast American base,” just now under construction, is noticed and mentioned in passing by an American reporter, and then never comes up again. Yet it is one of approximately 400 bases built or being built in the country, as Nick Turse of TomDispatch.com recently discovered—a staggering Pentagon military construction splurge that is almost never reported on. It’s simply taken for granted.
As TomDispatch regular and weapons-export expert Frida Berrigan of the New American Foundation points out, the American position in what US news reports always call “the global arms trade” is similarly taken for granted. If the Hollywood export Avatar sweeps the world, bringing in multi-billions, it’s front-page news. If American arms exports sweep the world, bringing in multi-billions, you’re lucky to find out about it deep inside your ever-thinning daily newspaper (and such stories seldom even make it onto the TV news). If we sell weaponry repeatedly to the Indonesians or the Saudis or the Qataris or the Israelis, it’s a ho-hum matter. The norm. Like those bases in Afghanistan. It’s only if some country with clout screams bloody murder, as the Chinese recently did about a massive arms deal with Taiwan, that we have news; or if some other country sells weapons to whatever state is eager, as France recently agreed to do with the Russians, and the Americans responsible for distributing most of the advanced weaponry on the planet disapprove, is attention paid. Go figure.