Dirty Wars: the World is a Battlefield

A review of Dirty Wars: the World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill (New York, Nation Books, 2013).

indexDuring his first term in office, Obama’s primary achievement in national security policy was the creation of silence. After the loud, divisive controversies of the Bush years, a bipartisan, media-endorsed consensus emerged. The official line was that invasions, torture, secret prisons and warrantless spying had been abandoned and the focus on targeting al Qaida’s leadership renewed. The assassination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 seemed to confirm the credibility of the strategy. Critical questions were no longer asked of this ‘smarter’ war on terror. The vampire world of US covert action was shielded from the daylight of public scrutiny.

In 2013, three developments pierced the silence. First, from Guantánamo came word of a mass hunger strike and the US military’s response: intensely brutal force-feeding practices. It was a reminder that the prison had become a permanent internment camp on Obama’s watch, even if no new prisoners were transported there. Second, Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency, started to leak documents to journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, in protest at the unconstitutional spying practices he witnessed.

Third, the Obama administration came under increased pressure to defend its policy of extra-judicial killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, especially when the victims were US citizens. These killings – usually carried out by drone strike – take place far from Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US is officially at war, and therefore lack any plausible legitimacy under conventional laws of warfare that allow for the killing of combatants on a battlefield. The US government is pursuing what is, in effect, a policy of global assassination; its lawyers have given the policy a thin veil of legal cover by defining the entire world as a battlefield (hence the subtitle of Scahill’s book).

That questions of the legitimacy of drone strikes have to some extent entered the mainstream of US public discourse is in large part a consequence of the reporting of Jeremy Scahill, the Nation magazine’s national security correspondent and author of a best-selling 2007 exposé of the corporate mercenaries Blackwater. Alongside the publication of his book Dirty Wars in 2013, a documentary film of the same name was released – and short-listed for an Oscar. Whereas the long and, at times, disjointed book meanders through the thickets of a complex story, the film is tightly narrated with Scahill at the centre of an investigative drama, tracking down the secrets of America’s covert wars.

The Dirty Wars book is organised chronologically as a series of dispatches from Washington, in which Scahill relates the emergence of a national security policy centred upon assassination, and from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, in which he portrays the devastation wreaked on local populations by Obama’s war on terror. A central figure in Dirty Wars is Anwar al Awlaki, the US-born preacher killed in Yemen by a drone strike in 2011 along with another young American Muslim, Samir Khan. Awlaki’s willingness to give rhetorical support to terrorism against US civilians increased as the violence of the war on terror intensified in the years after 9/11. Scahill gives us the most detailed account yet of Awlaki’s life, drawing on interviews with members of his family. The implicit question raised is how Awlaki’s views shifted from public opposition to terrorism when he was the Imam at a Virginia mosque in the months after 9/11 to his endorsing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up a plane over Detroit in 2009. Scahill does not attempt a definitive answer but it is clear that Awlaki’s ‘radicalisation’ was a by-product of the war on terror itself. Announcing the killing of Awlaki, Obama described him as the ‘leader of external operations’ for al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a title that appears to have been concocted by the US government to legitimise the assassination of a US citizen who was a propagandist and probably not involved in any terrorist acts. Two weeks later, Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, was also killed in Yemen in a US drone strike, along with several other teenagers.

A second strand running through the book is the story of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a secret US paramilitary force, originally formed in the wake of the failed mission to rescue hostages held at the American embassy in Tehran after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Unlike the CIA, which at least in theory is accountable to Congress and obliged to disclose its operations to the House and Senate intelligence committees, JSOC straddles the ‘crevice separating US military and intelligence law’, enabling it to operate without accountability to either. It is, in effect, a private army under the exclusive control of the White House, whose purpose is to carry out ‘F3’ (‘find, fix and finish’) operations – or, in plain language, finding people and killing them. After 9/11, as JSOC became a key element in the national security apparatus, the CIA began to emulate its style of covert action, for fear of being left behind in the inter-agency competition for resources and prestige, and transformed itself from a primarily intelligence-gathering body to a paramilitary agency with its own drone strike capability.

Upon taking office, Obama made covert action the main focus of his national security policy and gave ‘carte blanche to JSOC and the CIA to wage a global manhunt’. Many of the Bush-era methods of fighting the war on terror were continued under the new administration, with only minor adjustments. Scahill shows that the list of continuities includes ‘targeted killings, warrantless wiretapping, the use of secret prisons, a crackdown on habeas corpus rights for prisoners, indefinite detention, CIA rendition flights, drone bombings, the deployment of mercenaries in US wars and reliance on the “State Secrets Privilege”’.

In Afghanistan, JSOC’s ‘kill list’ of targets contained 2,000 names. The night-time raids designed to execute these targets increased fourfold under Obama to over 100 a month, leaving a trail of carnage that went unreported in the US media. The raids also swelled the numbers held at the secret Bagram prison, known as the Black Jail, where forced nudity, environmental manipulation, beatings and solitary confinement were practised. Scahill gives a detailed account of one night-time raid that took place just outside of Gardez in 2010. The Sharabuddin family had worked with the US-backed Afghan government and were opponents of the Taliban, but their party celebrating the birth of a new son was mistaken for a Taliban gathering. Seven members of the family were killed by US special forces, including two pregnant women. When the soldiers realised they had killed women in the raid, they used knives to cut the bullets from the dead women’s bodies, in an effort to conceal US involvement. Survivors of the raid were hooded, shackled, physically assaulted and forced to stand in bare feet for several hours in the cold. An official press statement the following day spoke of a ‘fire fight’ that engaged ‘several insurgents’. The women’s deaths were blamed on the family and described as bearing ‘the earmarks of a traditional honor killing’.

Legally, killing a ‘high-value target’ was often easier than imprisoning him and the technology of bombing by remote control made possible an alternative to the complex politics of detaining suspects. In the final months of the Bush administration, the CIA introduced a new innovation to its drone killing programme – ‘signature strikes’ – which targeted individuals not on the basis of specific intelligence about them but on patterns of behaviour. ‘Military aged males’ who were part of a large gathering in designated regions could be considered fair targets. The drone assassination machine no longer needed to know the names of the people whose lives it was taking. Obama embraced the drone programme and made it his preferred counter-terrorist tactic, with strikes on Pakistan almost weekly in his first year at the White House. Every week, Obama met with national security officials to watch PowerPoint presentations of potential targets and to ‘nominate’ spots on the kill list. Senior officials dubbed these weekly meetings ‘terror Tuesdays’.

Perhaps the most important sections of Dirty Wars are the accounts of US policy in Yemen and Somalia. Scahill forcefully demonstrates that US actions in the two countries fuelled increasing violence. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh artfully played on US fears of al Qaida in order to secure funding for his security forces to fight a counter-insurgency campaign against the Houthi rebellion in the north that had nothing to do with the war on terror. In exchange, the US had free rein to conduct drone strikes in Yemen, and an IMF structural adjustment plan was accepted that reduced fuel subsidies, leading to the further impoverishment of the population.

A drone strike on the Yemeni village of al Majalah in 2009 left more than forty people dead, including fourteen women and twenty-one children. The victims were Bedouin families who had pitched their tents not far from a camp used by al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The Yemeni government announced that its own warplanes had struck an al Qaida training camp, keeping secret its acquiescence to US drone strikes within its territory. Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye exposed this lie by photographing the missile parts at the scene, some of which bore the label ‘Made in the United States’. He appeared on Al Jazeera describing the civilian casualties and the US’s role. Later, the Saleh regime imprisoned him on trumped-up charges. When public pressure pushed Saleh to reconsider, he received a personal telephone call from Obama ‘expressing concern’ about Shaye’s potential release; his incarceration continued for another two years. Meanwhile, US security officials gave off-the-record briefings to American journalists smearing Shaye as an activist with al Qaida.

On Somalia, Scahill recounts how, after 9/11, the CIA recruited local militia groups to capture and kill ‘Islamists’. That term defined a far wider range of ideologies than al Qaida’s, which at the time had only a handful of active supporters in the country. Each week, CIA agents flew in by private jet from Nairobi to provide the roaming death squads with their target lists and dollar-filled briefcases. In 2006, an uprising in response to these CIA proxies led to the Islamic Courts Union coming to power in Mogadishu. The Bush administration interpreted the Courts as another ‘Islamist’ threat and decided a full-scale military invasion was needed. On this occasion, the job was outsourced to the Ethiopian army – supported with US airpower and special operations forces on the ground. The violence of the Ethiopian invasion, in turn, pushed al Shabaab, the marginal youth wing of the Courts, to the fore as the main organiser of Somali resistance. For the first time, a group with a Taliban-style agenda began to control territory in Somalia, an outcome that owed much to US policies ostensibly intended to forestall such a possibility.

Officially, the CIA’s secret prisons were shut down once Obama came to office but, in East Africa, suspects continue to find themselves disappeared to ‘black sites’, denied access to lawyers or family members and interrogated by US agencies. In some instances, secret CIA installations are still operational; in others, the management of the prisons is outsourced to allied governments – Ethiopia or the US-installed Somali transitional government – which run them on behalf of the US but with a veneer of deniability. In Somalia, the local intelligence agency is paid for by the CIA and its operations kept secret from Somali government ministers.

Although Scahill does not make the argument himself, what he has catalogued is a return to the covert action strategy the US pursued in the cold war of the 1970s and 1980s, following defeat in Vietnam. Ironically, the state terrorism the strategy engendered produced the networks of violence that culminated in the 9/11 attacks. Dirty Wars does not delve into this earlier history; its account of US intervention in Somalia, for example, begins in the 1990s and does not cover the US sponsorship of the Mohamed Siad Barre regime in the previous decade that contributed to the subsequent collapse of the country. But the implication of the book is that the same cycle is once again in train. In an epilogue, we are reminded of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous question: ‘Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?’ Scahill’s key argument is that, through its own actions, the US is ‘helping to breed a new generation of enemies’ who grow in number faster than they can be eliminated from the kill lists. Such ‘blowback’ arguments have been common to critiques of the US military over the last decade but Scahill’s reporting provides a wealth of new material on the ways the war on terror produces the very enemies it is supposed to be countering.

Scahill’s desire to document the human costs of Obama’s wars and allow their victims a voice stands out all the more in an age of ‘embedded’ war reporters and Washington insiders masquerading as journalists. Dirty Wars ought to be read by all those who voted for Obama in 2008 in the hope that the war on terror would be ended; and it will be an essential weapon in the ongoing battle to achieve that end.

This article was published in the journal Race & Class.

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