A Strange and Far-flung War
The Way of the Knife:
The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth
by Mark Mazzetti
Penguin Press, 2013, 400 pp.
The World Is a Battlefield
by Jeremy Scahill
Nation Books, 2013, 680 pp.
Kill Anything That Moves:
The Real American War in Vietnam
by Nick Turse
Metropolitan Books, 2013, 384 pp.
The first Predator drone missions ran surveillance on Serbian forces in the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s. They flew, Mark Mazzetti tells us, “out of a hangar in Albania that the CIA had rented in exchange for two truckloads of wool blankets.” Predators were successfully weaponized at a Nevada Air Force base just as George W. Bush was taking office, and drone strikes began in Afghanistan in the weeks after the September 11 attacks. A November 2002 Predator strike in Yemen killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, a mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole; it was the first time in decades that the United States had publicly confirmed an assassination outside a declared war zone, and the strike also claimed the first American drone victim, Ahmed Hijazi (aka Kemal Darwish) of Lackawanna, New York. Bush expanded the drone war in Pakistan in his final year in office—“signature strikes,” targeting as-yet-unidentified suspects on the basis of their behavior alone, entered the American repertoire around this time—and the Obama administration expanded it still further. So far 2010 stands as the peak of the drone war, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with 127 strikes in Pakistan alone.
The drone’s ascent to iconic status, however, was more recent and sudden. Until a couple years ago, the American debate over drones was chiefly conducted between national security professionals and concerned their usefulness as a weapon against terrorism. Boosters hailed their accuracy and efficiency compared to traditional airpower; skeptics warned of their alienating effects on local communities whose hearts and minds America hoped to win over. Only recently—it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when—did the drone enter public consciousness as The Drone, symbol of modernity gone wrong.
No doubt the reasons for this sudden notoriety were varied. On the left, increased awareness of the drone war coincided with growing across-the-board disappointment in the Obama presidency. “Drones” became the one-word answer with which to express this disenchantment. On the right, the image of robot killers piloted from secret bases triggered all the libertarian fears about government power that had largely been suppressed since 9/11. They became safe to voice once again when Barack Hussein Obama was the one with his finger on the button. The public backlash reached its zenith this past March, when Senator Rand Paul spent thirteen hours filibustering the nomination of John Brennan, an architect of the War on Terror, as CIA director. Paul and his colleague Ted Cruz (a fellow Tea Partier but not typically one who shares Paul’s dovish and libertarian instincts) also introduced a bill forbidding the government from “us[ing] drones to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil if they do not represent an imminent threat”—although they added that the bill should not be taken to imply that it was permissible to do so by any other means.
As that last proviso suggests, there is some risk of fetishizing The Drone at the expense of a wider view of the American War on Terror. The visceral creepiness of the new technology has been crucial in raising awareness of the human consequences of this war, but it can distract us from the fact that Predators and Reapers are simply one type of weapon by which it is being waged. Americans may shiver at the thought of Hellfire missiles falling out of a clear blue sky, but most continue to thrill to the exploits of Seal Team Six, and the latter is just as fundamental a feature of the new American way of war as the former. So, too, are the Kalashnikov-wielding militiamen on the payroll of U.S.-backed warlords in Somalia and the programmers conducting cyber-sabotage against the Iranian nuclear enrichment program. Technological innovation has been key to American military policy since 9/11, but it has by no means been the only driver of change. As the books under review make clear, we might better view these years as a story of the U.S. national security apparatus gradually breaking free of the restraints—both of law and of public scrutiny—imposed on it in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. It is also a story of the military and intelligence wings of this apparatus becoming increasingly intertwined and indistinguishable from one another. A wider view of the War on Terror may be necessary, but it is by no means more comforting.
Most books treating the War on Terror pick up the story soon after the end of the Cold War, with the rise to prominence of Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, or perhaps go as far back as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Carter administration’s decision to back the mujahideen. Yet from another perspective, the place to start is the Vietnam War, which decisively shaped the worldviews of the leading policymakers in the years before and after 9/11. It is not merely that many of the most controversial policies of the War on Terror, from extraordinary rendition to targeted assassination, have recognizable ancestors in Vietnam. More broadly, the twin backlash against Vietnam and Watergate put in place many of the safeguards that served—however flimsily and at times inadequately—to restrain the use of American espionage and military force in later decades.
During the War on Terror, a set of policymakers who were also products of the Vietnam era—most prominent among them Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld—attacked and largely overturned these safeguards. Cheney and Rumsfeld’s initial taste of power had come under Gerald Ford, at the height of the post-Vietnam backlash. They believed that the United States had taken the wrong lessons from Vietnam, losing its self-confidence and willpower while entangling itself in bureaucratic red tape. They aimed to unwind the restraints against military adventurism and unchecked executive power, and for the most part they succeeded in doing so, passing on a comparatively unfettered war machine to Obama, the first president to come of age after Vietnam.
Cheney and Rumsfeld were also typical of most contemporary commentary in framing discussion of the Vietnam War entirely in terms of American postures and self-perceptions—as a debate between self-confidence and timidity (for hawks) or humility and hubris (for doves). There has been far less appetite, in the forty years since the war ended, to discuss its gritty details: what the Americans hoped to do in Vietnam, what they ended up doing, who they did it to. The resulting historical amnesia has turned the war into more of a cultural bellwether indicating the interpreter’s political orientation than a real historical event.
Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves is a valuable corrective. Cutting against the current tendency to view the 1968 My Lai massacre as an exceptional event perpetrated by a few “bad apples,” Turse argues persuasively that My Lai was no aberration, and that war crimes in Vietnam were “widespread, routine, and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.” He bases this conclusion on a fair amount of original research, notably in the records of the military’s Vietnam War Crimes Working Group and, crucially, among Vietnamese survivors of American massacres. A great deal of his material, though, has been drawn from the contemporary accounts of veterans and journalists, already public but long forgotten to most. While this has earned Turse a bit of criticism, particularly on the charge of slighting the role that antiwar veterans played in previously publicizing these atrocities, the book is just as useful when reminding us of the forgotten as when unearthing the previously unknown. The political pressures supporting amnesia mean that this story will likely have to be retold every generation.
While by no means absolving individual soldiers of responsibility for their actions, Turse shows that the war could hardly have produced anything but a brutal outcome even had it been waged by an army of saints. The problems began with the military’s rules of engagement, which were premised on a “fantasy belief that civilians had the ability to evict armed guerillas,” and thus that villagers could be held responsible and collectively punished for the presence of National Liberation Front fighters (more familiarly, Viet Cong) in their midst. In any case, whatever nominal distinctions between civilians and combatants were drawn in theory were ignored in practice: the military’s use of body counts as a metric of success provided an incentive to kill as many Vietnamese as possible and report them all as VC, and higher-ups had no interest whatsoever in correcting erroneous identifications. Many readers will flash forward a few decades to the notorious method reportedly used by the CIA to count casualties from drone strikes: any “military-aged male” in a suspicious area can be assumed to be a combatant until proven otherwise.
Turse’s book is at its most brutal and vivid in evoking the agonizing calculations that Vietnamese civilians were forced into. How long, for instance, to take cover underground if your village came under assault? Emerge too soon, and you’d fall victim to artillery fire; emerge too late, and the soldiers entering the village would take you for a combatant and drop a grenade in your bunker. Time it just right, and you still stood a good risk of being machine-gunned. Or what to do if you were working your fields when an American helicopter came overheard? Run away, and you became fair game—one of the most perverse aspects of the American rules of engagement was that fleeing from gunfire was taken as a sign of guilt. Stay put, and you risked becoming prey for the likes of General John Donaldson, infamous for inflating his body counts by “gook-hunting” civilians from his helicopter.
Beyond the permissive accounting of casualties, other parts of Turse’s book will resonate with observers of the current War on Terror. The practice of “extraordinary rendition,” for example—in which detainees are delivered to allied intelligence agencies to be tortured—had its antecedents in Vietnam, where the United States outsourced much of its most brutal intelligence extraction to American-trained South Vietnamese interrogators. (“We were continuously told ‘You don’t have to kill [prisoners] yourself,’” one Green Beret remembered, “‘let your indigenous counterpart do that.’”) Counterinsurgency doctrine, which came back into vogue for a few years following the 2007 Iraq surge, was similarly a staple of the Vietnam era, although by the twenty-first century the United States had at least seen the folly of fighting insurgency through what one Johnson administration official bluntly called “military operations specifically designed to generate refugees,” which involved evicting the populations of restive areas from their homes and forcing them into squalid “concentration zones.” And the assassination-centric approach that has marked the more recent portion of the War on Terror—which (then as now) stands in some tension with the professed goals of counterinsurgency—has its most obvious ancestor in the notorious Phoenix program, which involved the paramilitary assassination of tens of thousands of supposed NLF operatives.
The cumulative effect of Turse’s account can be numbing. With relatively little in the way of political context offered, it can sometimes read more like a “litany of atrocities,” as he aptly titles one of his chapters, than a historical narrative of the war. Nonetheless, his book does effectively convey something of the lived reality that underlies the staggering statistics. In contrast to the more than 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam, we will never know the number of Vietnamese casualties with any precision, but there can be no doubt that it was vastly greater. (Even the most conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians were killed, while more recent studies suggest that the total dead, including combatants, numbered more than 3 million.) For all the ugly parallels with the War on Terror, there remains nothing in recent American experience to compare with Vietnam.
American power did not become kind and gentle in the years after Vietnam; U.S. support for murderous right-wing military juntas throughout Latin America in the 1980s was only the clearest evidence that it would continue to be ruthless in pursuit of its perceived interests. But it would be equally erroneous to suggest that nothing changed at all. The evidence suggests that the experience of the 1970s had a real and chastening effect on the military and intelligence communities. The Church Committee’s revelations about CIA malfeasance during the Cold War led to Gerald Ford’s 1976 executive order banning political assassinations, and the agency remained largely resistant to assassination through the end of the twentieth century. In 1984, when President Reagan signed off on Oliver North’s plan for the United States to train local hit men to intervene in Lebanon’s civil war, former CIA director Richard Helms warned against the “Israeli” method of “fighting terrorism with terrorism,” and the proposal was scuttled. One former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) told the 9/11 Commission that prior to the attacks, he would have disobeyed a direct order to assassinate Osama bin Laden.
On the military side, the general trend is visible in the career of the most prominent officer of the post-Vietnam generation, Colin Powell. As Turse notes, Powell had seen Vietnam at its ugliest, serving as an aide to the aforementioned General Donaldson. While defending Donaldson at the time, Powell became known for an eponymous doctrine meant to keep the United States out of future Vietnams: America would only go to war as a last resort, in pursuit of vital national interests, with broad political support, and using overwhelming force. Powell came to prominence as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War, a campaign that seemingly served as a model for the new kind of warfare. And although he did not, of course, speak for the entire military, most of the uniformed brass were united in a desire to avoid getting bogged down in dirty wars and messy counterinsurgencies.
The orderly vision of a Pentagon focused on large-scale conventional warfare and a CIA focused on traditional intelligence collection was never fully realized, as the record of U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s and 1990s will testify. Still, the changes in both the Pentagon and the CIA over the course of the War on Terror have been dramatic. The sorts of operations that used to be exceptional—Reagan’s 1986 bombing of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s compound in Libya, Clinton’s 1998 missile strike on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan—have become the norm. Bureaucratic units that used to be relatively marginal—the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the CIA’s CTC—have moved to the center of the action. The military is doing ever more spying, the CIA is doing ever more killing, and the assassination of suspected terrorists has become the most prominent instrument of American foreign policy.
Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars and Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife seek to explain how this happened. These two excellent books take different tacks, but the stories they tell end up being mostly complementary rather than contradictory. Scahill, a reporter for the Nation who will reportedly be joining eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s new online journalism venture, offers a more comprehensive account of America’s new “dirty wars.” (Perhaps too comprehensive—the book is over 500 pages before footnotes, in addition to a companion documentary, which may be excessive given how much of it has been previously reported.) He focuses particularly on the role of the military, and much of his most revealing reporting is on the ways that U.S special forces have vastly expanded their portfolios over the last decade or so. He also provides badly needed on-the-ground reporting in locales ranging from Pakistan to Somalia, interviewing some of America’s allies, enemies, and victims in the War on Terror while showing how fluid and overlapping these categories can be.
Mazzetti, of the New York Times, offers a briefer and more readable narrative that focuses especially on the role of the CIA. It is very much an insider’s account, based on numerous often-anonymous interviews with government (and particularly CIA) sources; while I am inclined to agree with Mazzetti that this is a “necessary evil,” it also gives his book a more limited perspective. In any case, despite these different approaches, it is notable how much the two books seem to agree on the basic shape of the story.
As the War on Terror got underway, it became evident—or at least seemed evident to those setting policy—that the old lines demarcating military action from intelligence collection were no longer relevant. Henceforth the entire world was a battlefield, and the United States would need to gather intelligence on threats and eliminate them quickly and fluidly, unconstrained by bureaucratic fetters. This, at least, was the vision of Cheney and Rumsfeld, who come off—in Scahill’s and Mazzetti’s books as in most other accounts of the War on Terror—as the most dynamic and creative figures ushering in the new era.
In these conditions the exact division of labor between the CIA and the Pentagon was up for grabs, and the result was a relationship that was as often competitive as collaborative. Both carry out their own drone strikes, for instance, with the CIA running the drone war in Pakistan and the Pentagon taking most of the rest of the world. Yet this de facto division is far from neat, as evidenced by the sequence of events surrounding the September 2011 killing of the radical preacher and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Mazzetti claims that the strike was a CIA operation, after the White House had taken the hunt for Awlaki away from the Pentagon and given it to the agency; the strike that killed Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son Abdulrahman (also a U.S. citizen) two weeks later, however, was a Pentagon op. (Mazzetti suggests that Abdulrahman was simply “in the wrong place at the wrong time” in an operation that was targeting someone else, while Scahill is more skeptical.) Confusing matters further are such practices as “sheep-dipping,” in which military special forces are put under CIA command so they can operate without asking for local governments’ permission. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was technically a CIA operation, although carried out by Navy SEALs.
The effect on both the CIA and the Pentagon was to shift primacy away from their traditional functions and toward black ops. At the CIA, this meant less attention to traditional intelligence gathering and more to targeted killings run out of the CTC. At the Pentagon, it resulted in the meteoric rise of JSOC, the command center coordinating special forces across the military; one of the virtues of Scahill’s book is to make clear its decisive role in the War on Terror. Established in 1980 in the wake of the failed attempt to rescue hostages from the U.S. embassy in Iran, JSOC was marginal prior to 9/11, but Rumsfeld saw in it the perfect weapon for the War on Terror and greatly increased its power to kill and capture targets around the globe. His reasons for doing so were partly a matter of bureaucratic turf wars; as Secretary of Defense, he held the CIA in contempt and was eager to cut it out of the action. But there was another compelling reason for centralizing everything in the Pentagon: by classifying actions as military operations aimed at “preparing the battlefield” rather than intelligence operations (and thus as “clandestine” rather than “covert” under federal law), the administration could avoid the legal requirements to issue presidential findings authorizing the missions and to report them to Congress. JSOC was able to operate in the interstices of the law with minimal oversight.
Scahill writes that the military ended up waging two wars simultaneously in Iraq, and similarly in Afghanistan: “One being waged by the conventional army, which was largely an occupation; the other was a war of attrition being fought by JSOC.” JSOC was not in the business of holding territory, or winning hearts and minds, but of hunting down targets and killing them—sometimes with drones or cruise missiles, more often with nighttime raids by special forces. In the run-up to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, JSOC’s then-commander Admiral William McRaven told Obama administration officials that the raid was operationally similar to the kind that his men carried out “ten, twelve, fourteen times a night.” To hunt targets JSOC needed information, and thus it acquired its own intelligence services. It also interrogated its own prisoners, most notoriously at an old Saddam Hussein–era military base near the Baghdad airport called Camp NAMA (for “Nasty-Ass Military Area”). The use of torture at NAMA was so brutal that even the CIA, which had been running the Bush administration’s infamous interrogations at black sites around the world, pulled all of its interrogators from the base in 2003.
JSOC soon became a sort of military-within-a-military. It barely coordinated with the conventional armed forces, much less the other branches of government, and its focus on assassinations often stood at cross-purposes with the goal of civilian protection espoused by counterinsurgency gurus. The Middle East analyst Andrew Exum, who led a platoon of Army Rangers in Iraq, describes the basic dynamic to Scahill: “You start out with a target list, and maybe you’ve got 50 guys on it, maybe you’ve got 200 guys on it, but you can work your way through those 50 or 200 guys, and then suddenly at the end of that target list you’ve got a new target list of 3,000 people on it.” As in Vietnam, there was little incentive after the fact to make sure that all the names on the list really belonged on it.
Assassination has only become more central since the United States began withdrawing from Iraq, and Obama has leaned increasingly on JSOC and the CIA. While Obama’s reliance on targeted killings came as a surprise to many, perhaps it shouldn’t have: even as a presidential candidate, he out-hawked John McCain by stating his willingness to take out “high-value terrorist targets” in Pakistan without Islamabad’s consent. Moreover, targeted killing promised a way around various quagmires that Obama was eager to avoid: no more troop-heavy occupations of foreign countries, no more haggling with Congress over the fates of Guantánamo detainees. Obama seems to have been particularly impressed by the surgical precision with which SEAL snipers had taken out three Somali pirates in the April 2009 rescue of an American hostage (as depicted in the recent movie Captain Phillips). A month later, he tapped General Stanley McChrystal, the JSOC commander who was legendary for hunting down insurgents in Iraq, as the commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan. By the end of Obama’s first term, the New York Times was reporting on “Terror Tuesday” meetings in the White House Situation Room in which the president personally signed off on targets added to the growing kill list.
It is not merely U.S. methods that have changed. The very frontiers of the War on Terror have also shifted—away from the official war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan in favor of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The political contours of these undeclared wars have proved extremely murky, putting the United States in bed with various allies whose understanding of local dynamics were far superior and whose interests only partially converged with its own.
The relationship with Pakistan was famously fraught; the Pakistanis were unconvinced that the United States had the stomach to stay in Afghanistan long term, while the Americans suspected that elements in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate were covertly supporting the Taliban and various terrorist organizations. The CIA and ISI struck a deal in 2004: the CIA would kill Nek Muhammad, a Pashtun insurgent leader who had been causing Islamabad trouble, and in return the ISI would allow regular CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, with Pakistan either taking credit for any kills or denying that they had taken place. This accord had been fraying even before the bin Laden raid, as the CIA became convinced that the ISI was dragging its feet and began undertaking strikes without Pakistani permission.
In Yemen, the shrewd strongman President Ali Abdullah Saleh was engaged in a double game of his own, playing up the threat of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to extract money and arms from the United States that he would then use for his own purposes. An American airstrike in May 2010 highlighted the difficulties: JSOC had been told that the targeted vehicle was headed to an AQAP meeting, but one of those killed turned out to be Jaber al-Shabwani, a Yemeni deputy provincial governor who had come to negotiate with AQAP. Some in the U.S. government suspected that Saleh had fed them phony intelligence to eliminate Shabwani, who had been feuding with the Saleh family. But Obama continued to step up the drone war in Yemen even after it became a central location in the Arab Spring and Saleh ceded power to his deputy following an assassination attempt.
Somalia, lacking an effective central government since the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, was perhaps the most tortuous story of all. In the years after 9/11, the United States turned to various warlords as proxies, giving them license to dispose of their enemies with no questions asked under cover of the War on Terror. The abuses of the warlords led to the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the first regime in years to provide even a semblance of effective governance. Nonetheless, the ICU’s purported links to al Qaeda—disputed and seemingly overstated—alarmed the Bush administration, which engineered a 2006 invasion by Ethiopia that toppled the ICU and plunged Somalia back into the warlord era. In a pattern that should be familiar from the history of Hezbollah and any number of other insurgent groups, the invasion and occupation by Somalia’s bitter rival precipitated the rise of al Shabab, an Islamist group far more extreme that the ICU. (It was most recently in the news for its bloody attack on Kenya’s Westgate Mall, announced as retaliation for the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia.)
Somalia may have returned to chaos, but it is still a hub of the War on Terror. The U.S. counterterrorism strategy has largely bypassed the nominal government, relying on unilateral JSOC strikes, proxies from other African countries, and Somali intelligence agents trained at the notorious American-run “Pink House” near the Mogadishu airport—as well as what Scahill dubs the “rent-a-militia” program, which in some cases involves backing the same warlords who were once prominent in the ICU government.
It is not merely the local sharks who have fed well in these new warzones. Mazzetti profiles a few of the entrepreneurial spirits who have thrived in the nebulous world where the War on Terror meets the private sector. Most famously, there is Erik Prince—heir to an auto parts fortune, former Navy SEAL, and founder of the company once known as Blackwater. After his company’s fortunes declined due to its trigger-happy methods in Iraq, and a Cheney plan to use Blackwater operatives as a sort of global hit squad came to naught, Prince eventually relocated to the United Arab Emirates, where he teamed up with a set of South African mercenaries to try to create a private counter-piracy force in Somalia. There is also Michele Ballarin, a wealthy Virginia socialite who decided she wanted to “fix Somalia” and won a Pentagon contract to collect intelligence there behind the front of a humanitarian food program. Or Michael Furlong, who—after a failed plan to produce propaganda video games for the U.S. government—eventually partnered with retired CIA operative Duane “Dewey” Clarridge to set up a network of private spies for the Pentagon in Pakistan. (This venture was cancelled after a 2009 drone strike based on intelligence it provided mistakenly killed several double agents working for the ISI.) It seems likely that similar figures will continue to thrive in the largely unobserved and unregulated military-intelligence-commercial complex that has grown up in recent years.
What about those on the receiving end of all this? Here, Scahill provides some exemplary reporting, interviewing survivors of incidents like a December 2009 drone strike in Yemen that killed dozens of civilians, and a February 2010 night raid in Afghanistan that killed seven people, including two pregnant women and several employees of the Afghan government. (The commandos apparently dug their bullets out of the women’s bodies, and American officials initially claimed that the dead were victims of an honor killing.)
He also devotes particular attention to the case of Anwar al-Awlaki. Without taking a definitive position on whether Awlaki had ultimately become an al Qaeda operative, as the U.S. government claims, Scahill does provide a wealth of detail to flesh out the story, much of it based on interviews with Awlaki’s father. Among other things, he provides strong reason to believe that the FBI was attempting to recruit Awlaki as an informant in 2002, and that he may even have briefly acted as one; on this theory, Awlaki’s two arrests on charges of soliciting prostitutes may have been intended to get him to cooperate. He also relates the bizarre story of the CIA’s attempt to track down Awlaki in 2010 by helping to arrange a marriage for him with a European woman he met online. The marriage seems to have come off smoothly, but the plan to track Awlaki proved fruitless when the woman—who wasn’t in on the con—left her bugged suitcase behind before going to meet him.
While such reporting is essential, we still know far too little about what the War on Terror looks like from Waziristan, Sana’a, or Mogadishu. Nor do we have very good information about what kind of civilian toll this war has exacted, whether through Predators, special forces, or local militiamen. As was the case with Vietnam, we will certainly never get a precise accounting. But reaching a better one remains a vital task, even if we have to wait a generation for an adequate understanding of the consequences of this strange and far-flung war.
Daniel Luban is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Chicago.