It seems America wages three kinds of wars. There’s the “formal” declaration last seen in WWII; then there’s authorized military engagements by Congress, like Bush’s Afghanistan and Iraq wars still active today under Obama; and then a third kind we don’t usually consider in the same camp—the rhetorical sorts, such as the “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror”. The somewhat obvious reason for the distinction is these “wars” target behaviours, cultures, institutions, networks and fundamental realities of the modern world rather than distinct countries or political regimes. As such they can’t be “won” per se, in part because there are no fixed set of enemies or regimes to depose, in part because there are no clearly defined “enemies”.
We’ve heard time and time again that the War on Drugs has been a waste, a catastrophic failure and a flawed policy from the get-go. With sweeping evidence that the drug trade and drug use itself has grown steadfastly since its conception, it almost seems designed to fail. But again, we know these “wars” aren’t determinate battles so much as sweeping changes in US policy, and they’re “fought” for their supposedly positive effects on the country and the world at large. In the case of the War on Terror, these changes include warrantless spying on populations, as well as sustained tracking and extrajudicial killings of suspected terrorists or plotters all over the globe.
These troubling new precedents might find acceptance in the public mind as necessary evils for national security and public safety; a means to an end, ostensibly. But if we’ve learned anything from the expansion of intelligence agencies like the NSA, whose domestic spying mandates stem directly from the 9/11 attacks and whose operations have only just begun flourishing under new multi-billion dollar facilities, these policies aren’t exactly provisional. On the contrary: They presume threats in perpetuity, and permanent networks of infrastructure, jobs, businesses and politics are built not only on the basis of mitigating them indefinitely, but continually discovering—and in many cases inadvertently creating—the threats themselves.
So the War on Terror, which began as a series of sacrifices meant to eliminate terrorism in the world, is now in its twelfth year of growth and begs the question: Which part, exactly, is the means, and which is the end? These realities about the War on Terror might help you form some answers.
3. Bin Laden is Dead
With the media sensation that followed Operation Neptune Spear in May 2011, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in charge—previously a highly secretive Black Ops division never made public—became front page news, and the head of the operation William McRaven was promoted to Admiral (and was also runner up for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year). It was a timely toast to the man who presumably killed public enemy number one, but in the hearings that followed, there was no sign of closure.
Shortly after the story broke, Senator John McCain addressed McRaven at the Senate Armed Services Committee: “The leader of Al-Qaeda is dead, but a new one has taken his place. Your mission will be to ensure he meets the same end.” McRaven called for immediate escalating of special operations manpower by up to 5% a year, more drones, and more special operations facilities as his units expand outside of Afghanistan and Iraq—into Yemen, Somalia, and in his words, “across the globe”. At the swearing-in ceremony, the Secretary of Defense waxed inspirational about America’s resolve to carry on the fight.
And just like that, JSOC—whose size, funding, operations and territorial scope were classified and highly specialized—became mainstream media darlings with a new mandate to “find more bin Ladens”. It seemed Osama himself had become old news overnight, and the War had proven it could carry on well without him. Meanwhile, the public for the most part celebrated this chapter in the War’s “success”, despite being mostly unenlightened as to what was being done in its name.
2. JSOC, Secret Kill Lists and the Disposition Matrix
Prior to bin Laden’s death, JSOC was thought to be a generic special force tasked with typical hostage rescue activities. But under Bush and Obama it became the only military unit to interact directly and solely with the White House for “all-purpose” assassination and abduction missions around the globe. At the heart of JSOC’s directive lies what the Obama Administration calls the “Disposition Matrix”— a database described as a “next-generation capture/kill list”.
Far from a list of high profile terrorists, the Disposition Matrix has become a bona-fide blueprint for identifying, capturing and killing potential threats to the US government outside of the law. It continuously seeks new targets for JSOC and the CIA to remove through missile bombings, surgical night raids like Operation Neptune Spear, or unmanned drone aerial attacks which eradicate (literally explode) their victims beyond traceability. There is no trial or conviction for those who land on the list, and the CIA has explicitly stated it will probably be around “indefinitely”.
Even if we ignore the troubling human rights issues, countless probes into these insider attacks suggest they’re counterproductive to the fight against “terror”; echoing the failure of the War on Drugs, reports show US resentment in the Middle East has only grown over the twelve years of violence, especially in Afghanistan where record numbers of citizens harbour “Taliban-like” views despite having no real ties to terrorism; and in Pakistan, where one 2012 poll showed 74% of the population, up from 64% in prior years, considered America “the enemy” in the face of escalating drone strikes.
Meanwhile, more names continue to fall on the kill lists, and the violence grows in a self-perpetuating system that seems to spread Western hostilities better than it fights them. But who does the blame fall on? The Afghani, Pakistani or Yemeni people for not idly embracing the implications of the War on Terror in their countries? Or is it America’s approach to fighting it? As it turns out, the problematic track record of these targeted killings trumps most arguments for the former.
1. “Collateral Damage”
As of 2012, 336 American drone strikes in Pakistan killed over 2,300 people. Pakistani estimates say 80% of those victims were innocent civilians. Even with lower American estimates ranging from 60% to 15%—which still include upwards of 176 children—the innocent loss of life in the name of fighting terrorism is staggering.
If you choose to refute or ignore the human rights violations and the normalized absence of due process, you mind find sense in writing this off — tragic, but “collateral damage” after all. Unfortunately, as it turns out the line between “collateral damage” and targeted killings has never been clear.
This is Anwar al-Awlaki:
Anwar, an American citizen, succeeded bin Laden for a short time as the most hated man in America. Many say he was a peaceful Muslim preacher who slowly radicalized and went to Jihad after witnessing US crimes against civilian populations in Yemen; others suggest he long professed strong anti-American views. Regardless, his unabashed militant Islamism and suspected ties to terrorist operations later in life ultimately led to his death by JSOC drone strike in Yemen, 2011. It surprised no one.
And this is Abdulrahman al-Awlaki:
16-year-old Abdulrahman, born in Denver, listened to Drake and Snoop Dogg, watched The Simpsons and read Harry Potter. Two weeks after the US killed his father, Abdulrahman was sitting at a Yemen café with his friends when he, his teenage cousin and at least five other bystanders were blown to pieces by a drone. When the public demanded answers, US officials claimed the attack was a mistake.
What makes this tragedy particularly bewildering both abroad and in the US is not just that Abdulrahman had no connections to terrorism, but the sheer coincidence that he became “collateral damage” two weeks after his father was executed. Was Abdulrahaman, an American citizen and innocent by all accounts, really just a bystander in a miscalculated bombing, or did he get the kill sentence for his last name? With the total lack of accountability neither the American public nor international onlookers can know the true nature of these deaths. Perhaps more troubling, the killing of innocent Abdulrahman was just one of many swept under the rug.
It’s understandable that a relation between the death of a suspected terrorist and the death of an innocent teenager would serve to fuel anti-American sentiment. This lends some credence to the claim by some that the War on Terror fuels American hate for the purpose of sustaining —and growing — all that counterterrorism infrastructure like JSOC and its multi-million dollar drones and facilities, or the NSA with its blanket collection of private information in partnership with corporate tech giants, as permanent fixtures of US policy. To some it might sound like hard scepticism, some call it a conspiracy theory, but no one can deny the massive business behind the War or the government’s newfound ability to circumvent due process – things it might not be eager to give up.
As for the President’s stated intention of full Afghanistan withdrawal by the end of the year? Watch this space.
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