As the Iraqi resistance expands and perfects its attacks, the American military,
like so many occupying armies before it, is turning to methods of warfare long
outlawed by civilized nations -- assassinations and reprisals against civilians.
When it comes to the first, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has long been
on record as wanting Saddam Hussein and the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban
brought in "dead or alive," with emphasis on the former. Now, according to a November
7th front-page piece in the New York Times, the Pentagon, in conjunction with
the CIA, has announced the creation of a new "task force" -- polite language for
an assassination squad -- to accomplish these ends. "The new Special Operations
organization," according to reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, "is designed
to act with greater speed on intelligence tips about 'high-value targets' and
not be contained within the borders where American conventional forces are operating
in Iraq and Afghanistan." In other words, this death squad, composed of U.S. Army
Special Forces troops, can run down its quarry in countries like Yemen, Saudi
Arabia, or Pakistan but presumably also (if the occasion required it) in France,
Germany, or even the United States itself.
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The contradictions inherent in this
plan are striking and tell us a great deal about what it means to be the lone
planetary superpower. Although the Bush administration has refused to join the
new International Criminal Court because it allegedly threatened our sovereignty,
we now openly say that nobody else's sovereignty means anything to us at all.
Without debate or oversight by elected officials, we are seemingly adopting a
militarized version of globalization -- sending "terminator" squads wherever we
want to whenever we care to -- whose operations will inevitably change the nature
of our world, no matter how any individual attack may sort itself out. The concept
of sovereignty -- that national governments exercise supreme authority within
their own borders -- is the bedrock of global order. Without it, we open the door
Something like this plan for officially sanctioned assassinations
has been in the cards for some time. On November 4, 2002, the Bush administration
acknowledged that it had carried out a strike in Yemen, violating that country's
sovereignty. Using an armed "Predator" unmanned surveillance aircraft monitored
by CIA operatives based at a French military facility in Djibouti and at CIA headquarters
in Virginia, the U.S. released a Hellfire missile that destroyed an SUV said to
contain a senior al-Qaeda terrorist. Not only was the vehicle so completely vaporized
that this claim cannot be verified, but the nature of the strike itself -- coming
after the Yemeni government reportedly refused to act on information passed to
it by the CIA -- must give pause to other governments. Why couldn't a Hellfire
missile released from a remote-controlled drone be used to destroy reputed terrorists
in the Philippines, in Singapore, or in Germany, regardless of what a local government
might think or wish? It would be prudent for our leaders to remember that sovereignty
only makes sense when it is honored by all nations reciprocally. The day could
come when the United States might be vulnerable to another country's use of such
missiles against the homes and offices of supporters of, say, Israel or Taiwan.
Secretary Rumsfeld is, in fact, taking a leaf out of the play-book of Israeli
prime minister Ariel Sharon. He has long employed hit-squads against Palestinian
and Hamas leaders who displeased him, and he is on record as having seriously
considered "taking out" President Arafat. Just as Sharon and his government are
indifferent to the collateral damage caused by their missile assaults, Gen. John
P. Abizaid, commander of all U.S. military forces from the Red Sea to the Indian
Ocean, invariably uses the word "terrorist" to describe Iraqi resistance fighters.
Calling guerrilla fighters "terrorists" allows American soldiers great leeway
in avoiding responsibility when, for instance, they shoot unarmed civilians at
checkpoints because they failed to obey shouted orders, which they may not have
understood, fast enough.
Equally important under this rubric, Abizaid is opening
the way to the authorization of indiscriminate reprisals against defenseless Iraqis.
Frustrated by the deaths of thirty-eight U.S. soldiers during the first half of
November, the U.S. high command has already launched Operation Ivy Cyclone, using
F-16 fighters to drop 500-pound bombs on Tikrit and Falluja. This was immediately
followed by Operation Iron Hammer within Baghdad itself, employing Apache attack
helicopters and paratroopers in armored vehicles to blow up civilian properties
the military thinks might have been involved in the planning of ambushes -- or
that are just prominent places upon which to showcase America's military might.
It appears that "staying the course" in Iraq may soon enough involve smaller scale
versions of those Vietnam staples, the saturation bombing of cities and towns,
the herding of civilians into barbed-wire enclosed "strategic hamlets," and a
rerun of the Phoenix Program in which the CIA and Special Forces assassinated
some 30,000 suspected Viet Cong leaders.
Not only is this thuggish behavior
completely unacceptable under international law but, as in Israel, it is unlikely
to achieve the ends that are so confidently being predicted. (The term "thuggish"
derives from a 13th century Indian secret society that worshiped the Hindu goddess
of destruction, Kali. "Thugs" would infiltrate a party of travelers and when the
moment was right on some remote stretch of road, they would strangle their prey
with "Kali's skirt hem," a strip of cloth.) As Milt Bearden, who was the head
of CIA operations in Afghanistan during the late 1980s, observed in a New York
Times op-ed, "For every mujahedeen killed or hauled off in raids by Soviet troops
in Afghanistan, a revenge group of perhaps a half-dozen members of his family
took up arms. Sadly, this same rule probably applies in Iraq."
on to argue, "There [are] two stark lessons in the history of the 20th century:
no nation that launched a war against another sovereign nation ever won. And every
nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation ultimately succeeded."
Actually, of course, he overlooks America's attacks against small Latin American
countries like Nicaragua, Panama, and Grenada, each of which resulted in putative
"victories." Nonetheless, it would be useful if the war-lovers of the Pentagon
would contemplate Bearden's lessons.
Another result of our government's taking
the law into its own hands is to deceive the public about what is going on --
leading often to a violent reaction against politicians and complicit journalists
when the truth finally comes out (recall the post-Watergate Church committee hearings).
It also raises the level of callousness throughout our society. Assassinations
and reprisals do nothing to advance national policies, but they do harden and
numb the consciences of ordinary American citizens and instill in our armed forces
the most corrosive of all emotions: guilt.
If Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar,
or Saddam Hussein are actually killed by the military's special assassination
squad, a very large proportion of Middle Easterners simply will not believe it.
Not even bodies put on display or DNA tests can alter that fact. After the massive
campaign of false information that preceded our invasion of Iraq, it is doubtful
that any foreigner would today trust anything said by our Department of Defense
or Central Intelligence Agency. The only thing that might work would be good police
work, leading to the capture of terrorist leaders and their conviction at a trial
based on evidence presented before an international tribunal.
nonetheless seems to believe that the deaths of these men will halt or seriously
cripple the attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, too, he is undoubtedly wrong.
First of all, many of the so-called terrorists are in fact nationalists whose
targets are not unarmed civilians but easily identified military occupiers who,
the Iraqis believe with some evidence, invaded their country to steal their resources.
As ever, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Second, the actions
are usually the work of small groups or cells, and the deaths of one or two leaders,
however prominent, are unlikely to stop them. New leaders will arise to take their
place, and the guerrillas are likely to redouble their efforts spurred on by the
"martyrdom" of those who are killed. Think Ireland, Colombia, Vietnam, Chechnya,
and many other places and occasions.
The Bush administration evidently imagines
that opposition to its occupation in Iraq will lessen or disappear once people
there know for sure that Saddam Hussein will not be back. I predict that quite
the opposite will occur. The Iraqi Sunnis without Saddam will quickly rally around
a new leader (or leaders) and redouble their efforts to kick out the Americans
and claim the nationalist credit for doing so; the Shiites -- once they realize
the coast is temporarily clear -- will struggle ever harder against both the U.S.
and the Sunnis for an Islamic state under their control; and the Kurds, seeing
the way the wind is blowing, will demand a state of their own.
This may be
what Secretary Rumsfeld also foresees in his more pessimistic moments and why
he sometimes says that the U.S. will have to remain in Iraq for at least a decade.
But even if we were to garrison every town and village in the country, we could
neither control nor stop this process. Some people say the U.S. should at least
be praised for getting rid of Saddam. I believe that years from now we may come
to understand why it took a leader so brutal to temporarily weld together these
disparate peoples into a semblance of a nation-state. Think Stalin and the now
dissolved USSR. Once the Soviet Union's control apparatus was discredited, rule
from Moscow disintegrated. Russia today is only a shadow of the former USSR and
has a national economy about the same as the Netherlands.
Iraq was a place
to steer clear of, not one where our armed missionaries, the U.S. Army, should
have tried out their nonexistent nation-building skills.
is author of 'Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire'.
His new book, 'The Sorrows of Empire : Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic [The American Empire Project ], will be published by Metropolitan Books
on January 1.
Copyright C2003 Chalmers Johnson
Tomdispatch.com is researched, written and edited by Tom Engelhardt, a fellow at the Nation Institute, for anyone in despair over post-September 11th US mainstream media coverage of our world and ourselves.
© 2003 TomDispatch.com