Published on
The Guardian/UK

War Without Borders

Barack Obama will be surprised to learn about secret CIA raids endorsed by Bush – and how they crossed a line

Simon Tisdall

The least dismaying aspect of today's disclosure of a deliberate, codified White House policy of mounting worldwide, covert, cross-border US special forces attacks on al-Qaida and other selected targets is that there were limits to these operations, albeit self-interested and self-policed.

The most disheartening aspect is the extent to which CIA-directed under-the-radar missions, often amounting to the arbitrary execution of suspects by hit squads with little regard for civilian casualties, resemble the methods of the terrorists they are designed to eradicate.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, George Bush repeatedly vowed to hunt down those responsible and their associates, wherever they were. He personally warned Osama bin Laden that he would get him, one way or another, dead or alive - a vow he has yet to fulfil.

But the danger inherent in such vendetta politics was always that the behaviour of the state would descend to the level of its most bloody-minded tormentors. The egregious abuses subsequently uncovered at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantánamo Bay suggest this is what happened.

In its assaults on civil liberties and personal privacy in the "homeland", the Bush administration again fell below expected standards; likewise in its embrace of torture and its willingness, via extraordinary rendition, to use dictators' dungeons to corral its enemies.

By declaring a "war on terror" of indefinite duration, dedicated to the triumph of the morally good over the evil-doers, Bush created a warped western version of divinely-blessed jihad. Increasingly he played by the terrorists' rules - and increasingly, people in the Islamic world died by them.

In this context, news of former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's classified 2004 order, endorsed by Bush, authorising special forces raids, anywhere, any time, is not a total surprise. Nor does the administration's implicit disregard for international law and concepts of sovereign territory. Their contempt has already been amply demonstrated elsewhere.

According to the New York Times, there have been a dozen or more undisclosed operations since 2004 similar to the ground raids in Syria last month and in Pakistan in September. How many other countries have suffered such actions is not known. They may include Saudi Arabia, Yemen, some Gulf states, Somalia, and possibly countries in the Maghreb.

These states, in which the US (unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan) is not at war, can hardly be proud of their inability to halt unilateral US operations. Hence perhaps their reluctance to talk about them. But it may also be the case that some governments privately welcome the US taking on militants they cannot, for political or military reasons, confront themselves.


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Only Pakistan and Syria, by making a public fuss, appear actively to be trying to curb Washington's enthusiasm for sudden death, Bush-style.

The US has set some self-imposed limits, indicating a sort of target hierarchy. Some raids were called off as too diplomatically damaging. And while the defence secretary can reportedly authorise a raid in the ungoverned spaces of Somalia, similar action in Pakistan or Syria requires presidential approval.

So far at least, Bush has apparently declined to extend "Al-Qaida Network Exord", as the classified executive order is known, to Iran. That may be because Bush' advisers judge, rightly, that Iran, far from keeping quiet, would retaliate in kind.

Whether this covert programme of global US anti-terrorist strikes continues in future is now a question for Barack Obama. More broadly, the president-elect must decide whether he wants to perpetuate Bush's signature "war on terror" or seek to redefine America's argument with Islamist fundamentalism in less bellicose terms.

Obama must also decide whether he wants to maintain an intelligence operations budget that rose 9% last year, to $47.5bn, excluding separate Pentagon spy operations. Another, bigger question hovers over Obama's attitude to annual defence spending of nearly $600bn at a time of economic belt-tightening.

During the election Obama said he viewed al-Qaida and related terrorist threats very seriously. He backed a troop escalation in Afghanistan as well as continued, unilateral strikes inside Pakistan if necessary. But he may be surprised to find out what Bush & Co were up to.

Obama must also consider that after seven years without an attack on US territory, terrorism rates low among US voters' concerns. It seems they are looking for change in foreign as well as domestic policy, not a Bush continuation.

"Whether or not he adopts the term 'war on terror', Obama will have to convince Americans, his party and US allies that the threat remains real and urgent - because it does," a Washington Post editorial said. "But he will also have to distinguish his own campaign from that of Bush, eliminating the excesses of the latter without lessening the pressure on al-Qaida."

Simon Tisdall is an assistant editor of the Guardian and a foreign affairs columnist. He was previously a foreign leader writer for the paper and has also served as its foreign editor and its US editor, based in Washington DC. He was the Observer's foreign editor from 1996-98

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