PARK CITY, Utah—As President Barack Obama prepared to be sworn in for his second term as the 44th president of the United States, two courageous journalists premiered a documentary at the annual Sundance Film Festival. “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield” reaffirms the critical role played by independent journalists like the film’s director, Rick Rowley, and its narrator and central figure, Jeremy Scahill. The increasing pace of U.S. drone strikes, and the Obama administration’s reliance on shadowy special forces to conduct military raids beyond the reach of oversight and accountability, were summarily missed over the inaugural weekend by a U.S. press corps obsessed with first lady Michelle Obama’s new bangs. “Dirty Wars,” along with Scahill’s forthcoming book of the same title, is on target to break that silence ... with a bang that matters.
Scahill and Rowley, no strangers to war zones, ventured beyond Kabul, Afghanistan, south to Gardez, in Paktia province, a region dense with armed Taliban and their allies in the Haqqani network, to investigate one of the thousands of night raids that typically go unreported.
Scahill told me: “In Gardez, U.S. special operations forces had intelligence that a Taliban cell was having some sort of a meeting to prepare a suicide bomber. And they raid the house in the middle of the night, and they end up killing five people, including three women, two of whom were pregnant, and ... Mohammed Daoud, a senior Afghan police commander who had been trained by the U.S.”
Scahill and Rowley went to the heart of the story, to hear from people who live at the target end of U.S. foreign policy. In Gardez, they interviewed survivors of that violent raid on the night of Feb. 12, 2010. After watching his brother and his wife, his sister and his niece killed by U.S. special forces, Mohammed Sabir was handcuffed on the ground. He watched, helpless, as the U.S. soldiers dug the bullets out of his wife’s corpse with a knife. He and the other surviving men were then flown off by helicopter to another province.
Sabir recounted his ordeal for Rowley’s camera: “My hands and clothes were caked with blood. They didn’t give us water to wash the blood away. The American interrogators had beards and didn’t wear uniforms. They had big muscles and would fly into sudden rages. By the time I got home, all our dead had already been buried. Only my father and my brother were left at home. I didn’t want to live anymore. I wanted to wear a suicide jacket and blow myself up among the Americans. But my brother and my father wouldn’t let me. I wanted a jihad against the Americans."
Before leaving, Scahill and Rowley made copies of videos from the cellphones of survivors. One demonstrated that it was not a Taliban meeting, but a lively celebration of the birth of a child that the raid interrupted. Rowley described another video: “You can hear voices come over it, and they’re American-accented voices speaking about piecing together their version of the night’s killings, getting their story straight. You hear them trying to concoct a story about how this was something other than a massacre.”
The film shows an image captured in Gardez, by photographer Jeremy Kelly, sometime after the massacre. It showed a U.S. admiral named McRaven, surrounded by Afghan soldiers, offering a sheep as a traditional gesture seeking forgiveness for the massacre. The cover-up had failed.
William McRaven headed the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. Following the thread of JSOC, painstakingly probing scarcely reported night raids, traveling from Afghanistan to Yemen to Somalia, Scahill’s reporting, along with Rowley’s incredible camerawork, constructs for the first time a true, comprehensive picture of JSOC and Commander in Chief Obama’s not-so-brave new world.
The Inauguration Day drone strike in Yemen was the fourth in as many days, along with a similar increase in strikes in Pakistan. The Washington Post reported that Obama has a “playbook” that details when drone strikes are authorized, but it reportedly exempts those conducted by the CIA in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On Inauguration Day, Obama officially nominated John Brennan, a strong advocate for the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that many call torture, and architect of the drone program, to head the CIA.
With the film “Dirty Wars,” co-written with David Riker and directed by Rowley, Jeremy Scahill is pulling back the curtain on JSOC, which has lately exploded into the public eye with the torture-endorsing movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the killing of Osama bin Laden. When “Dirty Wars” comes to a theater near you, see it. Sadly, it proves the theater of war is everywhere, or, as its subtitle puts it: “The World Is a Battlefield.” As Scahill told me, “You’re going to see a very different reality, and you’re going to see the hellscape that has been built by a decade of covert war.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.