The war on terror is now an endless campaign of drone and undercover killings that threatens a more dangerous world
Seumas Milne Guardian/UK 4 December 2013
You might have thought the war on terror was finally being wound down, 12 years after the US launched it with such disastrous results. President Obama certainly gave that impression earlier this year when he declared that "this war, like all wars, must end". In fact, the Nobel peace prize winner was merely redefining it. There would be no more "boundless global war on terror", he promised. By which he meant land wars and occupations are out for now, even if the US is still negotiating for troops to remain in Afghanistan after the end of next year.
But the war on terror is mutating, growing and spreading. Drone attacks from Pakistan to north Africa, are central to this new phase. And as Dirty Wars – the powerful new film by the American journalist Jeremy Scahill – makes clear, so are killings on the ground by covert US special forces, proxy warlords and mercenaries in multiple countries.
Scahill's film noir-style investigation starts with the massacre of a police commander's family by a US Joint Special Operations Command (Jsoc) secret unit in Gardez, Afghanistan.. It then moves through a murderous cruise missile attack in Majala, Yemen, that killed 46 civilians, including 21 children; the drone assassination of the radical US cleric Anwar al-Awlakiand his 16-year-old son; and the outsourced kidnappings and murders carried out by local warlords on behalf of Jsoc and the CIA in Somalia.
The assumption that they were taking out the bad guys, armed or unarmed, clearly trumped the laws of war. The same goes for the war on terror on a far bigger scale. Drone strikes are presented as clean, surgical attacks. In reality, not only does the complete absence of risk to the attacking forces lower the threshold for their use. But their targets depend on intelligence that is routinely demonstrated to be hopelessly wrong.
In many cases, far from targeting named individuals, they are "signature strikes" against, say, all military-age males in a particular area or based on a "disposition matrix" of metadata, signed off by Obama at his White House "kill list" meetings every Tuesday. Which is why up to 951 civilians are estimated to have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan alone, and just 2% of casualties are "high value" targets.
At best, drone and special forces killings are extrajudicial summary executions. More clearly, they are a wanton and criminal killing spree. The advantage to the US government is that it can continue to demonstrate global authority and impunity without boots on the ground and loss of US life.
They also create precedents. If the US and its friends arrogate to themselves the right to launch armed attacks around the world at will, other states now acquiring drone capabilities may well follow suit. Most absurdly, what is justified in the name of fighting terrorism has spread terror across the Arab and Muslim world and provided a cause for the very attacks its sponsors are supposed to be defending us against at home.
The US-led dirty wars are a recipe for exactly the endless conflict Obama has promised to halt. They are laying the ground for a far more dangerous global order. The politicians and media who plead national security to protect these campaigns from exposure are themselves a threat to our security. Their secrecy and diminished footprint make them harder than conventional wars to oppose and hold to account – though the backlash in countries bearing the brunt is bound to grow. But their victims cannot be left to bring them to an end alone. [Abridged] Twitter: @seumasmilne