Imperial Prerogatives

On the evening of February 12, 2010, a family in the eastern Afghan city of Gardez was celebrating the birth of a child when the sound of helicopter rotors interrupted the festivities.  The family’s patriarch, a senior, US-trained police chief, went outside to investigate, where he was promptly shot by bearded men in civilian clothes.  The cold-blooded assailants subsequently killed two pregnant women inside the family’s home and then vanished, though not before carving out the bullets from the victims’ bodies.

The local Afghan authorities claimed to have no idea who was responsible for the massacre.  NATO said it was a Taliban honor-killing.  The family believed the culprits were “American Taliban.”  Nation war correspondent Jeremy Scahill, who details the grisly episode in the documentary Dirty Wars, decided to investigate further.

Scahill’s sleuthing uncovered that the horrible raid-gone-wrong in Gardez was conducted the Joint Special Operations Command, an amalgamation of US special-missions units.  Created decades ago, JSOC increasingly has become an army within an army that operates autonomously.

At the time of the Gardez raid, JSOC was largely unknown, including to veteran war correspondents like Scahill who had been covering Afghanistan and Iraq for years.  The Command eventually would become famous for overseeing the assault that killed Osama bin Laden, but in 2010 it was operating in the shadows, or in what Dick Chaney famously called the “dark side.”  Scahill illuminates its alarming scope; today JSOC is active in as many as 75 countries.

The US finally admitted its mistake in Gardez and sent then-JSOC head Admiral William McRaven to express personal regrets to the family and offer up a goat (yes, one goat!) as compensation.  Scahill wonders how many other raids went similarly awry given that, in three months before the atrocity, JSOC conducted 1,700 operations in Afghanistan. 

It’s a good question.  There are others.  

Dirty Wars features Andrew Exum, an ex-Ranger who served in Iraq.  Exum recalls being given a “kill list” with 50-200 names on it.  When he and his team had gone through that list, killing and capturing one alleged insurgent after the next, they were given another list, this time with 3,000 names.  The more kills the more were required.  How so?  Eliminating bad guys by taking the gloves off is easy enough, but inevitably you kill a few innocents in the process, as in Gardez, creating scores of new enemies.   Even Donald Rumsfeld recognized this possibility when he famously asked, “Are we creating more terrorist than we’re killing?”

With the US increasingly relying on JSOC-operated drones to hunt down extremists—fewer than 50 drone attacks occurred during George W. Bush’s tenure versus over 400 during Obama’s time in office—Rumsfeld’s question is more pertinent than ever.  Yet it’s not one the current administration is willing to ask.  Indeed, the White House denies that substantial civilian casualties result from drone strikes. In June 2011, Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor and current CIA head, John Brennan, claimed that there had not been a single “collateral” death from drone attacks in the previous year, a demonstrably bogus assertion.

And what about drones’ legality?  The White House invokes legislation passed three days after 9/11 granting the president broad but ill-defined powers to counter threats to national security for its drone-related authority.  Meanwhile, it refuses to make public the legal basis for killing US citizens abroad, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric cut down in 2011 by a drone in Yemen, and his 16-year-old son, who was also killed in a separate drone strike.  “Washington must…[spell] out clearer rules for extrajudicial and extraterritorial killings,” writes Daniel Byman of Georgetown in Foreign Affairs—and he advocates drones!

Why does all of this matter?

A US soldier in Vietnam once famously remarked, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”  The much ballyhooed counter-insurgent strategy (COIN) first employed in Iraq and later in Afghanistan was supposed to offer an alternative to Vietnam’s slash-and-burn tactics.  It was to have won hearts and minds.  But JSOCs activities—Gardez-like assaults and drone strikes and snuggling up to brutal warlords—in those countries and elsewhere demonstrate that we may well be doing neither.  We may again be burning villages to save them.   

Of course, extremists are targeting the US.  The jihadist threat is real, if grossly overstated.  But as Dirty Wars lays bare, the most significant danger the country faces doesn’t derive from violent extremists.  Rather, the erosion of our core values and civil liberties as a result of our misguided quest for security is the country’s greatest menace.  In that vein, the victims in Gardez weren’t just Afghans.  They were Americans, too.

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