Questions from the “War on Terror”

The new boss, to paraphrase The Who, is a lot like the old boss.  It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  The election of President Obama, a sharp repudiation of his predecessor’s policies, including the catastrophically misguided “Global War on Terror,” promised a new direction—a promise that, in many ways, remains unfulfilled.

What is now called “Overseas Contingency Operations” looks distressingly familiar, from the “rendition” of suspected militants to Guantanamo Bay.  One difference between this newfangled strategy to combat terrorism and the one it allegedly replaced relates to drones.  According to the Islamabad-based Conflict Monitoring Centre, attacks by the pilotless aircraft in the tribal regions of Pakistan dramatically increased since Obama came to office, and have killed over 1,600 people in the past two years, mostly civilians.

The US claims that the tactic is highly effective.  That case is made by the grisly fate of Baitullah Mehsud, the onetime Taliban leader, who was killed when missiles shot from a Predator drone crashed into the building rooftop in South Waziristan where he was relaxing.  Al-Qaeda’s third in command, Egyptian-born Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, was taken out in similar fashion in North Waziristan.

Supporters of using drones in Pakistan’s lawless regions also argue that Islamabad’s refusal to take the radical elements in their midst leaves no other choice.  Perhaps.  But are civilian casualties from the strikes fueling widespread resentment, thereby empowering the Taliban and, by extension, al-Qaeda?  It is the sort of question the US raised pre-9/11 with respect to Israel’s policy of “targeted assassination” of Palestinian militants.  The shoe is now on the other foot, but there is little appetite to consider whether a tactic that may cause extensive “collateral damage” is counterproductive, as America once claimed.

There are other questions.  Are the strikes extra-judicial, as critics argue (the US thought so before laws were promulgated recently permitting “anticipatory” self-defense)?  Do such tactics, because of their clandestine nature, run the risk of being used indiscriminately?  And what accountability exists when operations go awry?  Who is responsible?

Things get even murkier when it comes to knocking off civilians, not just enemies on the battlefield.  Last November, two Iranian scientists associated with their country’s nuclear program were targeted in Tehran, possibly by Israeli or American intelligence.  In both cases, bombs attached to the side of their respective vehicles by men on passing motorcycles detonated almost simultaneously.  The attacks killed one of the scientists and severely wounded the other, and gravely injured both their wives.  The American Conservative called it “murder.”

The magazine noted the glee with which hawkish members of the chattering class reacted to the incident.  “Every nuclear scientist who has a ‘car accident,’” blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote in the Washington Post, should be considered “as the ultimate targeted sanction.”  The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg euphemistically lauded “active measures” to “deny Iran the knowledge of its scientists.”  Does endorsing such skullduggery, The American Conservative wonders, imply endorsing reciprocal behavior, such as the apparent Kremlin-ordered hit on dissident Alexander Litvinenko?

It’s a good question.  But can the US afford not to engage in such dark arts when the stakes are so high, as in a nuclear Iran?  What criteria should determine if and when the country takes the plunge?  And what about fears of a slippery slope?  Indeed, political assassinations were outlawed precisely because the practice was outrageously abused (exceptions are permitted during times of war and, it is argued, for combating terrorism).  Is this a Pandora’s Box we really want to once again pry open, provided it’s not too late?

Such vexing matters comprise a miasma famously described in another context as the “fog of war.”  There are no easy answers.  But asking difficult questions is critical.  Without scrutiny accountability is lost, which risks imperiling the values we seek to uphold.  And there is also the danger of strategic blunder if we don’t carefully assess how we’re conducting the Global War on Terror, or whatever is the label du jour of the never-ending campaign.

Sadly, just as the new boss is quite like the old boss, so, too, is our propensity for unquestioned acceptance of government policy in times of war.  History teaches the importance of fighting this tendency.  It won’t be easy.  But to once again riff off The Who, we shouldn’t risk being fooled again.

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