Each generation should see The Battle of Algiers and see it over again, as a chilling preview to the Long War. In the film as well as real life, a chart of “terrorist cell leaders” is posted on a French blackboard and, one by one, each is assassinated until there are no more. The Casbah is declared pacified, and the French military forces leave. Two years later, an Algerian uprising in the streets succeeds in liberating Algeria from colonial rule.
The French commander in the film, Colonel Mathieu, who bears an eerie resemblance to General David Petraeus, engages in an illuminating dialogue with the French liberal media:
Journalist: Excuse me. It seems that out of an excess of caution, my colleagues keep asking you indirect questions. It would be better to call a spade a spade, so let’s talk about torture.
Col. Mathieu: The word “torture” isn’t used in our orders. We use “interrogation” as the only valid police method. We could talk for hours to no avail because that is not the problem. The problem is this. The FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria, and we want to stay. Even with slight shades of opinion, you all agree that we must stay. We are neither madmen nor sadists. We are soldiers. Our duty is to win. Therefore, to be precise, it is my turn to ask a question. Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.
We are seeing the same movie in real life, played over and over again. Demonizing followed by destruction, again and again. Across the continent, the natives were demonized for scalping, the capture of white women, and alliances with the British army (and for this, denounced as “savages” in the Declaration of Independence).
In Vietnam, the demons were named the “Vietcong”, meaning Vietnamese communists, and were systemically rounded up, tortured and assassinated in the Phoenix Program. The same methods were employed in Central America not long after.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Phoenix Program was reborn to combat “global insurgency.” A deck of cards was produced for Iraq, with 55 insurgent targets in the pack. Lists were obtained on the word of informants. Alleged terrorists and leaders of the opposition were tracked to their homes. Doors were kicked in, blood spilled, the secrets kept. The assassination spree gave its top perpetrator, Derek Harvey, regular orgasms, according to Bob Woodward. (The War Within, p. 280) All this was under the command of then-Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, described as Special Action Programs, and stamped top secret.
On May 2 of this year, Osama bin Laden was killed in a Navy Seals raid on his home and compound. That killing didn’t deter a August 5 Taliban attack on a U.S. Chinook that left 38 dead, including 30 Americans, nor did the assassination of the Al Qaeda leader stop the September insurgent attacks on the US embassy, UN headquarters, and a CIA station in Kabul.
Since 2006, according to the Long War Journal, targeted US drone attacks have killed another 2,090 “operatives” and “allied extremists” in Pakistan. According to the same source, 60 “senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders” have been killed by drones.
This is the context for yesterday’s CIA drone assassinations of New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki and North Carolina-born Samir Kahn in Yemen. No doubt the champagne was flowing at CIA headquarters, and President Obama’s campaign advisers could take further comfort over his stature as commander-in-chief.
But even Barack Obama knows that political necessity – the need to prove that he is tough on terror – can have dangerous consequences for American security and his standing in much of the world.
Using a conventional conspiratorial model, the CIA and the White House seem to believe that al-Awlaki’s sermons and Samir’s magazine, Inspire, were causes of several terror plots, including a Christmas 2009 attempted bombing of a flight originating from the Detroit airport and a later 2010 attempt to send hidden explosives on airliners to Chicago. Al-Awlaki is said to have inspired the Pakistani individual who attempted to bomb Times Square in 2010, and he exchanged 20 emails with Nidal Malik Husan, the Palestinian-American general who shot and killed thirteen soldiers at Fort Hood on November 5, 2009.
Is this evidence of a terrorist conspiracy with al-Awlaki at the center? Perhaps more evidence will surface, but it seems to be another case of reversing cause and effect. Acts of violence are in response to the humiliation and hatred some people feel towards occupation, killing of innocents, night raids and drone attacks. The rage cannot be quenched by targeting and killing alleged leaders who, in the end, are replaced by others. According to the FOX News account, al-Awlaki was “not believed to be an operational leader, but a spokesman.” Al-Awlaki denied that he had instructed Hasan to carry out the Fort Hood shootings but thought they were heroic. The New York Times reported that while al-Awlaki "denounced the September 11 attacks," he became a "dangerous radicalizing force," who issued "eerily calm justifications for violence," which grew "steadily more approving of anti-Western violence," especially after being imprisoned in Yemen in 2006 and 2007. (New York Times, October 1, 2011)
Question: Would this be akin to killing Malcolm X in 1965 because his Islamic sermons caused street riots in New York and New Jersey in 1964? In hindsight, that would be absurd, but many in the mainstream media and the police forces thought so at the time, and undercover agents were present when he died.
At least one expert wrote in the New York Times that al-Awlaki was,
“a midlevel religious functionary who happens to have American citizenship and speak English. This would make him a propaganda threat, but not one whose elimination would do anything to limit the reach of the Qaeda branch...the administration is in a bind: if it ignores him, it will look powerless; if it succeeds in killing him, it will have manufactured a martyr.” (Gregory Johnson, “A False Target in Yemen,” New York Times, November 20, 2010)
Before al-Awlaki, incidentally, the CIA conducted several other missile, Special Forces, and drone operations in Yemen, including the November 2002 killing of the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, Abu Ali al-Harithi, the alleged godfather of the U.S.S. Cole attack. The dramatic version of this history is all there in George Clooney’s relevant film, Syriana. (2005)
Demonizing, targeting, and destroying “leaders” is the mentality of prosecutors who need a causal and vertical explanation to carry out their mission. Based on the model of prosecuting organized crime, the model is based on taking down the Mafia don, the “big fish” as one US official described the event yesterday, or “American-born terror bosses,” in FOX speak.
It’s generally impossible to defend individuals like al-Awlaki, leaving the military prosecutors free rein and rendering peace advocates silent. The ACLU and al-Awlaki's father, a former university chancellor in Yemen, tried but were unable to block the summary execution of this American-born revolutionary, with the standards and evidence blocked from judicial review.
The vertical model has worked – at least politically – for the US wars on drugs, on gangs, on crime, and for the past decade, on terrorists. Secret intelligence budgets have increased along with the secret branches of police and military power. The circle is being integrated, as we now learn of the New York Police Department’s official links with the CIA. Oversight and scrutiny is virtually nil, except for the occasional brave reporter. The public is neutralized by fear and ignorance.
What can be said, the politics aside, is that the secretive Long War has failed to leave the United States more secure or democratic. Theoretically it should be possible to go after “real” terrorists making real plans and at the same time flood the towns and cities of the world with money and jobs. But it never happens, anymore than the “war on gangs” or “war on drugs” have left American inner cities economically improved. Afghanistan is listed as the 182nd poorest country out of 193 in the world, Pakistan is the 144th, and is Yemen ranks 142nd, the Arab world’s poorest country–according to the same CIA which is responsible for the assassinations. At home, with two million Americans incercerated–one-fourth of all the inmates in the world–poverty rates are at historic highs.
While Yemen starves under a 33-year long, US-supported dictatorship, the total US foreign aid budget for that country floated around $20-25 million until only four years ago. When the “threat” was declared, the amount doubled between 2009-2010, then the Pentagon budgeted $150 million for security in FY 2010, and at least $250 million is projected for this year. (Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2011; Congressional Research Service, November 1, 2010)
This increased aid for counterterrorism in Yemen, which culminated in this week's strikes, also has masked another agenda in the interlocked resource war and Long War, the establishment of a US military base on the strategic island Socotra, in former South Yemen, site of a key transit route in the Indian Ocean. (Newsweek, January 18, 2010) The tiny island is located astride the intersection of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, thus linking the Mediterranean to South Asia and the Far East.
Enthralled by killing our demons, addicted to fossil fuels, ignorant of secret military operations, the American public increasingly lives in a dangerous cocoon.
See also Jeremy Scahill, “The Dangerous US Game in Yemen”, The Nation, March 30, 2011.