Scahill tracks the dramatic rise of US covert operations without legislative oversight, kill lists that keep being added to, American support for the full gamut of mercenaries — Somali warlords, Yemeni tribal leaders, security contractors — and the escalation of wanton aerial strikes. These covert operations result in a de facto trashing of international law and the American Constitution by the very people tasked with upholding them; in Dirty Wars, the ‘war on terror’ appears less a mediated, measured multilateral effort to make the world a safer place, and more a reckless campaign by an international criminal syndicate whose grossly excessive use of violence creates a blowback against the United States and the people, institutions and states around the world seen to be allied with the US. Assassinations, civilian casualties, renditions, torture — all are reported in Dirty Wars by the spadefull. And it’s not a pretty picture.
But first, a disclaimer: For most, Dirty Wars shall not lead to entirely new insights (especially in Pakistan where drone attacks are rooted at the heart of the right-of-centre political discourse). Most readers shall already be familiar with many of the events in the book. Still, Scahill makes two contributions to reporting on the global wars since 9/11: (1) he shifts the emphasis from conventional military campaigns to covert operations run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and more ominously, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that is directly under the American presidency and not subject to political oversight like the CIA is in principle; and, (2) Scahill weaves together different stories that take the reader from the corridors of power in Washington to the mosques of suburban Virginia, to Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and to a lesser extent, Pakistan. Indeed, besides personal interviews — wide-ranging as they are — Scahill’s sources are all in the public domain (there are 80 pages of endnotes for the skeptics). Dirty Wars is not without its share of shortcomings, both conceptual and stylistic — more on that later — but overall, it remains focused on extra-judicial killings and the exercise of power sans political oversight.
Amidst the carefully reconstructed processes detailing the empowerment of US special forces (including security contractors), and elaborate descriptions of US clientalism in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, Dirty Wars keeps returning to the thorny questions of whether the US president can order the assassination of an American citizen without trial. Scahill tracks three American-born citizens who were killed by drone strikes in Yemen in 2011: Anwar Awlaki, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman Awlaki (killed in a separate drone strike some days later), and Samir Khan, who was killed with the elder Awlaki. Anwar Awlaki is, in fact, the central figure around which Dirty Wars moves (chapters on Awlaki are interspersed throughout the book). Scahill doesn’t so much take a categorical position on whether the strikes were or were not illegal; rather, his answer lies in the exposition of how assassination became standard operating procedure in the ‘war on terror’ after 9/11.
Broadly, the story goes like this: The 9/11 attacks gave neoconservatives in the Bush administration — Dick Cheney, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz — the opportunity to finally pursue an assertive foreign policy that they had been wistfully dreaming of; indeed, all through the Clinton administration, right-wing think tanks had been bemoaning the lack of assertiveness in US foreign policy since the Cold War. Following the attacks on New York and Washington, the US Congress and Senate, reeling from the recent events, didn’t think twice about giving the US president unprecedented latitude to wage a global war. In a vote on September 14, 2001, the House and Senate passed the Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that allowed the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, persons, organisations he determines planned, authorised, committed or aided the terrorist attacks.” The one dissenting vote was of California Democrat Barbara Lee, whose concerns with granting the president unprecedented authority today appears prophetic. Calling for a need to “step back for a moment and think through the implications of our actions,” Lee cautioned that “we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.” Lee’s caution was diametrically opposite to the view of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld who in their public statements after 9/11 relished the prospect of a shadowy war without exit strategies. The signing of the AUMF into law on September 17 undid the National Security Act of 1947, which had required the US president to issue a finding before undertaking covert action, and which had also demanded that such covert action be in compliance with the US law and Constitution. Such procedural matters could now be bypassed, especially in the “unleashing” of the deadly JSOC by Rumsfeld — described by Scahill as “America’s best killers” — and the “assumption of presidential power” by vice-president Dick Cheney, both of whom were against congressional oversight of covert operations.
The first clear indication of new directions in the global war was the assassination, in 2002, of Abu Ali al Harithi, identified as the mastermind behind the year-2000 USS Cole bombing. Killed in Yemen by a US Predator drone flown out of Djibouti, Harithi was the first confirmed citizen killed outside of a battlefield since Gerald Ford’s ban on political assassinations in 1976. This was also the first time that a Predator drone had been used to strike targets outside of Afghanistan and would pave the way for a sharp escalation in drone strikes under the presidency of Barack Obama.
By HASAN H. KARRAR: http://www.dawn.com/news/1056556/cover-story-dirty-wars-the-world-is-a-battlefield