Dispatches From The Edge
The New Face Of War
By Conn Hallinan
The assassination of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden
did more than knock off America's Public Enemy Number
One, it formalized a new kind of warfare, where
sovereignty is irrelevant, armies tangential, and
decisions are secret. It is, in the words of
counterinsurgency expert John Nagl, "an astounding
change in the nature of warfare."
It is also one that requires a vast intelligence
apparatus, one that now constitute almost a fourth arm
of government that most Americans are almost completely
unaware of. Yet, according to the Washington Post,
this empire includes some 1, 271 government agencies
and 1,931 private companies in more than 10, 000
locations across the country, with a budget last year
of at least $80.1 billion.
"At the heart of this new warfare," notes the Financial
Times," is high-tech cooperation between intelligence
agencies and the military" that blurs the traditional
borders between civilians and the armed forces. And it
fits with the U.S.'s penchant for waging war with
robots and covert Special Forces.
But, by definition, the secrecy at the core of the "new
warfare" removes decisions about war and peace from the
public realm and relegates them to secure rooms in the
White House or clandestine bases in the Hindu Kush.
When the Blackhawk helicopters slipped through
Pakistani airspace, they did more than execute one of
America's greatest bugbears, they essentially said
another country's sovereignty was no longer relevant
and consigned Congress to the role of spectator.
Over the past several decades U.S. military theorists
have clashed over how to use the armed forces, though
it is a debate that gets distorted by the requirements
of industry: the U.S, does not really need 11 immense
Nimitz class aircraft carriers, but the Newport News
Shipbuilding Company-and the aerospace giants that fill
the flattops with fighter bombers-do.
The arguments have revolved around three different
approaches, the Powell Doctrine, the Rumsfeld Doctrine,
and the Petraeus Doctrine.
The Powell Doctrine is essentially conventional warfare
a-la-World War II: massive firepower, lots of soldiers,
clear goals. This was the formula for the first Gulf
War, which, after a month of bombing, lasted only four
days. But it is a very expensive way to wage war.
The Rumsfeld Doctrine merged high tech firepower and
Special Forces with a minimal use of Army and Marine
units. It also relies on private contractors to do much
of what was formerly done by the military. The doctrine
routed the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and quickly
knocked out the Iraqi Army in the 2003 invasion of
Iraq. Once the shock and awe wore off, however, the
Doctrine's weaknesses became obvious. It simply didn't
have the manpower to hold the ground against a guerilla
insurgency. The 2007 "surge" of troops in Iraq, like
last year's surge in Afghanistan, was an admission that
the doctrine was fundamentally flawed if the locals
decided to keep fighting.
The Petraeus Doctrine is old wine in a new bottle:
counterinsurgency. In theory, it is boots on the ground
to win hearts and minds. It draws heavily on
intelligence-what Gen. David Petraeus calls
"bandwidth"-to isolate and eliminate any insurgents-and
attempts to establish trust with the locals. It is
cheaper than the Powell and Rumsfeld doctrines, but it
also almost never works. Eventually the locals get
tried of being occupied, and then counterinsurgency
turns nasty. Building schools and digging wells give
way to night raids and targeted assassinations that
alienate the local population. According to U.S.
intelligence, the current counterinsurgency program in
Afghanistan is failing.
So, what is this "astounding change" that Nagl speaks
of? If you want to put a name to it, "counter-
terrorism" is probably the most descriptive, although
with a new twist. Like counterinsurgency, counter-
terrorism has been around a long time. The Phoenix
Program that killed some 40,000 South Vietnamese was a
variety of the doctrine. Phoenix, too, paid no
attention to sovereignty. During the Vietnam War, Long
Range Reconnaissance Patrols secretly went into
Cambodia and Laos.
In recent years, the U.S. clandestinely sent Special
Forces into Syria and Pakistan in a sort of shadow war
against "insurgents." A number of other countries have
done the same.
But the Obama administration openly admits to sending a
Special Forces Seal team into Pakistan to assassinate
bin Laden, and it was prepared to fight Pakistan's
armed forces if they tried to intervene. And when
Pakistan asked the U.S. to curb its use of armed drones
in Pakistani airspace, the Central Intelligence Agency
said it would do nothing of the kind.
It is as if counter-terrorism reconfigured that classic
line from the movie "Treasure of the Sierra Madre": "We
don't need no stinkin' badges, we got drones and
The principle behind counter-terrorism is eliminating
people you don't like. There is no patina of "hearts
and minds," and the new strategy makes no effort to
practice the subterfuge of "plausible deniability" that
has deflected the ire of target countries in the past.
While clandestine warfare is not new, the boldness of
the bin Laden hit is. Certainly the people who planned
the attack wanted to make a statement: we can get you
anywhere you are, and impediments like international
law, the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations
Charter be damned.
"Targeted assassinations violate well-established
principles of international law," says law professor
Marjorie Cohn. "Extrajudicial executions are unlawful,
even in armed conflict."
From the U.S.'s point of view, the doctrine has a
number of advantages. It is cheaper, and its expenses
are generally hidden away in a labyrinth of
bureaucracy. For instance, the $80.1 billion figure is
only an estimate and does not include the cost of the
CIA's drone war in Pakistan, or Homeland Security.
Recent moves by the White House suggest the
administration is putting this new strategy in place.
"Petraeus's appointment to head the CIA is an important
indication that the U.S. wants to fuse intelligence and
military operations," a "senior figure" at the British
Defense Ministry told the Financial Times.
In the past the division between military and civilian
intelligence agencies allowed for a range of opinions.
While the U.S. military continues to put a rosy spin on
the Afghan War, civilian intelligence agencies have
been much more somber about the success of the current
surge. That division is likely to vanish under the new
regime, where intelligence becomes less about analysis
and more about targeting.
The new warfare opens up a Pandora's box, the
implications of which are only beginning to be
considered. What would be the reaction if Cuban armed
forces had landed in Florida and assassinated Luis
Posada and Orlando Bosch, two anti-Castro militants who
were credibly charged with setting bombs in Havana and
downing a Cuban airliner? Washington would treat it as
an act of war. The problem with a foreign policy based
on claw and fang is that, if one country claims the
right to act independently of international law and the
UN Charter, all countries can so claim.
In the end, however, the biggest victims for this "new"
warfare will probably be the American people. Once an
enormous intelligence bureaucracy is created-there are
some 854,000 people with top-secrecy security
clearance-it will be damned hard to dismantle it. And,
since the very nature of the endeavor removes it from
public oversight, it is a formula for a massive and
uncontrolled expansion of the national security state.
Conn Hallinan can be read at
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