spacebawl (the blog)

We thought about it. Now you have to read it.

Friday, March 07, 2008

On the Wisdom of Death Squads

In light of our failure in Iraq, many have come to question whether war as traditionally waged can be used to combat terror.

For the first few years of our presence, and particularly after it became clear that the war was not an accident but a matter of deliberately-applied military theory, the main question asked was one of "Did we send enough troops?" Surely our presence was disputed, and we needed a force large enough to suppress the country, so that stability could result and our will could be exercised. To this day, that question stays in my mind, and I say that as someone who rejected the strategy from the beginning.

Rumsfeld's war was supposed to be nimble and swift. As conquest shifted to occupation, however, it turned out to be nothing of the sort. Iraq became a leghold trap.

Naturally, another question emerged as the war dragged on. Perhaps Rumsfeld's error had not been recklessness, but clumsiness. Perhaps it wasn't a matter of not sending enough troops, but of sending too many. This thought found good company with another popular sentiment, expressed in both Iraq Wars: "Why the fuck didn't we just shoot the bastard?" Referring, of course, to Saddam Hussein.

And this thought intensified as every reason for a troop presence vanished. As the search for weapons of mass destruction shifted from a solemn goal to a bitter joke, most were forced to ask why the hell we were there at all. Conservative and liberal politicians alike attested to our responsibility to rebuild what we had shattered. This self-serving sanctimony couldn't last long in a rational mind; as word came back of our money wasted on crony contracts and useless mercenaries, of government infiltration amidst the intensifying civil war, of this or that cultural landmark destroyed by American negligence or Iraqi madness still unchecked, public faith in America's ability to fix anything in Iraq plummeted. It was very well to talk about World War Two or the building of the Panama Canal or of putting a man on the moon. The patriotic truism that America could do anything it put its mind to clashed very severely with the truth of what we actually were doing, and paying billions of dollars to do.

The pragmatic military justification of going to war had collapsed. The humanitarian justification for staying at war looked increasingly bankrupt. One reason remained, and in fact was the only strengthened by the continuation of our occupation: the fighting of terror. Even critics of the war agreed (and in fact were the first to argue) that Iraq had become a training ground for terrorists.

The new question became "How many people exactly do you need to hunt and kill terrorists?" The answer tends to be "Not many," and variations on this sentiment abound: from those who say Saddam's assassination would have done the trick; to split-the-difference Democrats who argue, like Joe Biden, for a reduction in troop levels but a continuing troop presence; and then there is the suggestion of special operations, of units pejoratively described as "death squads."

And let us be fair: I do not speak as a stranger to such opinions. I firmly believe that murder is an act preferable to war, and if one man may be murdered in cold blood to stop the deaths of thousands or even hundreds (even as those deaths may be, individually, more justified than the one executed in calculation), I would find it hard to argue against such an act. The tradition of cutting through thousands of men to get to one king and a handful of his closest advisers is something I find loathsome and, considering modern technology, increasingly unnecessary, no more practical than burying a Viking chieftain with his comeliest concubine, ritually strangled to mark the occasion, or throwing a wife on her deceased husband's funeral pyre. War is an exercise where 5% of the deaths may be necessary, or desirable, and 95% is decoration, prelude, or in the case of the War on Terror, distraction.

So why shouldn't we send in the assassination squads? Why are we holding back? This appears an instance where death-dealing prowess, calculated precision, and human compassion intersect.

Well, as I was digging around on the subject, I discovered that the funny thing is that we already have:

The close and largely clandestine relationship with Ethiopia also included significant sharing of intelligence on the Islamic militants' positions and information from American spy satellites with the Ethiopian military. Members of a secret American Special Operations unit, Task Force 88, were deployed in Ethiopia and Kenya, and ventured into Somalia, the officials said.

Task Force 88 was described in a little more depth in this uncritical article from Esquire:

Soon after, U.S. special operators flying out of Manda Bay were landing in southernmost Somalia, searching for survivors among the foreign fighters and Al Qaeda operatives just targeted in a furious bombardment by a U.S. gunship launched from a secret airstrip in eastern Ethiopia.

The 88's job was simple: Kill anyone still alive and leave no unidentified bodies behind....

In fact, Centcom was very eager for the operation. Most press leaks made it sound like our main targets were a trio of Al Qaeda senior operatives responsible for bombing American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania a decade ago. But the real story is one of pure opportunism, according to a knowledgeable source within the headquarters: "There were three thousand foreign fighters in there. Honestly, nobody had any idea just how many there really were. But we wanted to get them all."

When the invading Ethiopians quickly enjoyed unexpected success, Centcom's plan became elegantly simple: Let the blitzkrieging Ethiopian army drive the CIC, along with its foreign fighters and Al Qaeda operatives, south out of Mogadishu and toward the Kenyan border, where Kenyan troops would help trap them on the coast. "We begged the Kenyans to get to the border as fast as possible," the Centcom source says, "because the targets were so confused, they were running around like chickens with their heads cut off."

Once boxed in by the sea and the Kenyans, the killing zone was set and America's first AC-130 gunship went wheels-up on January 7 from that secret Ethiopian airstrip. After each strike, anybody left alive was to be wiped out by successive waves of Ethiopian commandos and Task Force 88, operating out of Manda Bay. The plan was to rinse and repeat "until no more bad guys," as one officer put it.

I say "uncritical" because the rest of the article makes clear that, in the author's opinion, secrecy wasn't the problem. The author even admits Ethiopia's authoritarianism, but doesn't see that as relevant to the story. No, the problem was that the truth got published in the New York Times (which strikes me as a delightful miracle). For a measure of his bizarre optimism, marvel, as I did, at what secret knowledge might permit the writer to judge for the reader: "It was a good plan."

Well, how good? How precise was the military strike? Not very. The Kenyan border, used as a net by the herding operation, was also gathering refugees.

NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- Kenya is defending its action in turning back Somali refugees trying to enter the country to escape violence in their homeland....

The newspaper quoted the UNHCR's acting country representative, Eddy Gedalos, as saying U.N. officials were being denied access to refugees.

"We at the U.N. are genuinely concerned the fate of women and children turned away by Kenyan authorities, as it is likely to worsen the humanitarian situation in the war-torn country. There is no reason why genuine asylum seekers should not be allowed into the country."

In the end, no accusations can be cast because we still don't know what they did. What we do know is alone staggering: that our government plotted with an authoritarian regime to wage war in a country without telling the American people it was doing so. And that it carried out missions intended to exterminate thousands of people in the midst of a humanitarian crisis (caused by our surgical strikes and precise, efficient task forces) in which hundreds of thousands were put to flight.

And for believers in the death squad, which theoretically holds promise but in reality offers no alternative, guided as it is by the same strategic blindness that blunders elsewhere in the world, perhaps hope will survive. After all, if we don't know about its use, we can't be aware of its failures, and that means that there's always a chance for success. But I would say that we should really look at Somalia. That was the Pentagon's chance for Iraq done right, and I'll be damned if it doesn't look a hell of a lot like Iraq. Maybe it's not a matter of how we do things, but what we do, and why, and how we think about ourselves, and the world.

Sadly, this is not new. When poor students of history end up leading us, they lead us through history's darkest episodes. We also used death squads and assassinations in Vietnam, but we've already decided that we didn't lose that one. Dolchstosslegende and all that. And just look at all the success we had in Iran after we took out Mossadegh, or Guatemala after the coup that replaced Jacobo Arbenz with a military dictatorship. As with most matters, we've been down these roads before.


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