US Killings in Yemen: Good Politics at Home, But a Quagmire Abroad

US Killings in Yemen: Good Politics at Home, But a Quagmire Abroad

US Killings in Yemen: Good Politics at Home, But a Quagmire Abroad

Even Barack Obama knows that the political necessity to prove that he is tough on terror can have dangerous consequences for American security and his standing throughout the world.


Each generation should see “The Battle of Algiers” (1966) 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 general in the film, who bears an eerie resemblance to Gen. 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.

THE GENERAL: 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 from 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 was allegedly so effective that it gave its top perpetrator, Derek Harvey, regular orgasms, according to Bob Woodward in The War Within. All this was under the command of then-Lt. Gen. 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 an attack on a Chinook that left 38 dead, including 30 Americans, among them 22 Navy Seals, nor did the assassination of the Al Qaeda leader stop the September insurgent attacks on the US embassy, NATO headquarters and a CIA station in Kabul.

Since 2006, according to the Long War Journal, targeted US drone attacks have killed another 2,090 “leaders,” “operatives” and “allied extremists” in Pakistan. According to the same source, 60 “senior AQ 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 Saudi Arabia-born, North Carolina-raised Samir Khan in Yemen yesterday. 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 Khan’s magazine “Inspire” were causes of several terror plots including a Christmas 2009 attempted bombing at the Detroit airport and a later 2010 attempt to send hidden explosives on an airliner to Chicago. Al-Awlaki inspired the Pakistani individual who attempted to bomb Times Square in 2010, and he exchanged 20 emails with Nidal Malik Hasan, the Palestinian-American major who shot and killed thirteen soldiers at Fort Hood on Nov. 5, 2009.

Is this evidence of a terrorist conspiracy with al-Awlaki at the center? Perhaps more evidence with surface, but it seems to be another case of tracking a “leader” to demonize. According to the FOX News account, al-Awlaki “was believed not 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.

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.

At least one expert wrote in the New York Times on Nov. 20, 2010 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.” 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 very relevent film, Syriana.

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 prosecutorial 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 impossible to defend individuals like al-Awlaki, which leaves the military prosecutors free rein and renders peace advocates silent.

The model has worked – at least politically – for the 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 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 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.

While Yemen suffers under a 33-year long, US-supported dictatorship, the total US foreign aid budget for the country floated around $20-25 million until only four years ago. The amount doubled between 2009-2010, then the Pentagon budgeted $150 million for security in FY 2010, and $250 million in defense dollars.

This increased aid for counterterrorism in Yemen, which culminated in yesterday’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. 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.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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