There’s a lot to report on President Obama’s very own “War on Terror.” He’s not calling it that, of course. But it’s spreading fast from Afghanistan to southern Arabia, the Horn of Africa and even to Nigeria and West Africa, if the testimony of the general who leads the US Africa Command is to be believed. Ten years after 9/11, maybe the “War on Terror” really and truly will never, ever end.
First, an important new report from the Open Society Foundations and the Liaisons Office tells us that the administration’s night raids in Afghanistan are deadlier than previously thought, creating swelling anger in that country (and, no doubt, more insurgents and “terrorists” than before). The report says, in part:
The number of night raids has skyrocketed: publicly available statistics suggest a fivefold increase between February 2009 and December 2010. International military conducted, on average, 19 night raids per night—a total of 1700 night raids—in the three-month period from roughly December 2010 to February 2011, according to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF has not released more up-to-date figures; however, interviews conducted for this report suggest a continuing trend of large numbers of night raids, possibly at even higher rates. In April 2011, a senior US military advisor told the Open Society Foundations that as many as 40 raids might take place on a given night across Afghanistan.
Despite the best intentions of the United States and ISAF, the report says, Afghan civilians are still dying from these raids. And who determines who, exactly, is a civilian, an insurgent, a terrorist, or just an armed, angry Afghan?
Second, just two days after the New York Times reported on a bitter internal struggle inside the White House and the Obama administration over limits on the use of force against suspected terrorists overseas, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, delivered a speech that suggested that there were few limits, indeed, to that use of force.
The debate, according to officials familiar with the deliberations, centers on whether the United States may take aim at only a handful of high-level leaders of militant groups who are personally linked to plots to attack the United States or whether it may also attack the thousands of low-level foot soldiers focused on parochial concerns: controlling the essentially ungoverned lands near the Gulf of Aden, which separates the countries.
Needless to say, if the United States arrogates to itself the power to kill bad guys anywhere it wants to, there’s no end to the “War on Terror.” And, as the Times points out, hawks in Congress, led by Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, are pushing new laws that would significantly expand the legal authority of the administration to go after so-called terrorists. Says Graham: “This is a worldwide conflict without borders. Restricting the definition of the battlefield and restricting the definition of the enemy allows the enemy to regenerate and doesn’t deter people who are on the fence.”
Brennan, speaking at Harvard in a widely covered address, said:
“The United States does not view our authority to use military force against Al Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan. Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the United States takes the legal position that—in accordance with international law—we have the authority to take action against Al Qaeda and its associated forces without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time.”
Of course, what Al Qaeda is, exactly, isn’t clear. And leading US counterterrorism officials, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, have declared that Al Qaeda is nearly dead.
Third, the Washington Post reports that US drone attacks in Yemen have suddenly increased dramatically: “The Obama administration has significantly increased the frequency of drone strikes and other air attacks against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen in recent months amid rising concern about political collapse there.” The number of such strikes has gone from almost zero to at least several strikes per week, according to the Post. It adds:
Until May, the first and only known drone strike in Yemen was launched by the CIA in 2002. As part of its stepped-up military cooperation with Yemen, the Obama administration has used manned aircraft to strike at targets indicated by US and Yemeni military intelligence forces on the ground. In May, JSOC first used a drone to kill two AQAP operatives as part of its new escalation in Yemen. This summer, the CIA was also tasked with expanding its Yemen operations, and the agency is building its own drone base in the region. It is not clear whether the unilateral strike authority the CIA has in Pakistan will be extended to Yemen.
Fourth, General Carter Ham, the Africom commander, warned that three—count ’em, three—terrorist groups in Africa may be, just may be, banding together for jihad against America. Reported the Times: “The senior American military commander for Africa warned Wednesday that three violent extremist organizations on the continent were trying to forge an alliance to coordinate attacks on the United States and Western interests.”
The three groups are Somalia’s Shabab, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northwest Africa, and Boko Haram, the recently troublesome gang in northern Nigeria. And Africom, the newly created military command that oversees US security operations in Africa, is already actively engaged in programs to deal with all of them, in coordination with US embassies across the continent. Even General Ham says that the three groups may not have the capability to strike American targets. But you can’t be too careful.
Brennan, in his speech, did acknowledge that there are limits to US counterterrorism efforts. “That does not mean we can use military force whenever we want, wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for a state’s sovereignty and the laws of war, impose important constraints on our ability to act unilaterally—and on the way in which we can use force—in foreign territories.”
But it appears that when state sovereignty gets in the way of killing suspected Al Qaeda people, or their friends and allies, or someone who the United States thinks is a bad guy, state sovereignty loses out.