Obama’s Man in Afghanistan

To civilian liberals of a hawkish bent, General Petraeus projects the reassuring image of the thinking person’s general. It’s kind of hard to wrap one’s head around the idea that operating death squads might be an integral and perhaps the vital component of the vaunted Petraeus doctrine of counterinsurgency. Or that death squads will probably continue to play a central role in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan under an Obama administration.

In 2003 Major Genera Petraeus commanded the 101st Airborne during the invasion of Iraq and settled in to occupy the Ninawa Governate and its chief city, Mosul, in northwest Iraq.Petraeus treasured his credentials as the enlightened counterinsurgency expert and the rational, astute military man culturally at ease with civilians and civilian leadership assiduously cultivated the mainstream media.

General Petraeus’ slavish Wikipedia entry, says of the pacification of Mosul during his tour there, : “In Mosul, a city of nearly two million people, Petraeus and the 101st employed classic counterinsurgency methods to build security and stability, including conducting targeted kinetic operations and using force judiciously, jump-starting the economy, building local security forces, staging elections for the city council within weeks of their arrival, overseeing a program of public works, reinvigorating the political process, and launching 4,500 reconstruction projects.”

The traditional preoccupation of the military, killing people and blowing stuff up, is recast as “targeted kinetic operations and using force judiciously”. It makes military operations sound more like policework than fighting, and only one of six equally important ingredients in the appetizing and nutritionally well-balanced COIN salad.

This sort of verbiage is important.In the United States, there is a powerful compulsion to shoehorn warmaking into the ranks of admirable activities conducted by good people with fine minds. General Petraeus fulfills an important need, especially for the responsible-liberal quadrant of the commentariat and the incoming Obama administration which, I imagine, will be staffed by Ivy League intellectuals and not be chock-a-block with blood and thunder military types.

For the United States to put up with occupations and COIN/pacification operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that may go on for more than a decade, the public needs to believe that the occupation is some kind of combination of FDR’s New Deal and the superhero Justice League, using American know-how and values to continually improve the economic and security well-being of the peoples in our care.However, in real life, occupation and counter-insurgency are a nasty, degrading, and bloody business. Commanders in a hostile land far from home, intent on protecting their own forces, aren’t always using a surgical scalpel to extract the tumor of insurgency. Sometimes the meat axe is swung indiscriminately, slaughtering patient and bystanders alike. And the proper description of “targeted kinetic activity” is, perhaps, “death squad”.

According to Bob Woodward’s most recent book, The War Within, the activities of death squads in Iraq was one of the key factors in the reduction of violence under General Petraeus’s watch as commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq:

Beginning in the late spring of 2007, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies launched a series of top-secret operations that enabled them to locate, target and kill key individuals in groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias, or so-called special groups. The operations incorporated some of the most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government. Senior military officers and officials at the White House urged against publishing details or code names associated with the groundbreaking programs, arguing that publication of the names alone might harm the operations that have been so beneficial in Iraq. As a result, specific operational details have been omitted in this report and in “The War Within.” But a number of authoritative sources say the covert activities had a far-reaching effect on the violence and were very possibly the biggest factor in reducing it. Several said that 85 to 90 percent of the successful operations and “actionable intelligence” had come from the new sources, methods and operations. Several others said that figure was exaggerated but acknowledged their significance. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) responsible for hunting al-Qaeda in Iraq, employed what he called “collaborative warfare,” using every tool available simultaneously, from signal intercepts to human intelligence and other methods, that allowed lightning-quick and sometimes concurrent operations. Asked in an interview about the intelligence breakthroughs in Iraq, President Bush offered a simple answer: “JSOC is awesome.”

It would seem to me that “the most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government” had been deployed in Iraq to battle the insurgency from the beginning, and the U.S. military have been eavesdropping, bribing, and strongarming the locals in order to improve its tactical position in raids from Day One.

What probably made special operations so “awesome” in 2007 was the employment, coordination, and organization of these “techniques and information” in the service of a unified, strategic, and pro-active policy of targeted killings to decapitate and disrupt the opposition to the occupation. In other words, death squads. Calling them “targeted killings” looks like a distinction without much of a difference. And “special operations” is just a euphemism. And I guess we’ll just have to take General Petraeus’s word for it that there was some kind of vetting and due process, that people were not improperly killed because of those death squad doppelgangers, greedy and grudge-holding informants, that non-violent opponents of the occupation weren’t targeted as a matter of COIN doctrine, and that “collateral damage” was accidental, avoided when at all possible, and not used as a tool to intimidate the local populace into turning against the insurgents.

We’ll have to take his word for it as far as Iraq goes, anyway. In Afghanistan, things are a little different. We’re not doing too well there, and the Karzai government is often willing to present its own version of U.S. operations.

Last Thursday President Karzai went on record deploring an incompetently targeted tactical kinetic operation that apparently killed 40 people–including two dozen children–when U.S. warplanes accidentally bombed a wedding party while trying to put paid to some fleeing Taliban militants nearby. And in Pakistan, things are a lot different. Everybody there hates what we’re doing, the independent media aggressively reports U.S. operations, and the government leaks like a sieve. And in the middle of this we’re trying to mount a successful death squad campaign 1) across borders and 2) remotely, using drones and 3) trying not to kill so many civilians that the Pakistan government moves beyond toothless protests to actual opposition to the incursions. Perhaps not a recipe for success. But we’re certainly trying. And General Petraeus is on board.

In recent weeks, Pakistan’s western tribal areas have been subjected to a flurry of U.S. Predator drone attacks targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. According to the Washington Post, since August there have been 18 attacks, which have killed over 100 people. The Washington Post article further reported on an interesting development, one that maybe puts some flesh on those “most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government,” in the context of the most recent strike, which killed up to 19 people in North Waziristan:

Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, former longtime head of government security in the tribal areas, said the missile attacks have become notably more precise, leading some to believe that local tribesman in the border areas are supplying the U.S. military with better information about potential targets. Shah said rumors about so-called U.S. spies among the tribes have fed paranoia about potential small-scale spying devices being deployed in local villages. Called “patri” by the locals in the dominant language of Pashto, tribesmen have lately made a habit of constantly sweeping the areas around their homes for any signaling devices, he said. “They’re not sitting outside in their compounds anymore because they are afraid that they will be struck by these missiles,” Shah said. “These people have their own enmity between each other so there is a fear that they could just throw one of these chips or devices into their enemy’s house.”

The take in Thursday’s attack, according to an unnamed Pakistan intelligence officer: four foreign fighters killed out of a total of up to 19 dead (the Washington Post headline led with the more comforting but unsourced statement that only 12 people had died in the attack, giving a more acceptable collateral damage to bad guy ratio of 3:1).And Pakistan can expect more of the same, according to newly minted CENTCOM chief General Petraeus, who was just in Islamabad (also from the Washington Post article): “U.S. Gen. David H. Petraeus said during a visit to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad this week that he would heed the Pakistani government’s concerns about the U.S.-led, cross-border strikes. But during a subsequent visit to Afghanistan this week, Petraeus touted the success of such attacks in eliminating top Taliban commanders. He has made no express promise to end the missile strikes.”

During an interview with AP in Afghanistan reported by Pakistan’s Daily Times, General Petraeus’ irony detector was perhaps off-line when he talked about: “[C]onfronting the extremists who have turned what used to be fairly peaceful areas into strongholds for individuals who . . . believe that they have the right to blow up other people who do not see the world the way they do.

Death squads are inseparable from counter-insurgency. If we’re going to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan (and take the battle to Pakistan) we should get used to them. And we shouldn’t let General Petraeus?or his willingness to pander to our desire to distract ourselves with hearts and minds fables of counterinsurgency — shield us from the truth.

PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairsLee can be reached at

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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