Supplying an army at a distance drains the public coffers and impoverishes the common people.
–Sun-Tzu, The Art of War
With the killing of Osama bin Laden by a 79-member JSOC hunter/killer team inside Pakistan, the nation has entered yet another of those moments when a news media that professes independence has become an unashamed cheerleader for militarism.
No one can deny the JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) Seal Team executed its killing mission with great competence and aplomb. They were also lucky that the bin Laden entourage had apparently become so confident of its safety that it was a bit lackadaisical.
Ever since the Desert One debacle in 1980 in Iran, US special operations commanders were determined that the system evolve into a sophisticated program with double and triple backup plans etc. Apparently a motto in the Seals is, you come out of an operation either as “a Zero or a Hero.” In this case, it’s “Hero” in spades.
The competence exhibited by the team is especially welcome in many quarters in the US following a decade noted for too many examples of huge and really bad decisions that were examples of what happens when you link incompetence with great power.
Just to name a few of the big ones: There was the decision to insert into Afghanistan an incredibly expensive army and the creation, there, of an entire government that involved a network of heavily corrupt loyalties that had to be sustained with payoffs and other blandishments. That decision has led to an incredibly wasteful logistical nightmare. Then there was the completely dishonorable decision to invade and occupy Iraq based on dishonestly misdirected 911 revenge politics. Recently, we have added Libya to the list of mission-creep wars; it has gone from a no-fly zone to a palace bombing that killed three of the leader’s grandkids. All this consumes gobs and gobs of tax dollars that could be used in neglected areas at home.
Just to round out the list of disastrous decisions, let’s not forget the elimination of financial regulation begun by President Reagan that led inexorably to the 2007-08 economic meltdown, which was followed by a huge tax-payer bailout of the very pirates who got the nation into the mess in the first place. In that bargain, homeowners were supposed to get help, but it somehow never arrived.
Good people can argue about all this. But what’s not in dispute is that the past decade or two has dropped America into a giant economic hole and put Americans into a general state of fear and anxiety. You see it disaggregated into ones and twos everywhere as people’s expectations are dashed, jobs are lost and homes are foreclosed on.
We are a nation that likes to see itself as “exceptional,” and we suffer from a concomitant unwillingness to face hard truths, which are no fun and suggest we may not be so exceptional after all. In this condition, citizens have become reliant for comfort on symbols; we’re all vulnerable to their power. President Reagan understood this better than most, and he manipulated Americans with symbols like a master. Move to 2011, and there is nothing more symbolically powerful than the focused competence of the raid to kill Osama bin Laden. Against the backdrop of the frightening mess we’re in, it’s a symbol that really works.
Who could blame an American for having a weakness for such a well-planned, well-executed and timely revenge killing of the greatest boogie-man in modern US history? You’d have to be an extraordinary individual — or an anti-war leftist — not to be sucked in by all this.
Adults and children across the land are out in the streets pumping their fists in the air screaming, “USA! USA! USA!” My favorite was a You Tube of a pot-bellied cracker roaring toward the camera in an open field, with one hand on the wheel of his all-terrain-vehicle that featured a huge American flag on the back, and the other shooting an automatic pistol into the air as he screamed “USA! USA! USA!”
The trouble is, while highly competent focused killings like that of bin Laden may feel good, they do nothing to address the worsening consequences of all the incompetent and destructive decisions that preceded it and make it so powerful.
The Press as Military Camp Followers
One of the more amazing journalistic exhibitions was MSNBC’s Chris Matthews of “Hardball,” who for two days following the raid seemed like a teenage girl swooning over Ringo Starr. This is a guy normally completely uninterested in our wars, preferring to follow the stats and keep score of the domestic political game.
The New York Times put the following piece of emotional prose in paragraph four of its first-day, front-page, above-the-fold news story of the killing:
“And just like that, history’s most expansive, expensive and exasperating manhunt was over. The inert frame of Osama bin Laden, America’s enemy No. 1, was placed in a helicopter for burial at sea, never to be seen or feared again. A nation that spent a decade tormented by its failure to catch the man responsible for nearly 3,000 fiery deaths in New York, outside Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, at long last had its sense of finality, at least in this one difficult chapter.”
This was a “news” story, something that we’re told should at least aim for objectivity and be about cold facts and information. This was more poetics than inverted pyramid. “America’s enemy No. 1 … never to be seen or feared again. … A nation … at long last had its sense of finality.” It was written in a language of holiness more appropriate for a national poet laureate than the nation’s paper of record. It was the killing of bin Laden as a mythic national event.
As mainstream news outlets were cheerleading the raid, they were discarding their professional skepticism and parroting the lines of people like John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism adviser who fabricated false narrative facts in a blatant manner reminiscent of the Jessica Lynch incident. Many may recall during the run-up to the Iraq War, The Times was caught using fabricated facts fed directly to them from the Bush administration. You might have thought The Times had learned something, but, again, out of the gate, given the choice between truth and feel-good national myth, they went with the latter.
Everything Brennan said built a first-impression image of fierce armed opposition, when in reality, as The Times did report later, the Seal Team met little resistance and gunned down people like bin Laden’s 19-year-old son as he came down the stairs unarmed and no doubt terrified at all the noise.
It’s understandable that members of the Seal Team were pumped to the gills on adrenaline as they entered the compound. So questioning the shooting of bin Laden in the head is an exercise in futility. No matter what the Pentagon may say, given the volatility of politics in America and in the world, bringing Osama bin Laden back to the US alive was not going to happen.
Tossing his corpse into the Arabian Sea served two purposes. One, it gets him out of the way, and two, it exhibits the US military’s power by being an insult to anyone who questions what they have done. Deciding to censor the photos emphasizes the same thing. It separates those with power from those without it, as it turns information and knowledge those in power have into a crime for those without power. It’s exactly the fertile soil out of which WikiLeaks grew. In that spirit, we can only hope someone will have the courage to leak the photos for the cause of the freedom of information. It’s not about being morbid.
President Obama and His Trophy Raid
On the evening after the killing, Obama told a bi-partisan group of congress members he wanted to “harness” the killing of bin Laden for its power to unite America. A couple days later when he decided to censor the real-life, gritty photo of the killing he was so ready to “harness” for political purposes, he said, “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.” So, while he may not gloat over trophies, he is not above mining them for symbolic gold. President Obama’s poll numbers have reportedly risen nearly 10 points since the raid went down.
The sequence of events surrounding the raid suggest how Obama’s brand of cold-blooded “deep game” politics works.
First there was the surprise release of his long-form birth certificate a few news cycles before theCorrespondents’ Dinner, where the President performed a brilliant stand-up routine based on the previous release of his birth certificate. Donald Trump was at the dinner and sat frozen and glowering as everyone around him roared with laughter. We learned in retrospect, as Obama was so competently playing the comic and burying once and for all the “birther” issue, in the back of his mind was the upcoming bin Laden raid. Comedian Seth Meyers even looked over at him and made a joke about not finding bin Laden, to which Obama laughed heartily.
Maureen Dowd compared it to the famous inter-cut scene in The Godfather where Don Corleone is at his nephew’s baptism while his enemies are being shot, knifed and garroted all around town.
More than anything, the killing of bin Laden raises the question: What if we had been more brave and competent and had done this kind of very focused action in early 2002? Maybe we could have taken the $1Trillion plus in tax resources hosed out in Iraq and Afghanistan for war and used that money here in the US to build and improve things, to temper the economic crisis we’re in. Maybe the 6,000 dead Americans and the tens of thousands of wounded who we will be paying to support for the rest of their disabled lives ? maybe they would all be alive and whole. And let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands we’ve killed and maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But if the past is an indicator, these kinds of questions will not be asked today in the corridors of US power. The momentum of power and saving face keeps them effectively at bay.
So there probably won’t be a serious effort made in congress to really leave Afghanistan. It looks more likely that the propaganda boost of the bin Laden killing will be used to justify greater funding of super-secret JSOC hunter/killer teams, and the waste and tragedy of the past ten years will be compounded, although maybe re-directed into more effective secret war compartments. It seems clear secret, unaccountable hunter/killer teams are the future of US warfare. Lethal raids like the high-profile one that killed bin Laden are occurring all the time ? secret to everyone except those who are the targets.
The Pentagon Gears Up For More Focused Killing
There is currently a major turnover going on in US war-making leadership. CIA Director Leon Panetta is moving over to run the Department of Defense, and General David Petraeus, commander of military forces in Afghanistan, will become the director of the CIA. Both moves seem to further the much talked about shift over the past decade of covert operational power from the CIA to the much larger military bureaucracy.
Petraeus, of course, is famous as the architect of the counter insurgency doctrine much bally-hoed in years past as the solution in Afghanistan. But Petraeus’ COIN program has run out of gas, and he’s being bumped out of the way. According to the respected military writer Bing West, “counterinsurgency doctrine has failed.” Petraeus’ counter-insurgency program, he says, “has created a culture of entitlement in Afghanistan.” West supports the notion of using intelligence to locate Taliban leaders, then to use special ops teams like the one used to get bin Laden to hunt them down and kill them.
Vice Admiral William McRaven, the high-ranking Seal who reportedly designed the bin Laden raid, will be taking over command of JSOC soon. Vice Admiral Robert Harwood, also a Seal, has just been named deputy commander of US Central Command, making him the second highest ranking officer in the Middle East.
General Stanley McChrystal gained his rank as a general by running JSOC during the so-called “surge” in Iraq. His hunter/killer teams were the “secret weapon” behind the surge’s success. He, then, established that kind of warfare in Afghanistan. He was fired for speaking disrespectfully of the Obama administration in a Rolling Stone profile.
The new approach is to cut the warm and fuzzy programs that involve building schools or passing out soccer balls and do more of what the military is supposed to do: Kill people. In Afghanistan that means Taliban leaders, men who are mostly Pashtuns, the ethnic group that straddles the Afghan-Pakistan border created in 1893 by British colonial officers. Identify and kill enough of these leaders, West believes, and the Pashtuns will fall in line with our wishes.
McChrystal recently explained what he learned in Iraq and Afghanistan in Foreign Policy magazine.
Insurgencies, he found, were more of a “network” than an army, and as such they were intricately embedded in their societies and very agile in how they operated. Local elements often made decisions without a top-down command. The challenge, he says, was to figure out how to fashion US forces into a similar, laterally-structured network while retaining the US capacity to employ overwhelming force. The JSOC units that evolved from this, he said, “valued competency above all else — including rank.” In many cases, JSOC members don’t wear insignia of rank and they wear civilian clothes; in Iraq, they went by assumed names, which made accountability for actions difficult to impossible.
As the elusive and ambiguous “drawdown” from Afghanistan unfolds, look for a pullback of soldiers focused on softer, political tasks, and look for an increase in highly-competent, disciplined, cold-blooded killers.
The problem in such a shift would seem to be the usual pitfall for the US military: Hubris. There’s no way to alter the fundamentals of insurgency war. US soldiers will always be “foreign” and the insurgents will always be homeboys. And if history tells us anything, sustaining foreign solders in Afghanistan is a dubious enterprise, especially in the rugged Pashtun areas. And the more killing teams and drones one relies on, the more civilian deaths there will be, which is a prime recruiting tool for the insurgency.
Two questions loom over all this:
1) Can highly-trained lethal US forces identify and kill insurgent leaders at a rate faster than the insurgency can replace them? So far, the answer to this has been no.
2) How long can our military continue a strategy of lethal raids without the American people or their representatives beginning to ask why the hell they’re over there doing what they’re doing in the first place?
JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run, reader-supported (yeah, you!), online alternative newspaper.