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Assassins R Us

U.S. sanctioned assassinations have long been a covert part of our foreign policy. Now the administration is planning to make them official policy.
 
 
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As the Iraqi resistance expands and perfects its attacks, the American military, like so many occupying armies before it, is turning to methods of warfare long outlawed by civilized nations -- assassinations and reprisals against civilians. When it comes to the first, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has long been on record as wanting Saddam Hussein and the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban brought in "dead or alive," with emphasis on the former.

Now, according to a November 7th front-page piece in the New York Times, the Pentagon, in conjunction with the CIA, has announced the creation of a new "task force" -- polite language for an assassination squad -- to accomplish these ends. "The new Special Operations organization," according to reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, "is designed to act with greater speed on intelligence tips about 'high-value targets' and not be contained within the borders where American conventional forces are operating in Iraq and Afghanistan." In other words, this death squad, composed of U.S. Army Special Forces troops, can run down its quarry in countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan but presumably also (if the occasion required it) in France, Germany, or even the United States itself.

The contradictions inherent in this plan are striking and tell us a great deal about what it means to be the lone planetary superpower. Although the Bush administration has refused to join the new International Criminal Court because it allegedly threatened our sovereignty, we now openly say that nobody else's sovereignty means anything at all to us. Without debate or oversight by elected officials, we are seemingly adopting a militarized version of globalization -- sending "terminator" squads wherever we want to whenever we care to -- whose operations will inevitably change the nature of our world, no matter how any individual attack may sort itself out. The concept of sovereignty -- that national governments exercise supreme authority within their own borders -- is the bedrock of global order. Without it, we open the door to anarchy.

Something like this plan for officially sanctioned assassinations has been in the cards for some time. On November 4, 2002, the Bush administration acknowledged that it had carried out a strike in Yemen, violating that country's sovereignty. Using an armed "Predator" unmanned surveillance aircraft monitored by CIA operatives based at a French military facility in Djibouti and at CIA headquarters in Virginia, the U.S. released a Hellfire missile that destroyed an SUV said to contain a senior al-Qaeda terrorist. Not only was the vehicle so completely vaporized that this claim cannot be verified, but the nature of the strike itself -- coming after the Yemeni government reportedly refused to act on information passed to it by the CIA -- must give pause to other governments. Why couldn't a Hellfire missile released from a remote-controlled drone be used to destroy reputed terrorists in the Philippines, in Singapore, or in Germany, regardless of what a local government might think or wish?

It would be prudent for our leaders to remember that sovereignty only makes sense when it is honored by all nations reciprocally. The day could come when the United States might be vulnerable to another country's use of such missiles against the homes and offices of supporters of, say, Israel or Taiwan.

Secretary Rumsfeld is, in fact, taking a leaf out of the play-book of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. He has long employed hit-squads against Palestinian and Hamas leaders who displeased him, and he is on record as having seriously considered "taking out" President Arafat. Just as Sharon and his government are indifferent to the collateral damage caused by their missile assaults, Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of all U.S. military forces from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, invariably uses the word "terrorist" to describe Iraqi resistance fighters. Calling guerrilla fighters "terrorists" allows American soldiers great leeway in avoiding responsibility when, for instance, they shoot unarmed civilians at checkpoints because they failed to obey shouted orders, which they may not have understood, fast enough.

Equally important under this rubric, Abizaid is opening the way to the authorization of indiscriminate reprisals against defenseless Iraqis. Frustrated by the deaths of thirty-eight U.S. soldiers during the first half of November, the U.S. high command has already launched Operation Ivy Cyclone, using F-16 fighters to drop 500-pound bombs on Tikrit and Falluja. This was immediately followed by Operation Iron Hammer within Baghdad itself, employing Apache attack helicopters and paratroopers in armored vehicles to blow up civilian properties the military thinks might have been involved in the planning of ambushes -- or that are just prominent places upon which to showcase America's military might. It appears that "staying the course" in Iraq may soon enough involve smaller scale versions of those Vietnam staples, the saturation bombing of cities and towns, the herding of civilians into barbed-wire enclosed "strategic hamlets," and a rerun of the Phoenix Program in which the CIA and Special Forces assassinated some 30,000 suspected Viet Cong leaders.

Not only is this thuggish behavior completely unacceptable under international law but, as in Israel, it is unlikely to achieve the ends that are so confidently being predicted. (The term "thuggish" derives from a 13th century Indian secret society that worshiped the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali. "Thugs" would infiltrate a party of travelers and when the moment was right on some remote stretch of road, they would strangle their prey with "Kali's skirt hem," a strip of cloth.) As Milt Bearden, who was the head of CIA operations in Afghanistan during the late 1980s, observed in a New York Times op-ed, "For every mujahedeen killed or hauled off in raids by Soviet troops in Afghanistan, a revenge group of perhaps a half-dozen members of his family took up arms. Sadly, this same rule probably applies in Iraq."

Bearden went on to argue, "There [are] two stark lessons in the history of the 20th century: no nation that launched a war against another sovereign nation ever won. And every nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation ultimately succeeded." Actually, of course, he overlooks America's attacks against small Latin American countries like Nicaragua, Panama, and Grenada, each of which resulted in putative "victories." Nonetheless, it would be useful if the war-lovers of the Pentagon would contemplate Bearden's lessons.

Another result of our government's taking the law into its own hands is to deceive the public about what is going on -- leading often to a violent reaction against politicians and complicit journalists when the truth finally comes out (recall the post-Watergate Church committee hearings). It also raises the level of callousness throughout our society. Assassinations and reprisals do nothing to advance national policies, but they do harden and numb the consciences of ordinary American citizens and instill in our armed forces the most corrosive of all emotions: guilt.

If Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, or Saddam Hussein are actually killed by the military's special assassination squad, a very large proportion of Middle Easterners simply will not believe it. Not even bodies put on display or DNA tests can alter that fact. After the massive campaign of false information that preceded our invasion of Iraq, it is doubtful that any foreigner would today trust anything said by our Department of Defense or Central Intelligence Agency. The only thing that might work would be good police work, leading to the capture of terrorist leaders and their conviction at a trial based on evidence presented before an international tribunal.

Secretary Rumsfeld nonetheless seems to believe that the deaths of these men will halt or seriously cripple the attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, too, he is undoubtedly wrong. First of all, many of the so-called terrorists are in fact nationalists whose targets are not unarmed civilians but easily identified military occupiers who, the Iraqis believe with some evidence, invaded their country to steal their resources. As ever, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Second, the actions are usually the work of small groups or cells, and the deaths of one or two leaders, however prominent, are unlikely to stop them. New leaders will arise to take their place, and the guerrillas are likely to redouble their efforts spurred on by the "martyrdom" of those who are killed. Think Ireland, Colombia, Vietnam, Chechnya, and many other places and occasions.

The Bush administration evidently imagines that opposition to its occupation in Iraq will lessen or disappear once people there know for sure that Saddam Hussein will not be back. I predict that quite the opposite will occur. The Iraqi Sunnis without Saddam will quickly rally around a new leader (or leaders) and redouble their efforts to kick out the Americans and claim the nationalist credit for doing so; the Shiites -- once they realize the coast is temporarily clear -- will struggle ever harder against both the U.S. and the Sunnis for an Islamic state under their control; and the Kurds, seeing the way the wind is blowing, will demand a state of their own.

This may be what Secretary Rumsfeld also foresees in his more pessimistic moments and why he sometimes says that the U.S. will have to remain in Iraq for at least a decade. But even if we were to garrison every town and village in the country, we could neither control nor stop this process. Some people say the U.S. should at least be praised for getting rid of Saddam. I believe that years from now we may come to understand why it took a leader so brutal to temporarily weld together these disparate peoples into a semblance of a nation-state. Think Stalin and the now dissolved USSR. Once the Soviet Union's control apparatus was discredited, rule from Moscow disintegrated. Russia today is only a shadow of the former USSR and has a national economy about the same as the Netherlands.

Iraq was a place to steer clear of, not one where our armed missionaries, the U.S. Army, should have tried out their nonexistent nation-building skills.

Chalmers Johnson is author of Blowback. His new book, The Sorrows of Empire, will be published by Metropolitan Books on January 1, 2004.