War from on high

The CIA's new focus on assassinating suspected terrorists is more cowardly than cocky.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Assassination is back.

According to the UK Guardian, ‘President Bush has authorised the CIA to kill around two dozen alleged terrorists on a secret hit list and any others it considers to be “enemy combatants”, including many senior figures from the al-Qaeda network’ (1).

In short, the CIA has been given the legal authority to ‘hunt down and kill’ suspected terrorists without having to worry about war’s traditional rules of engagement. The Guardian reports that ‘White House insiders deny that the mandate is a reversal of a 1976 law against assassinations’, but as one US journalist puts it: ‘If this ain’t assassination, then it’s as close as you can get.’ (2)

As Seymour Hersh writes in the December issue of New Yorker magazine, the use of assassination in foreign affairs has been frowned upon by American administrations for the past 25 years – officially at least.

‘For more than a generation, state-endorsed assassination has been anathema in the United States’, writes Hersh. ‘In 1975, a Senate committee concluded that such plotting “violates moral precepts fundamental to our way of life…. We reject absolutely any notion that the United States should justify its actions by the standards of totalitarians”…. In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed an executive order banning political assassination.’ (3)

So what’s going on now? Is the USA going back to the ‘standards of totalitarians’ and rewriting the rules on assassination? One left-wing American journalist thinks so, accusing the Bush administration of ‘using assassination to score points in the war on terror’.

Seymour Hersh claims that political assassination has become the USA’s favoured weapon in the war on terror, ever since an unmanned American Predator plane successfully killed six suspected al-Qaeda suspects in Yemen by bombing their car from the skies (see Cowards’ war in Yemen, by David Chandler). According to Hersh, the Yemen operation ‘marked a dramatic escalation of the American war on terror’ (4), and military officials are now ‘confident’ enough to repeat such assassinations elsewhere.

It is true that the USA is using assassination to boost its fortunes in the war on terror. But this focus on assassination expresses a lack of dynamic in the war, rather than showing a newfound ‘confidence’ on America’s part. It is not from a cocky position of potential victory that the Bush administration is ‘rewriting the rules of engagement’, but from a weakened position following 14 months of an intelligence-lite and disastrous war.

Since the war on terror was launched in October 2001, US forces seem to have spent more time bombing rocks and caves (and weddings) than pursuing a known and definable enemy. As a key Afghan commander said at the height of the war in early 2002, ‘The Americans never contact us. They are just doing it themselves’ (5). US forces’ failure to go in on the ground and sound out potential allies for information and ideas resulted in a dearth of useable intelligence (6).

The move towards assassination tactics over military engagement looks like an attempt to lift the burden on the US military – to move the hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban members from the open battlefield to some secret spy headquarters, where CIA officials can ‘find and destroy’ the enemy from the safety of their own desks, as they did with the Predator assassination in Yemen, rather than having to meet the enemy face to face.

Handing ‘legal authority’ for killing al-Qaeda members to the CIA also has the benefit of moving the messy business of war one step further from the White House. Bush officials have made it clear that the CIA should do whatever it feels is necessary in order to get rid of America’s enemies, and shouldn’t feel the need to ‘seek further approval from the White House’ (7).

After a year of press briefings to explain why the war on terror is going so slowly, and having been asked the million-dollar question ‘Where is bin Laden?’ more times than they care to remember, Bush officials seem to be shifting much of the responsibility for such matters on to the secretive CIA – leaving the White House free to spout war rhetoric without having to worry so much about the war.

The assassination strategy also alleviates some of the risks for US forces of engaging with al-Qaeda or Taliban forces. The kind of assassinations that the CIA has in mind (‘more Predator-style operations’, according to one report) are less a form of engagement than a case of killing from a distance.

Indeed, in the same week that the CIA was given the authority to carry out assassinations, US special forces revealed that some military operations in Afghanistan over the past year had been cancelled after being deemed ‘too risky’. ‘Fear of casualties hampers hunt for Taliban’, said a headline on 9 December 2002, quoting one US soldier as saying: ‘If you put in [an operation] that said “raid”, “ambush”, “kill”, “sniper”, anything like that, it would be disapproved based on the vocabulary used.’ (8)

US military leaders in Afghanistan have gone all-out to avoid suffering casualties – and recently they have been more cautious about inflicting Afghan casualties, too. In a war that has won little public enthusiasm and which has been fought without much conviction, there is little stomach among military leaders for spilling too much blood. Targeting suspected terrorists from the safety of an unmanned drone is one way to avoid the mass casualties caused by the daisy-cutter attacks of December 2001 and the blind bombing raids of early 2002, which resulted in vaporised wedding parties and destroyed villages.

The fear of suffering American casualties is often presented as a spin thing, where the US military doesn’t want to lose public support by sacrificing the lives of ‘America’s boys’, so it does everything it can to avoid getting US troops into risky situations that might result in injury or death.

But there is more to this than spin. The fear of casualties expresses far deeper problems for the US military – problems with justifying individual sacrifice in the name of a collective aim, with putting the mission itself above the wellbeing and self-esteem of those fighting the mission.

These problems have been particularly acute in Afghanistan, where the mission and aims have been so ill-defined. In May 2002, after numerous half-hearted operations in east Afghanistan ended in no sign of the enemy, the US military had to fall back on ‘recommitting ceremonies’ to keep their soldiers alert. Troops were gathered together in a formal gathering to ‘recommit ourselves today to what we are doing’ and to ‘restate their individual commitment’ to the Afghan War (9).

But in a focused war with clear aims, soldiers wouldn’t have to ‘recommit’ themselves to their mission. A war where soldiers were busy seeking and destroying a well-defined enemy would win troops’ commitment through action and goals rather than through formal ceremonies. In the absence of a definable enemy against which they can all unite and fight, it seems the US army needs other ways to keep up soldiers’ morale.

In the end, these formal ceremonies only exposed the war on terror’s lack of focus. In the same week that the US military kicked off the recommitting ceremonies, one report claimed that US troops were becoming ever-more desperate to fight: ‘Like athletes who have trained for months to play in a championship game, only to watch from the sidelines, many younger infantrymen are yearning for one big battle to test their mettle.’ US commanders were keen for their troops to recommit to ‘the mission’, but they couldn’t provide them with a real mission to fight in.

In a war where military commanders have failed to convince their troops that there’s a fight worth fighting, it isn’t surprising that commanders are so fearful of casualties, of soldiers or civilians dying for undefined aims and unconvincing missions. The CIA’s authority to assassinate terrorist leaders, by contrast, lessens the risk of casualties, allowing suspected enemies to be executed without being engaged.

It is the failure of overt operations in Afghanistan that has forced the US authorities to turn to covert operations instead. In this sense, the Bush administration is rewriting the rules of engagement, not so much out of arrogance and cockiness, but because the war on terror has been such a flat affair. Rather than play hard, fast and determined by the rules of war, Bush and co would rather rewrite them in order to avoid anything ‘too risky’.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) CIA authorised to target and kill al-Qaeda members, David Teather, Guardian, 16 December 2002

(2) CIA authorised to target and kill al-Qaeda members, David Teather, Guardian, 16 December 2002

(3) Manhunt, Seymour Hersh, New Yorker, 16 December 2002

(4) Manhunt, Seymour Hersh, New Yorker, 16 December 2002

(5) US accused of killing anti-Taliban leaders, Rory McCarthy, Guardian, 28 January 2002

(6) See Military imprecision, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) CIA authorised to target and kill al-Qaeda members, David Teather, Guardian, 16 December 2002

(8) Fear of casualties hampers hunt for Taliban, Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times, 9 December 2002

(9) Troops in Afghanistan asked to recommit to fighting terrorism, Associated Press, 27 May 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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