Why the Wikileaks Party visit to Syria was so delusional

My weekly Guardian column is published below:

The sight of Australian citizens associated with the WikiLeaks party sitting and chatting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad during their recent “solidarity mission”, along with their comments about the regime, is a damning indictment on a party that ran a dismal election campaign in 2013 and has never bothered to explain its subsequent collapse.

For WikiLeaks supporters such as myself (I have been backing the group since 2006), this latest PR exercise is nothing more than an act of stunning political bastardry. It does nothing to push for true peace in Syria, and essentially amounts to a propaganda coup for a brutal dictatorship. It’s also a slap in the face to the WikiLeaks backers who are still expecting answers about why the party imploded without public review or reflection.

The problem isn’t meeting Assad himself. He’s the (unelected) leader of Syria and an essential part of any resolution of the conflict, still supported by many Syrians who fear Islamic fundamentalism. Saudi Arabian-backed extremism across the Middle East, implicitly supported by the Western powers now focused on Assad’s butchery, is spreading sectarian carnage by pitting Sunni against Shia, leading to the death of thousands. Syrian civilians are suffering the full brunt of this madness. Saudi funding for Syrian “rebels” – in essence backing Al-Qaida terrorism – is repeating the playbook used against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, enriching militants in a battle that will inevitably come back to bite the Saudis and their Western allies.

A third way is, for the time being, out of sight. And in this context, it’s hard to see how the WikiLeaks party can judiciously show solidarity to Syria’s besieged people.

When the WikiLeaks party delegation returned to Australia, various members expressed their views about the trip. Activist Jamal Daoud, who wrote in 2012 that he supported Assad, blogged that he had heard while in Syria that “the alternative to the regime is total chaos.” Although acknowledging that meetings were held with both regime and rebel representatives, Daoud clearly believes that the regime remaining in place is the ideal outcome.

John Shipton, chief executive of the party and the father of Julian Assange, spoke to ABC Radio in Melbourne to defend the mission. He mouthed the talking points of the regime itself – that they’re fighting terrorism in cities and towns across the country – and claimed that the WikiLeaks party is planning to set up an office in Damascus in 2014. “We’ll continue to expose the truth to the Australian people and to our international audience”, he said. Shipton added that as the delegation walked around Damascus, they found “a lot of support for the government” – which is undoubtedly true, but likely to be similar to journalists being taken around by minders from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and finding nearly universal backing for the dictator.

Sydney University academic Tim Anderson – who wrote in 2007 that Cuba is a democracy and the US is not, ignoring the lack of an open press and the Castro brothers’ authoritarian ruling in the process – also defended his participation in the mission after The Australian newspaper attacked him. He went on to state: “forget the absurd myth of a single man [Assad] ‘killing his own people’. That line is designed to pull the wool over our eyes. This is a ‘regime change’ exercise that went wrong, because Syria resisted.”

It is deeply problematic that Anderson and other side players downplay or brush aside the gross abuses committed by the regime, which have occurred both during the war and during Bashar and his father Hafez’s decades-long rule.

Considering how the mainstream media will spin such a trip must be a major consideration when talking about “truth” in a modern, complex war. How support for a peaceful resolution practically occurs when facts on the ground are notoriously difficult to assess should be the heart of the matter. Instead, it appears that the WikiLeaks party was caught up in an inevitable maelstrom of their own naive making. If you visit Syria and are pictured meeting Assad, you should make damn sure you’re on the front foot to rebut the likely criticisms and provide a cogent and detailed rebuttal to what you saw, and why a few WikiLeaks party members from Australia can make any difference to the war. You should also know that any “solidarity mission” to Syria will be used by either side as a way to bolster their claims and defend their own crimes, of which there have been plenty by all sides.

Moral and political clarity is vital – which is why, for example, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was rightly condemned in my view after he voiced support for Iran and Syria in the process of opposing ”US imperialism“, and refused to oppose human rights abuses in both nations. Equally, being a supporter of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination shouldn’t automatically lead to backing Fatah or Hamas, two groups with a documented record of abusing their own citizens.

The situation in Syria is dire, with dirty hands on all sides. As it stands, the solution is not with the Baath party, nor the Al-Qaida-aligned rebels – but this is a decision for the Syrian people to decide. Encouraging a peaceful settlement and negotiations must be the goal. The WikiLeaks organisation remains an essential tool in holding governments to account, but its Australian-based party’s visit to Syria exposes the dangers of believing that the “enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It is not.

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How Western-backed Saudi fundamentalism is causing chaos

One of the great unspoken truths of the 21st century. After this week’s shocking terrorist acts in Russia, it’s possible (though impossible to know) that Saudi Arabia may be behind the carnage (they threatened as much a few months ago).

The venerable Patrick Cockburn, writing in the UK Independent, on the ominous signs of sectarian madness in the Middle East and globally. The West turns a blind eye:

Anti-Shia hate propaganda spread by Sunni religious figures sponsored by, or based in, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, is creating the ingredients for a sectarian civil war engulfing the entire Muslim world. Iraq and Syria have seen the most violence, with the majority of the 766 civilian fatalities in Iraq this month being Shia pilgrims killed by suicide bombers from the al-Qa’ida umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). The anti-Shia hostility of this organisation, now operating from Baghdad to Beirut, is so extreme that last month it had to apologise for beheading one of its own wounded fighters in Aleppo – because he was mistakenly believed to have muttered the name of Shia saints as he lay on a stretcher.

At the beginning of December, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula killed 53 doctors and nurses and wounded 162 in an attack on a hospital in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, which had been threatened for not taking care of wounded militants by a commentator on an extreme Sunni satellite TV station. Days before the attack, he announced that armies and tribes would assault the hospital “to take revenge for our brothers. We say this and, by the grace of Allah, we will do it”.

Skilled use of the internet and access to satellite television funded by or based in Sunni states has been central to the resurgence of al-Qa’ida across the Middle East, to a degree that Western politicians have so far failed to grasp. In the last year, Isis has become the most powerful single rebel military force in Iraq and Syria, partly because of its ability to recruit suicide bombers and fanatical fighters through the social media. Western intelligence agencies, such as the NSA in the US, much criticised for spying on the internet communications of their own citizens, have paid much less attention to open and instantly accessible calls for sectarian murder that are in plain view. Critics say that this is in keeping with a tradition since 9/11 of Western governments not wishing to hold Saudi Arabia or the Gulf monarchies responsible for funding extreme Sunni jihadi groups and propagandists supporting them through private donations.

Satellite television, internet, YouTube and Twitter content, frequently emanating from or financed by oil states in the Arabian peninsula, are at the centre of a campaign to spread sectarian hatred to every corner of the Muslim world, including places where Shia are a vulnerable minority, such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Malaysia. In Benghazi, in effect the capital of eastern Libya, a jihadi group uploaded a video of the execution of an Iraqi professor who admitted to being a Shia, saying they had shot him in revenge for the execution of Sunni militants by the Iraqi government.

There is now a fast-expanding pool of jihadis willing to fight and die anywhere. The Saudis and the Gulf monarchies may find, as happened in Afghanistan 30 years ago, that, by funding or tolerating the dissemination of Sunni-Shia hate, they have created a sectarian Frankenstein’s monster of religious fanatics beyond their control. 

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Add Saudi, insert extremism, change Syria, bring chaos

What could possibly go wrong (and since when is Saudi Arabia, that US-backed apartheid state in the Middle East, a believer in democracy?). Foreign Policy reports:

Saudi Arabia, having largely abandoned hope that the United States will spearhead international efforts to topple the Assad regime, is embarking on a major new effort to train Syrian rebel forces. And according to three sources with knowledge of the program, Riyadh has enlisted the help of Pakistani instructors to do it.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with the CIA, also supported the Afghan rebels against the Soviet-backed government during the 1980s. That collaboration contains a cautionary note for the current day: The fractured Afghan rebels were unable to govern after the old regime fell, paving the way for chaos and the rise of the Taliban. Some of the insurgents, meanwhile, transformed into al Qaeda and eventually turned their weapons against their former patrons.

While the risk of blowback has been discussed in Riyadh, Saudis with knowledge of the training program describe it as an antidote to extremism, not a potential cause of it. They have described the kingdom’s effort as having two goals — toppling the Assad regime, and weakening al Qaeda-linked groups in the country. Prince Turki, the former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to Washington, said in a recent interview that the mainstream opposition must be strengthened so that it could protect itself “these extremists who are coming from all over the place” to impose their own ideologies on Syria.

The ramped up Saudi effort has been spurred by the kingdom’s disillusionment with the United States. A Saudi insider with knowledge of the program described how Riyadh had determined to move ahead with its plans after coming to the conclusion that President Barack Obama was simply not prepared to move aggressively to oust Assad. “We didn’t know if the Americans would give [support] or not, but nothing ever came through,” the source said. “Now we know the president just didn’t want it.”

Pakistan’s role is so far relatively small, though another source with knowledge of Saudi thinking said that a plan was currently being debated to give Pakistan responsibility for training two rebel brigades, or around 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. Carnegie Middle East Center fellow Yezid Sayigh first noted the use of Pakistani instructors, writing that the Saudis were planning to build a Syrian rebel army of roughly 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers.

“The only way Assad will think about giving up power is if he’s faced with the threat of a credible, armed force,” said the Saudi insider.

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Challenging US-led Dirty Wars

My book review appears in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

Days after the Boston marathon bombings in April, the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, reportedly told authorities that he and his brother, Tamerlan, watched online the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born cleric who was killed by an American drone in Yemen in 2011.

It was just the latest appearance in the media of Awlaki; his death was praised by US President Barack Obama as a ”major blow to al-Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate”. Two weeks later, the Obama administration killed Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in a drone strike in Yemen. It remains shrouded in mystery. American investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill uncovers evidence that Obama himself was ”surprised and upset and wanted an explanation”. One White House official described it as ”a mistake, a bad mistake”.

In arguably the most comprehensive examination of post-September 11, 2001 ”war on terror” policies, Dirty Wars reveals how Washington’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has risen to become the most elite force in the US arsenal. It led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but its more disturbing role is conducting missions across the globe that receive no media.

Scahill, a national security correspondent for The Nation, long-time contributor to Democracy Now! and author of Blackwater, travels to Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and beyond to report on the war we don’t see with embedded journalism, an all-too-common feature of modern war coverage. Wikileaks-released documents provide essential evidence for his work.

Take the nightly JSOC raids in Afghanistan, reportedly to capture alleged Taliban or al-Qaeda members. The reality is very different, as I heard myself in Afghanistan in 2012.

Scahill uncovers a massacre of civilians by US forces in Gardez in Paktia province in 2010 and the attempts to cover it up by senior military figures including the head of JSOC, William McRaven.

What’s most shocking is not just details of this horrific crime, but also the frequency of such acts.

Journalist Nick Turse reveals similar activities during the Vietnam War in his recent book,Kill Anything That Moves. My Lai-style massacres weren’t an aberration, he proves, but rather a regular occurrence. Scahill’s digging challenges the notion that ”surgical strikes” and ”targeted assassinations” are a clean way to prosecute foreign policy.

”One of the enduring legacies of the Obama administration,” the writer said in May to HBO’s Bill Maher, ”is that Obama has normalised assassination as a central component of US national security policy.”

Dirty Wars is infused with a necessary anger towards the lack of questions in the US about these destructive policies. ”Obama has sold the Bush/Cheney policy to liberals,” Scahill argues, and he’s right that a vast majority of Americans claim to support drones. However, this is only because citizens so rarely see or hear the victims of these covert attacks. The corrective is to speak independently to the civilians apparently being liberated by Western weapons.

The power of Scahill’s work is making the reader question the legality and morality of American policy. Not unlike Ronald Reagan’s dirty wars against left-leaning countries in Latin America in the 1980s – hundreds of thousands of victims were murdered by US-backed thugs in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile and elsewhere – today’s proxy forces operate with the same level of impunity.

Scahill spends time with Somalian warlords who are paid by the US to fight al-Qaeda militants, but while in Mogadishu he discovers a CIA-run underground prison that assists Somali intelligence officials.

”We define our society by how we treat the most reprehensible of citizens,” Scahill said on US TV earlier in the year. The success of this book, a New York Times bestseller, is rejecting the official rationale given to pursue a ”war on terror” that causes blow-back on our own societies and destruction across the globe.

Antony Loewenstein’s latest book is Profits of Doom (MUP).

Purchase Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill here.

DIRTY WARS: THE WORLD IS A BATTLEFIELD

Jeremy Scahill

Serpent’s Tail, 672pp, $29.99

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Here we go again; another Western-led war in the Middle East

The Guardian’s Seumas Milne on the seemingly inevitable war against Syria:

All the signs are they’re going to do it again. The attack on Syria now being planned by the US and its allies will be the ninth direct western military intervention in an Arab or Muslim country in 15 years. Depending how you cut the cake, the looming bombardment follows onslaughts on Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali, as well as a string of murderous drone assaults on Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

The two former colonial powers that carved up the Middle East between them, Britain and France, are as ever chafing for a slice of the action as the US assembles yet another “coalition of the willing”. And as in Iraq and Sudan (where President Clinton ordered an attack on a pharmaceuticals factory in retaliation for an al-Qaida bombing), intelligence about weapons of mass destruction is once again at the centre of the case being made for a western missile strike.

In both Iraq and Sudan, the intelligence was of course wrong. But once again, UN weapons inspectors are struggling to investigate WMD claims while the US and its friends have already declared them “undeniable”. Once again they are planning to bypass the UN security council. Once again, they are dressing up military action as humanitarian, while failing to win the support of their own people.

The trigger for the buildup to a new intervention – what appears to have been a chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta – certainly has the hallmarks of a horrific atrocity. Hundreds, mostly civilians, are reported killed and many more wounded, their suffering caught on stomach-churning videos.

But so far no reliable evidence whatever has been produced to confirm even what chemical might have been used, let alone who delivered it. The western powers and their allies, including the Syrian rebels, insist the Syrian army was responsible. The Damascus government and its international backers, Russia and Iran, blame the rebels.

The regime, which has large stockpiles of chemical weapons, undoubtedly has the capability and the ruthlessness. But it’s hard to see a rational motivation. Its forces have been gaining ground in recent months and the US has repeatedly stated that chemical weapons use is a “red line” for escalation.

For the same reason, the rebel camp (and its regional sponsors), which has been trying to engineer a western intervention in the Libya-Kosovo mould for the past two years to tip the military balance, clearly has an interest in that red line being crossed.

Three months ago, the UN Syria human rights commission member Carla Del Ponte said there were “strong concrete suspicions” that rebel fighters had used the nerve gas sarin, and Turkish security forces were reported soon afterwards to have seized sarin from al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front units heading into Syria.

The arms proliferation expert, Paul Schulte, of King’s College London, believes rebel responsibility “can’t be ruled out”, even if the “balance of probability” points to the regime or a rogue military commander. Either way, whatever Colin Powell-style evidence is produced this week, it’s highly unlikely to be definitive.

But that won’t hold back the western powers from the chance to increase their leverage in Syria’s grisly struggle for power. A comparison of their response to the Ghouta killings with this month’s massacres of anti-coup protesters in Egypt gives a measure of how far humanitarianism rules the day.

The Syrian atrocity, where the death toll has been reported by opposition-linked sources at 322 but is likely to rise, was damned as a “moral obscenity” by US secretary of state John Kerry. The killings in Egypt, the vast majority of them of civilians, have been estimated at 1,295 over two days. But Barack Obama said the US wasn’t “taking sides”, while Kerry earlier claimed the army was “restoring democracy”.

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Washington using drones to target journalists with sensitive information?

Is this the future of investigative reporting? How far would a US government (or London?) go to stop information they believed was sensitive?

Great piece by Amy Davidson in the New Yorker:

On Saturday night, Michael Grunwald, aTime correspondent, deleted a tweet that he said was “dumb”; a spokesperson for the magazine noted in an e-mailed statement that it had been on Grunwald’s “personal twitter account” and “is in no way representative of Time’s views,” and called it “offensive”: “he regrets having tweeted it.” Those responses are apt. This is what Grunwald said:

“I can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange.” 

People say reckless things on Twitter, as Grunwald’s defenders pointed out and as some of his more extreme critics, who posted that they couldn’t wait to write a similar defense regarding the drone strike that hit him and other gruesome things, demonstrated. If dumbness were the only issue we’d be done. But this one deserves being talked about a bit more, less because Grunwald still seems a bit oblivious as to what was wrong with what he said (though there’s that) than because it encapsulated something hazardous about the current moment, for journalists, for anyone who cares about civil liberties, and for the political culture more generally. And there’s the issue of the lack of civility on Twitter—but we already knew that one.

Still, let’s start with the tweets. Many people read it as a call to kill Assange, a founder of WIkiLeaks; that isn’t quite right, but “can’t wait to write a defense” implies a certain eager anticipation. And “takes out” is one of those terms—like “ice,” which Grunwald used, with regard to Anwar al-Awlaki, in a post he cited Saturday to explain his position as a “statist”—that makes its user feel blunt while serving as a distancing euphemism. (The Timespokesperson said that he wouldn’t be saying anything more on this for now.) Killing is killing; and this isn’t just Grunwald’s problem. The language reflects one of the problems with drone strikes—they seem like the clap of a hand, tough and sharp, but they are so much uglier and more complicated than that.

It was troubling, too, to read Grunwald’s tweet on a day when journalists were being threatened, detained, and set upon in Cairo, accused of being terrorist sympathizers or spies, underminers of public safety, for reporting on the violence of the government’s assault on the Muslim Brotherhood. Would words like those have appeared in Grunwald’s defense of a drone strike? This is a dangerous time for journalists; Time itself sends people places where missile strikes and bombs are not just rhetorical ammunition.

Journalists are in legal danger, too. The Obama Administration has, in its practices, embraced the position that the leaking of classified information to reporters is a problem properly addressed with the Espionage Act. Bradley Manning was convicted under it even though the government failed on a charge of aiding the enemy. Edward Snowden, the N.S.A. leaker, has been charged with two violations of the Espionage Act, for starters. Snowden’s leaks made a crucial discussion about the N.S.A.’s overreach possible. President Obama said in a press conference last week that he didn’t consider him a “patriot”; others have openly called him a traitor. And the Administration has come close to calling reporters who work with leakers members of spy rings.

Peter Maass, in a profile of Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker to whom Snowden turned with his files, describes how she was stopped and harassed at border crossings for years before even meeting him, perhaps because of filming she did in Iraq—but who knows why. [Update: David Miranda, a Brazilian citizen, was detained for nine hours Sunday while transiting Heathrow under a section of the U.K.’s Terrorism Act, apparently because he is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, who also worked with Snowden, and had just visited Poitras; British authorities questioned him about the N.S.A. leaks, according to theGuardian.]

The other part of the equation is our drone regimen and the legal rationales the Obama Administration has constructed for targeted killings—including the killings of Americans. Ina post a few months ago, I asked whether an Administration white paper explaining why it thought it could extra-judicially kill Americans abroad—ones whom it had decided were a threat and involved with Al Qaeda or “associated forces”—could be used to justify, say, a drone strike against a journalist who was about to reveal classified information. Despite the Administration’s denial that this is its intention, it appears that it could; it is too easy to imagine a future President pointing to the language of the white paper as a precedent. And that is for Americans: foreigners have less protection.

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War in Syria exposes gross Western hypocrisy

My following piece appears in the Guardian today:

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad wasn’t supposed to survive. Since the uprising began in 2011, it’s been long presumed in western political and media circles that he would be deposed or killed and that a new, more US-friendly autocrat would be installed. This hasn’t happened.

We know Russia and America have vastly different interests in the conflict. As for Australia, foreign minister Bob Carr predictably parroted the Washington line in October 2012 when he said, “this sounds brutal and callous, perhaps an assassination [of Assad] combined with a major defection, taking a large part of its military, is what is required to get … a ceasefire and two, political negotiations”.

Carr was rightly condemned for his comments, yet he ignored another harsh reality: when it comes to Syria, the US and its Saudi Arabian and Qatari allies are backing Islamic fundamentalism under the guise of defeating the west’s key Middle East villain, Iran. Al-Qaida is now thriving, and the number of beheadings and other assorted acts of extreme sectarian violence have been steadily rising. It’s like the funding of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan never happened, or that the lessons learned after the west armed what became al-Qaida under Osama Bin Laden were wiped from the record.

By June this year, Carr accepted the necessary presence of Assad in any successful peace negotiations. Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop urged for a “negotiated settlement” in February, but refused to condemn the role of western-backed jihadis.

Meanwhile, foreign fighters are flooding into Syria – and they’ve become some of the fiercest and most successful insurgents against the Assad regime. US officials talk of the country becoming an extremist haven. Blue-eyed jihadists from Europe recently told Foreign Policy that they were committed to establishing an Islamic state inside the nation. Abu Salman (not his real name) said that, “They [the United States] only give weapons to the worst groups … These groups operate inside the Free Syrian Army, but they even don’t fight for democracy, they just steal money”.

At least a few hundred Australians are involved, causing growing sectarianism in Sydney between Sunni and Shia communities. I’ve spoken to many local Muslims who say the blindness being displayed on both sides – Assad backers ignoring the vast crimes perpetuated by his forces and rebel backers denying the extent of hardline Islamist support – is fuelling resentment and violence on the streets and online.

I’ve attended events where the estimated death toll of over 100,000 Syrians and immense refugee crisis engulfing neighbouring countries is mostly forgotten amidst the conflicting visions of a future Syria without war. The Syrian diaspora is fragmenting along lines that their birth country never experienced. Syrians pushing for the overthrow of Assad are often as belligerent as his loudest advocates, willing to ignore the war crimes committed by their own side. Like we see daily in Iraq, rampant sectarianism fuelled by outside forces only leads to chaos.

Tammam Sulaiman, the former Syrian ambassador to Australia, now Damascus-based senior member of Assad’s foreign ministry and soon to be head of mission at the Syrian embassy in Pyongyang in North Korea, told me last week in an exclusive interview that he didn’t understand why the west remained silent when “rebel terrorism” was committed. He acknowledged that the regime had made “mistakes”, but stressed his government was determined to win. “Our general impression is that the battle will not finish soon”, he said.

I pushed him on human rights reports that found regime forces were slaughtering civilians. “The US talks about collateral damage”, he argued. “The US coined that term and what we’re doing is the same. We don’t want to kill civilians. They started the war.”

In fact, I told Sulaiman, there were peaceful protests in Daraa in March 2011, and these were brutally crushed by Assad forces. How could the regime talk about democracy when civilians were tortured and killed by pro-government soldiers?

Sulaiman had little to say about this question. And yet, he correctly said, the war in Syria has exposed the hypocrisy of the western powers. “Those western officials, including in Australia, don’t say anything because they’ll upset their allies in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. I recently said to a representative from the Vatican here in Damascus, ‘I can’t understand why Catholic Europe is standing up behind Saudi Arabia, and yet no Christian can stand in Riyadh with a beer. The Vatican man smiled and responded by saying nothing’”.

This is the kind of ugly truth the western media is too keen to ignore, rushing to repeat US, UK and Australian talking points about a regime that for decades has refused to bow to western dictates – the ultimate sin of which Tehran is also guilty of.

The war in Syria has become an ugly proxy battle between innumerable outside forces, and virtually none of them care about the plight of the Syrian people. The announcement by the Assad regime that private security firms can now operate inside the nation is yet another ominous sign that unaccountable terror will be roaming the streets.

Australia can play a small but significant part by looking clearly at the failures of western policy towards Syria since the first rumblings of major public dissent against the regime. Canberra should urge all parties to de-escalate the fighting and not arm, train or fund either side. If the Australian government is so worried about terrorism on its shores, it should stop backing it in Syria.

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Obama’s war on terror could last for decades

The open-ended nature of this “war”, plus a plethora of global targets, should make us concerned. Resistance is vital.

Here’s Charlie Savage in the New York Times:

A top Pentagon official said Thursday that the evolving war against Al Qaeda was likely to continue “at least 10 to 20 years” and urged Congress not to modify the statute that provides its legal basis.

“As of right now, it suits us very well,” Michael A. Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, said, referring to the “authorization to use military force,” often referred to as the A.U.M.F., enacted by Congress in 2001.

The statute authorized war against the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and those who harbored them — that is, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Lawmakers are considering enacting a new authorization, because the original Qaeda network has been largely decimated, while the current threat is increasingly seen as arising from terrorist groups in places like Yemen that share Al Qaeda’s ideology but have no connection to the 2001 attacks.

That possibility has elicited a decidedly mixed reaction. Human rights groups that want to see the 12-year-old military conflict wind down fear that a new authorization would create an open-ended “forever war.”

Some supporters of continuing the wartime approach to terrorism indefinitely fear that the war’s legal basis is eroding and needs to be bolstered, while others worry that a new statute might contain limits that would reduce the power that the Obama administration claims it already wields under the 2001 version.

And still others say that whatever the right policy may be, Congress should protect its constitutional role by explicitly authorizing the parameters of the war, rather than ceding that decision to the executive branch.

In a hearing on Thursday of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Mr. Sheehan made his remarks, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, argued that the statute should be updated, citing the “dramatically changed landscape that we have in this war on Muslim extremism and Al Qaeda and others.”

He pressed the acting general counsel of the Pentagon, Robert S. Taylor, to say whether the 2001 law authorized war against Al Qaeda’s associated forces in Mali, Libya and Syria.

Mr. Taylor said that as a matter of domestic law, the authorization did grant such authority if groups in those countries had affiliated themselves with the original Al Qaeda and became “co-belligerents” in the conflict.

“So we can expect drone strikes into Syria if we find Al Qaeda there?” Mr. McCain asked. Mr. Taylor said he did not want to speculate.

Under questioning by Senator Joe Donnelly, Democrat of Indiana, Mr. Sheehan said he believed that the Nusra Front, a rebel group in Syria, was a Qaeda affiliate and that the executive branch could use lethal force against it if it believed the group threatened American security. But when pressed to say whether it did pose such a threat, he declined to say. “I don’t want to get in this setting into the decision making for how we target different organizations and groups around the world,” he said.

Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, noted that the 2001 statute said nothing about “associated forces” of Al Qaeda. He said the administration’s theory had “essentially rewritten the Constitution here today” because it was up to Congress to declare war. “I don’t disagree that we need to fight terrorism, but we need to do it in a constitutional way,” he said.

But Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, argued that the administration’s interpretation of its wartime authority was correct, and the authorization did automatically extend the war to others that aligned themselves with Al Qaeda and “joined the fight against us.”

In 2011, Congress enacted a statute declaring that the 2001 authorization allowed the indefinite detention of members and supporters of Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces, even if not linked to the Sept. 11 attacks. But a judge has blocked the statute, questioning whether mere supporters and associated forces are covered by it. The Obama administration has appealed the ruling.

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What imperial cluelessness looks like in occupied Iraq

Former CNN and Time journalist, Australian Michael Ware, writes a devastating critique of the Iraq war from the inside, as a man who spent years reporting the apocalyptic insurgency that ravaged the war-torn nation. From the Lowy Interpreter:

When insurgent leadership factions first offered peace terms, at least to my knowledge, it was to prevent the nascent conflict. It subsequently evolved into terms to end the insurgency and assassinate al Qaeda. It was a conversation pressed spasmodically by the guerrillas, with a view to a negotiated political settlement with the US.

I remember precisely where I was the first time the emerging insurgent leadership told me of their intentions. It was way back in the war’s first summer. In 2003. Before the insurgency’s full fury had been unleashed. I remember the carpet in the room in the farmhouse where I was sitting, cross-legged. Even now, as I write, I still see it.

We were amid the lush green along the Euphrates in a village brimming with recently discarded Iraqi military who until not too long ago had been at the heart of Saddam Hussein’s secretive police state. Fifteen or so of these men gathered in a sparse living room for lunch, and I was the guest.

My host was a man I knew had been a colonel in the former regime’s intelligence service. Like many of his kind, he believed his commission had not been terminated by the American invasion. He and his family became my good friends. His sons were former military. Sometimes we’d shoot bottles out the back of their small rural property.

As we all ate with our hands, scooping great clumps of rice from a vast communal platter piled high, so heavy and unwieldy it took two adolescents to place it in the centre of the room atop an orange plastic sheet, my host began to speak. He told me in long, detailed bursts of oration how all of them, and their comrades, had been so terribly wronged by the occupation. And how perilous the situation had become for the Americans.

It quickly became evident something tectonic had shifted within these guys I’d come to know (first for a TIME Magazine article collating anecdotes on the Battle of Baghdad, then as friends and long-standing sources). This, I recall thinking, is why I’d been invited for lunch. They had militarised. There were discernible semblances of command and control. They were energised. It would not be long before US forces would only enter this area with great caution and ready to brawl. ‘But,’ I asked through my translator, ‘can you defeat them?’

My friend didn’t miss a beat. ‘No,’ he said, with an are-you-kidding kind of look on his face. ‘They’re the greatest military on earth, of course we cannot defeat them on the battlefield.’ There was simply no way for them to go head-to-head with the occupying forces. But, he continued, they had read Mao, and Ho Chi Ming, and Giap, and Che. ‘We will win,’ he said to me, with a wry smirk. ‘And we’ll do it on that,’ and he pointed to a dead television set covered in a corner of the room. ‘On television.’

He and I had drunk whiskey together. When the old man wasn’t around some of the lads would proudly show me their best porn. We all smoked like Victorian factory chimneys. The guys paraded some of the prostitutes they would occasionally engage. We shared wild and funny times. Still, something had changed. And he said: ‘could you explain something for me?’

‘If I can, of course. You know that.’

‘Then tell me. I used US satellite imagery to kill Iranians in the eighties. Some of us did Ranger or Pathfinder training in the States. Al Qaeda? Never in this country. Right?’ he asked, rhetorically. ‘We had no great love for Saddam, and didn’t mind you taking him down. If you came for the oil, then take it; we have to sell it to someone. And, we’re happy if the occupier becomes a guest and we host US bases, akin to Germany and Japan.’

He paused.

‘So, how is it we end up on the opposite sides of this thing? I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.’

And there it was. Spoken. An insurgency.

The US military, it seemed to me, was labouring under an entirely different misapprehension. The US Army, which then owned Baghdad and the rest of the country with it, simply could not understand who was shooting at them nor why they would be shooting in the first place.

Then, by mid-2004, there was revolutionary change on the civilian side of the US mission.

In June of that year, sovereign power was transferred from America’s Bremer back to the nominal Iraqi government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The transfer took place two days ahead of schedule, to avert mass attacks. The ceremony appeared rushed and in secret. Official US Government photos released soon after showed Bremer on the tarmac of Baghdad’s airport, scampering out of the country.

For the Americans, the bumbling CPA was replaced by the US embassy and a relatively informed and quintessentially pragmatic State Department. A welcome, seismic shift. With Ambassador John Negroponte in place, halting dialogues could begin to splutter, and stutter, and stumble. Even before November 2004′s great Battle of Fallujah, one of the best-placed Ambassadors in America’s five-Ambassador embassy went to the edge of that besieged insurgent metropolis to discuss terms with the city’s high command.

The insurgency, for its part, flexed its muscle in Iraq’s twin elections in 2005. In the first, in January, the leadership told its constituents not to participate in the process, to vote by boycott. En masse the Sunni population stayed away from the ballot boxes.

But it was in the second ballot, in December 2005, that the insurgency in Iraq came of age. In that election, not only did the insurgency urge its people to vote, which they did in droves, but the high command told its fighters to do the same. One commander I’d long known told me his men would drop their weapons and vote, and fifteen minutes later would be attacking an American convoy.

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Obama’s drone policy so broad as to include every table tennis player in Michigan

I’m not exaggerating that much (via NBC):

A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.

The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the  September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes.  

But the confidential Justice Department “white paper” introduces a more expansive definition of self-defense or imminent attack than described  by Brennan or Holder in their public speeches.  It refers, for example, to what it calls a “broader concept of imminence” than actual intelligence about any ongoing plot against the U.S. homeland.

“The condition that an operational  leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.

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Reflections on #ZeroDarkThirty

Last night I saw the Oscar-nominated film, Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a brilliantly made work, brutal, passionate, eerie, exciting and compelling. It’s also a shameless piece of CIA propaganda. It opens on 9/11 and frames many of the successful and failed terror attacks since then as part of one, big al-Qaeda plot, which is dishonest. It offers no reason why so many Muslims loathe the West and America in particular. It’s far easier to imagine that they hate us for who we are. No mention of occupations or killing of innocents in countless Muslim nations. It indicates that torture was central in finding the location of Osama Bin Laden, something challenged by countless experts in the field.

The seductiveness of the film, if seen as a high-profile police investigation that eventually netted Bin Laden, is that millions of people will take Zero Dark Thirty as the gospel truth. So a few people needed to be tortured to get the world’s most dangerous man? A price worth paying, so the film strongly suggests. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal construct a jingoist fantasy, with Obama administration and CIA assistance, that only offers a CIA viewpoint. That’s their right but it completely ignores the vast amount of alternative views about how Bin Laden was caught and killed and what the post 9/11 US establishment has done to various countries and individuals; ignored the law and deformed justice.

Here’s a list of interesting thoughts on the film, some I agree with and some I do not. Here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

One of the more eloquent comments about the film is from The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer:

At the same time that the European Court of Human Rights has issued a historic ruling condemning the C.I.A.’s treatment of a terror suspect during the Bush years as “torture,” a Hollywood movie about the agency’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty”—whose creators say that they didn’t want to “judge” the interrogation program—appears headed for Oscar nominations. Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?

“Zero Dark Thirty,” which opens across the country next month, is a pulse-quickening film that spends its first half hour or so depicting a fictionalized version of the Bush Administration’s secret U.S. interrogation program. In reality, the C.I.A.’s program of calibrated cruelty was deemed so illegal, and so immoral, that the director of the F.B.I. withdrew his personnel rather than have them collaborate with it, and the top lawyer at the Pentagon laid his career on the line in an effort to stop a version of the program from spreading to the armed forces. The C.I.A.’s actions convulsed the national-security community, leading to a crisis of conscience inside the top ranks of the U.S. government. The debate echoed the moral seriousness of the political dilemma once posed by slavery, a subject that is brilliantly evoked in Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Lincoln”; by contrast, the director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow, milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context. If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.

After some critics called Bigelow a torture apologist, she defended the fairness and historical accuracy of her movie. “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience,” she told my New Yorker colleague Dexter Filkins, who interviewed her for a Talk of the Town piece. At a Los Angeles press junket, the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, complained that critics were “mischaracterizing” the torture sequences: “I understand that those scenes are graphic and unsparing and unsentimental. But I think that what the film does over the course of two hours is show the complexity of the debate.” His point was that because the film shows multiple approaches to intelligence gathering, of which torture is only one tactic, and because the torture isn’t shown as always producing correct or instant leads, it offers a nuanced answer to the question of whether torture works.

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Obama’s vast, global scope of murdering “terrorists”

The Washington Post reports the largely hidden counter-terrorism policies of the Obama administration, without oversight, legal checks or balances and media scrutiny. There’s a word for this and it ain’t democracy.

Part one:

Over the past two years, the Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list called the “disposition matrix.”

The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.

Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create it reflects a reality setting in among the nation’s counterterrorism ranks: The United States’ conventional wars are winding down, but the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years.

Among senior Obama administration officials, there is a broad consensus that such operations are likely to be extended at least another decade. Given the way al-Qaeda continues to metastasize, some officials said no clear end is in sight.

“We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us,” a senior administration official said. “It’s a necessary part of what we do. . . . We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’ ”

That timeline suggests that the United States has reached only the midpoint of what was once known as the global war on terrorism. Targeting lists that were regarded as finite emergency measures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are now fixtures of the national security apparatus. The rosters expand and contract with the pace of drone strikes but never go to zero.

Meanwhile, a significant milestone looms: The number of militants and civilians killed in the drone campaign over the past 10 years will soon exceed 3,000 by certain estimates, surpassing the number of people al-Qaeda killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Obama administration has touted its successes against the terrorist network, including the death of Osama bin Laden, as signature achievements that argue for President Obama’s reelection. The administration has taken tentative steps toward greater transparency, formally acknowledging for the first time the United States’ use of armed drones.

Less visible is the extent to which Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war. Spokesmen for the White House, the National Counterterrorism Center, the CIA and other agencies declined to comment on the matrix or other counterterrorism programs.

Privately, officials acknowledge that the development of the matrix is part of a series of moves, in Washington and overseas, to embed counterterrorism tools into U.S. policy for the long haul.

White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan is seeking to codify the administration’s approach to generating capture/kill lists, part of a broader effort to guide future administrations through the counterterrorism processes that Obama has embraced.

CIA Director David H. Petraeus is pushing for an expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones, U.S. officials said. The proposal, which would need White House approval, reflects the agency’s transformation into a paramilitary force, and makes clear that it does not intend to dismantle its drone program and return to its pre-Sept. 11 focus on gathering intelligence.

The U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which carried out the raid that killed bin Laden, has moved commando teams into suspected terrorist hotbeds in Africa. A rugged U.S. outpost in Djibouti has been transformed into a launching pad for counterterrorism operations across the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

Part two:

In his windowless White House office, presidential counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan is compiling the rules for a war the Obama administration believes will far outlast its own time in office, whether that is just a few more months or four more years.

The “playbook,” as Brennan calls it, will lay out the administration’s evolving procedures for the targeted killings that have come to define its fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It will cover the selection and approval of targets from the “disposition matrix,” the designation of who should pull the trigger when a killing is warranted, and the legal authorities the administration thinks sanction its actions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond.

“What we’re trying to do right now is to have a set of standards, a set of criteria, and have a decision-making process that will govern our counterterrorism actions — we’re talking about direct action, lethal action — so that irrespective of the venue where they’re taking place, we have a high confidence that they’re being done for the right reasons in the right way,” Brennan said in a lengthy interview at the end of August.

A burly 25-year CIA veteran with a stern public demeanor, Brennan is the principal architect of a policy that has transformed counterterrorism from a conventional fight centered in Afghanistan to a high-tech global effort to track down and eliminate perceived enemies one by one.

What was once a disparate collection of tactics — drone strikes by the CIA and the military, overhead surveillance, deployment of small Special Forces ground units at far-flung bases, and distribution of military and economic aid to threatened governments — has become a White House-centered strategy with Brennan at its core.

Four years ago, Brennan felt compelled to withdraw from consideration as President Obama’s first CIA director because of what he regarded as unfair criticism of his role in counterterrorism practices as an intelligence official during the George W. Bush administration. Instead, he stepped into a job in the Obama administration with greater responsibility and influence.

Brennan is leading efforts to curtail the CIA’s primary responsibility for targeted killings. Over opposition from the agency, he has argued that it should focus on intelligence activities and leave lethal action to its more traditional home in the military, where the law requires greater transparency. Still, during Brennan’s tenure, the CIA has carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and opened a new base for armed drones in the Arabian Peninsula.

Although he insists that all agencies have the opportunity to weigh in on decisions, making differing perspectives available to the Oval Office, Brennan wields enormous power in shaping decisions on “kill” lists and the allocation of armed drones, the war’s signature weapon.

When operations are proposed in Yemen, Somalia or elsewhere, it is Brennan alone who takes the recommendations to Obama for a final sign-off.

As the war against al-Qaeda and related groups moves to new locations and new threats, Brennan and other senior officials describe the playbook as an effort to constrain the deployment of drones by future administrations as much as it provides a framework for their expanded use in what has become the United States’ permanent war.

“This needs to be sustainable,” one senior administration official said, “and we need to think of it in ways that contemplate other people sitting in all the chairs around the table.”

Part three:

DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti — Around the clock, about 16 times a day, drones take off or land at a U.S. military base here, the combat hub for the Obama administration’scounterterrorism wars in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

Some of the unmanned aircraft are bound for Somalia, the collapsed state whose border lies just 10 miles to the southeast. Most of the armed drones, however, veer north across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, another unstable country where they are being used in an increasingly deadly war with an al-Qaeda franchise that has targeted the United States.

Camp Lemonnier, a sun-baked Third World outpost established by the French Foreign Legion, began as a temporary staging ground for U.S. Marines looking for a foothold in the region a decade ago. Over the past two years, the U.S. military has clandestinely transformed it into the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone, a model for fighting a new generation of terrorist groups.

The Obama administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the legal and operational details of its targeted-killing program. Behind closed doors, painstaking debates precede each decision to place an individual in the cross hairs of the United States’ perpetual war against al-Qaeda and its allies.

Increasingly, the orders to find, track or kill those people are delivered to Camp Lemonnier. Virtually the entire 500-acre camp is dedicated to counterterrorism, making it the only installation of its kind in the Pentagon’s global network of bases.

Secrecy blankets most of the camp’s activities. The U.S. military rejected requests from The Washington Post to tour Lemonnier last month. Officials cited “operational security concerns,” although they have permitted journalists to visit in the past.

After a Post reporter showed up in Djibouti uninvited, the camp’s highest-ranking commander consented to an interview — on the condition that it take place away from the base, at Djibouti’s lone luxury hotel. The commander, Army Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Baker, answered some general queries but declined to comment on drone operations or missions related to Somalia or Yemen.

Despite the secrecy, thousands of pages of military records obtained by The Post — including construction blueprints, drone accident reports and internal planning memos — open a revealing window into Camp Lemonnier.None of the documents is classified and many were acquired via public-records requests.

Taken together, the previously undisclosed documents show how the Djibouti-based drone wars sharply escalated early last year after eight Predators arrived at Lemonnier. The records also chronicle the Pentagon’s ambitious plan to further intensify drone operations here in the coming months.

The documents point to the central role played by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which President Obama has repeatedly relied on to execute the nation’s most sensitive counterterrorism missions.

About 300 Special Operations personnel plan raids and coordinate drone flights from inside a high-security compound at Lemonnier that is dotted with satellite dishes and ringed by concertina wire. Most of the commandos work incognito, concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base.

Other counterterrorism work at Lemonnier is more overt. All told, about 3,200 U.S. troops, civilians and contractors are assigned to the camp, where they train foreign militaries, gather intelligence and dole out humanitarian aid across East Africa as part of a campaign to prevent extremists from taking root.

In Washington, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps to sustain the drone campaign for another decade, developing an elaborate new targeting database, called the “disposition matrix,” and a classified “playbook” to spell out how decisions on targeted killing are made.

Djibouti is the clearest example of how the United States is laying the groundwork to carry out these operations overseas. For the past decade, the Pentagon has labeled Lemonnier an “expeditionary,” or temporary, camp. But it is now hardening into the U.S. military’s first permanent drone war base.

 

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