The global surge in terrorism

The Atlantic reports: The grisly attacks in France and Lebanon last week have fixed attention on the violence perpetrated by ISIS. But a study published this week indicates that the world’s deadliest terrorist organization actually operates thousands of miles south of Paris and Beirut, in Nigeria.

The 2015 Global Terrorism Index, published by the Institute for Economics & Peace, found that Boko Haram, the Nigerian jihadist group, was responsible for 6,644 deaths in 2014, compared with 6,073 at the hands of ISIS. Boko Haram, which was founded in 2002 as an Islamist movement against Western education and morphed into an armed insurgency in 2009, has rapidly expanded its scope and ambitions over the past two years, achieving international notoriety in the spring of 2014 by kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls. Much like ISIS, the organization controls territory in Nigeria (although it has lost some of it over the past year) and has declared a caliphate in that territory. The group is also international; although based in northeastern Nigeria, it has launched attacks in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. In the latest incident, Boko Haram is the suspected author of an attack in the Nigerian city of Yola that has left more than 30 people dead. [Continue reading…]


Americans fear terrorism because they are easy to terrify

Mark Edmundson writes: Among the puzzling questions of world history and national identity, a few stand out. How, one might ask, did the Vikings, once the roving terrors of the world, manage to become equable Nordic socialists with lessons to teach us in the arts of decency and fairness? And how did the tough, soldierly Romans, conquerors of the world, manage to evolve into the charming, pleasure-loving Italians, with their gifts for good food, good wine, and civic instability?

Soon, a similarly unexpected question may be asked about Americans. How did a people who settled a continent, created enormous wealth, and fought and (mostly) won war after war devolve into a nation of such tremulous souls? And how did it happen so quickly? Where once there was the generation of the Second World War, ready to leave home and fight fascists on the far sides of the world, we now have a nation that at times seems composed largely of field mice, prone to quiver when they detect an unfriendly shadow. As a people, we seem to value security and prosperity above all. When someone threatens either, or seems about to, we become (in this order) confused, then terrified, and then very angry.

Those who dislike us around the world (and of course there are more than a few) tend to see us as a powerful, imperial beast, brutally pursuing our own ends across the globe. We are strong and violent, and when we want something, we assert ourselves with overwhelming force. But is that really the case?

What appear to the outside world as instances of bullying, and what appear to us as expressions of strength, may reveal themselves, on closer examination, to be actions driven by fear. We are a people obsessed with security. Our imagination of what counts as a threat to our security is hyperactive and becoming more so all the time. Two years into World War II, it took the fierce attack on Pearl Harbor to persuade Americans that it was finally time to fight. Once persuaded, they did. Now it takes only the least incitement to make us feel threatened. When even the most shadowy forces and conditions imperil what we call “our security,” we assault them with the furor of the easily scared. [Continue reading…]


Power Wars: How Obama continued Bush’s national security state after campaigning against it


Rebecca Gordon: Flying the unfriendly skies of America

Rebecca Gordon’s piece today triggered a little repressed memory of mine of a trip I took in 2003. Arriving at the airport, I turned my suitcase over to the ticket agent, only to be told that it had been singled out for special inspection. I was already running TomDispatch and I couldn’t help wondering, somewhat nervously, if my activities had preceded me to the airport. I was directed to another spot in the terminal where I lifted the suitcase onto a table in front of a Transportation Security Administration agent. She promptly unzipped the bag, flipped it open, and front and center, face up atop my folded clothes, was a book that had “Unabomber” in big letters in its title. It felt as if a jolt of electricity had shot through my body and my eyes were bugging out of my head at my obvious stupidity. As if to confirm that feeling, the agent looked stunned, too. We were both silent for a too-long moment, contemplating the reckless passenger who had a book about the Unabomber conspicuously displayed in his bag.  Then she said, “How is it?”

It was the last question I expected to hear and I stumbled far too quickly to respond with something like: “I don’t know. I haven’t read it yet. A newspaper asked me to review it.” (All true, but in translation it clearly meant: “Hey, I know this looks terrible, but I’m a reputable book reviewer, not your basic terror-lovin’ sorta guy.”) Not much else was said, but believe me, my bag and backpack were inspected with a thoroughness that had to be seen to be believed. A second agent was even called in to lend a hand. In the end, the bag was cleared for departure and, chastened, I headed for the security line, already unfastening my belt.

And there’s a little p.s. to this episode. Not so long after, I set out on another trip, this time carrying Tariq Ali’s book, Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity, with me. As I was packing, I noticed that its cover featured George Bush’s face superimposed on Osama bin Laden’s. It was a striking image and in a split second I was slipping the jacket off the book to leave at home. If I got singled out again, I had no intention of letting an agent find a cloned bin Laden-Bush image among my possessions.

In this way, microscopic act by microscopic act, whoever we are, whatever we think we think, we can’t help but absorb the limits, the directives, the intentions that our ascendant national security state wants to impose on us. In all sorts of devious ways, without serious thought, in acts that hardly register, we make their agendas, their surveillance, their searches our own; we turn their taste in reading and thinking and expressing themselves into ours. Someday, there’s a great book to be written on all the hidden triumphs of that ever-more powerful shadow state that has embedded its version of the American way of life inside our own. In the meantime, check out TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon’s account of how we create our own no-fly lists and become our own no-fliers in the unfriendly skies of twenty-first-century America. Tom Engelhardt      

The no-fly follies
How to censor yourself before the government even has the chance
By Rebecca Gordon

It was August 2002. My partner Jan Adams and I were just beginning our annual pilgrimage to Massachusetts to visit my father and stepmother. At the check-in line at San Francisco International Airport, we handed over our driver’s licenses and waited for the airline ticket agent to find our flight and reservation. Suddenly, she got a funny look on her face. “There’s something wrong with the computer,” she said. “I need to talk to my supervisor.”

So began a day of confusion and fear, followed by several years of indignation, frustration, and litigation, as we struggled to find out why — as the agent’s supervisor soon informed us with a similarly strange look on her face — we’d both “turned up on the FBI’s no-fly list.” Her eyes grew wide as she looked us over. “I don’t understand it,” she said. “You don’t fit the profile.”

She was right, of course. A pair of middle-aged, middle-class, white lesbians did not fit the profile of the “Arab terrorists” she expected the no-fly list to contain. What she didn’t know was that our suitcases held hundreds of copies of War Times/Tiempo de guerras, a free, bilingual antiwar tabloid we’d helped start. Could aging pacifists have fit the danger-to-America profile?

[Read more…]


The catastrophic war on terror

Jason Burke writes: Fourteen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a series of misconceptions about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida became widely accepted. Some focused on the person of Bin Laden himself – his wealth, health and history. The group that he led, until then relatively marginal with no real support base and only a few hundred members, was portrayed as a sprawling global terrorist organisation, with obedient “operatives” and “sleeper cells” on every continent, and an ability to mobilise, radicalise and attack far beyond its real capacities. Historic incidents with no connection to the group or its leader were suddenly recast as “al-Qaida operations”. Any incident, anywhere in the world, could become an al-Qaida attack.

This had an impact on the western reaction to the events of 11 September 2001. The threat posed by al-Qaida was described in apocalyptic terms, and a response of an equally massive scale was seen as necessary. The group’s ideological motivations were ignored, while the individual agency of its leaders was emphasised. If they were killed, the logic went, the problem would disappear. Al-Qaida’s links with other terrorist or extremist organisations were distorted, often by political leaders who hoped for domestic gain and international support. So too were supposed links – all imaginary – to the governments of several states. One result was the “global war on terror”, a monumentally misconceived strategy that is in part to blame for the spread of radical Islamic militancy over the past decade.

Despite the lessons learned over the years, and the very different approach of political leaders in the US and Europe, there is a danger that at least some of those mistakes will be repeated with Islamic State. Already there are parallels. The emergence of Isis in 2013 prompted reactions that resemble those in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and that, despite the generally sensible analysis of the administration of Barack Obama, risk influencing policy. Isis, despite no real evidence, has, like al-Qaida, been linked to plans to acquire weapons of mass destruction, as well as, ludicrously, to send Ebola-infected “operatives” against its enemies. Media in the US reported a network of Isis “sleeper cells” in the “homeland”, and “sleeper agents” in Europe, exactly as they had with al-Qaida in 2002. These claims were, at best, a gross misrepresentation of how either organisation operates and how individuals are radicalised. The atmosphere in Europe following the attacks in Paris of January 2015, only indirectly connected with Isis, also recalled that of a decade earlier, with US commentators making the same hysterical claims of “no-go zones” in European cities where Islamic law had supposedly been imposed. [Continue reading…]


Obama’s secret elite interrogation squad may not be so elite — and might be doomed

The Huffington Post reports: When President Barack Obama took office, he promised to overhaul the nation’s process for interrogating terror suspects. His solution: the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, a small interagency outfit that would use non-coercive methods and the latest psychological research to interrogate America’s most-wanted terrorists — all behind a veil of secrecy.

Today, the HIG often gets the first jab at America’s most-wanted terror suspects. Since its creation in August 2009, HIG teams have questioned a bevy of top detainees, including Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Umm Sayyaf, the wife of a high-profile Islamic State leader killed in a drone strike.

But six years on, the Obama administration’s elite interrogation force is on shaky ground. U.S. officials and outside critics question the effectiveness of its interrogators, whether they’re following their own training, and whether they can continue to rely on psychological research to help break suspects. Congress and the White House, which once saw the group as a key to reinventing the nation’s counterterrorism strategy, aren’t paying attention. And those struggles illuminate a broader reality: Obama’s limited reforms to how American detains, interrogates and prosecutes suspected terrorists are ad-hoc and fragile. His successor could scrap most of them — the HIG included — with the stroke of a pen. [Continue reading…]


Chattanooga: On the need to fight terror with reason

By David Alpher, George Mason University

In the wake of the Chattanooga shootings, another apparent act of lone-wolf terrorism, the search for answers and for retaliation comes again.

After every such incident, that search is renewed: why did this happen? Is it religion? Poverty? How do we stop it?

But maybe we are asking the wrong questions – sharpening the same tools again and again will do us no good if they weren’t the right tools.

What we need instead is an examination of whether we’re looking at the problem the right way to begin with. That perspective comes from 14 years of studying extremism, terrorism and sectarian conflict in the field – and 14 years studying American responses to terrorism post-9/11.

[Read more…]


Wesley Clark calls for internment camps for ‘radicalized’ Americans

The Intercept reports: Retired general and former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark on Friday called for World War II-style internment camps to be revived for “disloyal Americans.” In an interview with MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts in the wake of the mass shooting in Chatanooga, Tennessee, Clark said that during World War II, “if someone supported Nazi Germany at the expense of the United States, we didn’t say that was freedom of speech, we put him in a camp, they were prisoners of war.”

He called for a revival of internment camps to help combat Muslim extremism, saying, “If these people are radicalized and they don’t support the United States and they are disloyal to the United States as a matter of principle, fine. It’s their right and it’s our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict.”

The comments were shockingly out of character for Clark, who after serving as supreme allied commander of NATO made a name for himself in progressive political circles. In 2004, his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was highly critical of the Bush administration’s excessive response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Since then, he has been a critic of policies that violate the Geneva Convention, saying in 2006 that policies such as torture violate “the very values that [we] espouse.” [Continue reading…]


The greed fueling America’s torture disgrace

Katherine Eban writes: Why, exactly, did the United States end up torturing detainees during George W. Bush’s administration’s war on terror, when there was no scientific proof that coercive interrogations would yield valuable intelligence, and ample proof that it would harm our national security interests, elicit false information and spread unnecessary ill will throughout the Muslim world, possibly for generations to come?

It’s a head scratcher, to say the least, but a blockbuster report issued last week suggests one answer: greed. Specifically, the greed of psychologists who hoped to receive, and in some cases did receive, financial benefits in exchange for providing the Pentagon with intellectual and moral cover for its torture of detainees.

The American Psychological Association, roughly the equivalent of the American Medical Association for psychologists, played a crucial, long-hidden role in the story of American torture. James Elmer Mitchell, who created the C.I.A.’s torture program with Bruce Jessen, was a member of the A.P.A. Psychologists sold the C.I.A. and the Pentagon on a menu of aggressive interrogation techniques presented as scientifically proven to be effective; in reality, they were based on Communist methods designed not to find the truth but to produce false confessions that could be used for propaganda purposes. [Continue reading…]


In America, infamy is as easy to acquire as a gun

In post 9/11 America, terrorism has been used to justify wars, drone strikes, torture, secret detention, kidnapping, extrajudicial killing, mass surveillance, and the unfettered expansion of the national security state.

In recent days, numerous commentators, many of whom have surely previously been disturbed by the way the fear of terrorism has been used to manipulate this country’s political system and global outlook, are nevertheless now arguing that in America today the term “terrorist” is not being used broadly enough.

Since the white male Charleston killer, Dylann Roof, is unlikely to be branded a terrorist by public officials or in most of the media, Anthea Butler suggests:

the go-to explanation for his alleged actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources.

Nevertheless, Butler writes:

The Charleston shooting is a result of an ingrained culture of racism and a history of terrorism in America. It should be covered as such. On Friday, Department of Justice spokeswoman Emily Pierce acknowledged that the Charleston shooting “was undoubtedly designed to strike fear and terror into this community” (though terrorism is not among the nine murder charges brought against Roof, so far). And now that Roof has admitted to killing those people to start a “race war,” we should be calling him what he is: a terrorist.

Then what?

Ship him off to Guantánamo?

Terrorist is a politically charged and legally dubious term precisely because it gets used to shut down debate and curtail analysis. It is used to justify sidestepping due process and ignoring human rights.

The terrorist is the ghoul of modern America — the term functions more as an instrument of exorcism rather than illumination.

In America and elsewhere in the West, fear of terrorism dovetails with the inclinations to treat skin color as a mark of foreignness, and the tendency to view the foreign as threatening.

Calling Dylann Roof a white American terrorist, isn’t going to diminish the levels of racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia across this country.

Calling Roof a terrorist, merely elevates his infamy, grants him the attention he obviously craves and turns attention away from the flawed legal system that allowed a worm of hatred inside his mind to be transformed into an act of deadly violence.

In America, infamy is no harder to obtain than a gun.

I recognize that there is a common sentiment which justifiably perceives an undercurrent of racism in the way in which people get labelled terrorists — that it’s a term that sticks much more easily to non-whites and especially to Muslims — but I don’t think this indicates we lack a sufficiently expansive definition and application of the term.

On the contrary, we would be better off not using the term at all, rather than trying to make its application more racially inclusive.

Jared Keller argues:

by not calling Roof’s atrocity terrorism, we gloss over the past — and present — of white America’s war of terror against its black citizens.

To my mind, that assertion, much as it contains an element of truth, is also indicative of the cultural stranglehold with which the war-on-terrorism narrative continues to grip America, fourteen years after 9/11.

The only way in which we can sense the gravity of a mass killing is by calling it terrorism, because it goes without saying — supposedly — that nothing is more serious than terrorism.

The real problem here is not the failure to call Roof a terrorist, but rather a failure to acknowledge that America faces many issues that are actually much more serious than terrorism:

Racism, inequality, environmental degradation, an unsustainable economic system, and foundationally a societal breakdown that results from individual interests being placed above collective welfare.

In a mind-your-own-business society, the mass murderers always seemingly come out of nowhere. No one sees them coming, because no one was paying enough attention. A live-and-let-live philosophy easily shifts into a live-and-let-kill reality.

In a word, we live in a country where people do not care for each other enough.

We do not live in a country where the number of terrorists is being undercounted.

After the shooting, President Obama said: “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

But why wasn’t that point reached long ago? The signs of this ugly form of American exceptionalism has been evident for decades.

Most Americans don’t own a gun and yet gun owners are more likely to think of themselves as “a typical American” (72% vs. 62%). Indeed, gun owners are more likely to say they “often feel proud to be American” (64% vs. 51%).

The most vocal among the 24% of Americans who own a gun are using their weapons to intimidate the whole population. Through their arrogance, ignorance and selfishness, they seem to imagine they have a stronger claim on what it means to be an American than everyone else.

After the Charleston shootings, National Rifle Association board member Charles Cotton blamed the deaths on one of the dead, Clementa Pinckney, who as a state senator had voted against a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without permits.

“Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead,” Cotton wrote. “Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

Gun owners like Cotton, regard guns as the protectors of freedom, and see gun control laws as threats to their own freedom. In practice, they prize their weapons more highly that the lives of the tens of thousands of Americans who get killed each year by firearms.

As Gary Younge writes:

America does not have a monopoly on racism. But what makes its racism so lethal is the ease with which people can acquire guns. While the new conversation around race will mean the political response to the fact of this attack will be different, the stale conversation around gun control means the legislative response to the nature of this attack will remain the same. Nothing will happen.

After Adam Lanza shot 20 primary school children and six adults in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in 2012 before turning his gun on himself, nothing happened. Seven children and teens are shot dead every day in America and nothing happens.

So these nine victims will join those who perished before them – a sacrifice to the blood-soaked pedestal erected around the constitution’s second amendment that gun lobbyists say guarantees the right of individuals to bear arms.

At some point, America as a nation needs to challenge its superstitious reverence for a piece of paper, and demonstrate that it is no longer willing to see the lives of so many of its citizen’s needlessly wasted.


The secret history of SEAL Team 6: Quiet killings and blurred lines

The New York Times reports: They have plotted deadly missions from secret bases in the badlands of Somalia. In Afghanistan, they have engaged in combat so intimate that they have emerged soaked in blood that was not their own. On clandestine raids in the dead of the night, their weapons of choice have ranged from customized carbines to primeval tomahawks.

Around the world, they have run spying stations disguised as commercial boats, posed as civilian employees of front companies and operated undercover at embassies as male-female pairs, tracking those the United States wants to kill or capture.

Those operations are part of the hidden history of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, one of the nation’s most mythologized, most secretive and least scrutinized military organizations. Once a small group reserved for specialized but rare missions, the unit best known for killing Osama bin Laden has been transformed by more than a decade of combat into a global manhunting machine.

That role reflects America’s new way of war, in which conflict is distinguished not by battlefield wins and losses, but by the relentless killing of suspected militants. [Continue reading…]


The $25 million building in Afghanistan nobody needed

Megan McCloskey and Vince Dixon report: This is a story about how the U.S. military built a lavish headquarters in Afghanistan that wasn’t needed, wasn’t wanted and wasn’t ever used—at a cost to American taxpayers of at least $25 million.

From start to finish, this 64,000-square-foot mistake could easily have been avoided. Not one, not two, but three generals tried to kill it. And they were overruled, not because they were wrong, but seemingly because no one wanted to cancel a project Congress had already given them money to build.

In the process, the story of “64K” reveals a larger truth: Once wartime spending gets rolling there’s almost no stopping it. In Afghanistan, the reconstruction effort alone has cost $109 billion, with questionable results.

The 64K project was meant for troops due to flood the country during the temporary surge in 2010. But even under the most optimistic estimates, the project wouldn’t be completed until six months after those troops would start going home.

Along the way, the state-of-the-art building, plopped in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, nearly doubled in cost and became a running joke among Marines. The Pentagon could have halted construction at many points—64K made it through five military reviews over two years—but didn’t, saying it wanted the building just in case U.S. troops ended up staying. (They didn’t.) [Continue reading…]


Top UN official says ‘Global War on Terror’ is laying waste to human rights

Thalif Deen reports: The United Nations, which is the legal guardian of scores of human rights treaties banning torture, unlawful imprisonment, degrading treatment of prisoners of war and enforced disappearances, is troubled that an increasing number of countries are justifying violations of U.N. conventions on grounds of fighting terrorism in conflict zones.

Taking an implicit passing shot at big powers, the outspoken U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein of Jordan puts it more bluntly: “This logic is abundant around the world today: I torture because a war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because terrorism, repulsive as it is, requires it.

“I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity or my way of life is being threatened as never before. I kill others, because others will kill me – and so it goes, on and on.”

Speaking Thursday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., Zeid said the world needs “profound and inspiring leadership” driven by a concern for human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people. [Continue reading…]


James Fallows and the chickenhawks

James Fallows writes: Every institution has problems, and at every stage of U.S. history, some critics have considered the U.S. military overfunded, underprepared, too insular and self-regarding, or flawed in some other way. The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy.

At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.

I have met serious people who claim that the military’s set-apart existence is best for its own interests, and for the nation’s. “Since the time of the Romans there have been people, mostly men but increasingly women, who have volunteered to be the praetorian guard,” John A. Nagl told me. Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was a combat commander in Iraq and has written two influential books about the modern military. He left the Army as a lieutenant colonel and now, in his late 40s, is the head of the Haverford prep school, near Philadelphia.

“They know what they are signing up for,” Nagl said of today’s troops. “They are proud to do it, and in exchange they expect a reasonable living, and pensions and health care if they are hurt or fall sick. The American public is completely willing to let this professional class of volunteers serve where they should, for wise purpose. This gives the president much greater freedom of action to make decisions in the national interest, with troops who will salute sharply and do what needs to be done.”

I like and respect Nagl, but I completely disagree. As we’ve seen, public inattention to the military, born of having no direct interest in what happens to it, has allowed both strategic and institutional problems to fester.

“A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it,” Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2012. Bacevich himself fought in Vietnam; his son was killed in Iraq. “Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”

[Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mike Mullen thinks that one way to reengage Americans with the military is to shrink the active-duty force, a process already under way. “The next time we go to war,” he said, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean that half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.” [Continue reading…]

Mullen says “inconvenienced” — presumably that’s a euphemism for drafted — but Fallows claims that reintroduction of the draft would be “unimaginable.”

Perhaps the draft is not so unimaginable as a policy recommendation as much as it is unimaginable coming from Fallows.

During the Vietnam War, Fallows dodged the draft rather than resisting it, an option he made because, as he wrote in 1975: “What I wanted was to go to graduate school, to get married, and to enjoy those bright prospects I had been taught that life owed me.”

Having told an examining doctor at his Cambridge draft board that he had contemplated suicide, and having thus been deemed “unqualified” for military service, Fallows said: “I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day.”

No doubt that sense of shame would now make it impossible for Fallows to be an advocate for the draft.

But by now dodging this issue, he avoids drilling deeply into the most basic questions about the role of the military in America.

Fallow’s war-weariness and that of many other Americans seems to stem not so much from the fact that the United States has engaged in so much unnecessary war over the last decade or so, than the fact that its military efforts have been such a colossal and expensive failure.

Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.

Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.

Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

That Fallows views the killing of bin Laden as the “one clear strategic success” — without his intention — goes right to the heart of his polemic on America’s chickenhawk culture.

The celebration of bin Laden’s death is no less cowardly than support for wars triggered by 9/11.

If this killing could have served America in any way, it might conceivably have functioned as the symbolic end to an era. Clearly it did not have that effect.

A strategic success would be defined by its effect — by its ability to forestall undesirable outcomes and create a better future. Killing bin Laden had no such effect. Had he been captured and put on trial, it is conceivable that justice would have been served in a constructive way.

The willingness of Americans to support or acquiesce to a succession of military misadventures after 9/11 flowed very much from the fact that so few people were willing to question America’s need for vengeance. Moreover, America’s need to look strong was the product much less of the magnitude of the threat it faced than of a fear of looking weak.

Fallows hopes that America might be able to choose its wars more wisely and win them, but in that hope lies the most basic fallacy: that war should be a matter of choice.

In a war of true necessity, a nation goes to war because it has no choice. It fights not because it is convinced it will win but because the alternative would be worse than war.


America just launched its 500th drone strike

Micah Zenko writes: The most consistent and era-defining tactic of America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism strategies has been the targeted killing of suspected terrorists and militants outside of defined battlefields. As one senior Bush administration official explained in October 2001, “The president has given the [CIA] the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway.” Shortly thereafter, a former CIA official told the New Yorker, “There are five hundred guys out there you have to kill.” It is quaint to recall that such a position was considered extremist and even morally unthinkable. Today, these strikes are broadly popular with the public and totally uncontroversial in Washington, both within the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. Therefore, it is easy to forget that this tactic, envisioned to be rare and used exclusively for senior al-Qaeda leaders 13 years ago, has become a completely accepted and routine foreign policy activity.

Thus, just as you probably missed the 10th anniversary — November 3, 2012 — of what I labeled the Third War, it’s unlikely you will hear or read that the United States just launched its 500th non-battlefield targeted killing.

As of today, the United States has now conducted 500 targeted killings (approximately 98 percent of them with drones), which have killed an estimated 3,674 people, including 473 civilians. Fifty of these were authorized by President George W. Bush, 450 and counting by President Obama. Noticeably, these targeted killings have not diminished the size of the targeted groups according to the State Department’s own numbers. [Continue reading…]