For ten years since September 11, 2001, unscrupulous elements within the U.S. Government have labeled Islam and alleged Islamic extremists as America’s greatest enemy, while knowing that such was not true. It is undisputed that the 9/11 hijackers were not particularly religious. They were in fact motivated by other factors, primarily revenge and a desire for what they viewed as justice. Similarly last year a classified U.S. military report was prepared at the “Pit,” America’s secret prison at Bagram Air Base. According to sources, the conclusion of U.S. interrogators was that most of the alleged “Taliban extremists” captured by the United States in Afghanistan were not religious fanatics at all but ordinary Afghans. They were motivated by revenge against the United States for real or imagined offenses committed against themselves, their families, clans and villages. This report has apparently remained classified in order to conceal its stunning findings, which are that U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence blunders are fueling the current war on terror. The flip side of this finding is that the current war on terror may only end when those blunders finally end (which has yet to occur). This crucial military report continues to be withheld from the American people. One reason appears to be that once a country acknowledges that its enemies are seeking revenge, it raises unsettling questions as to whether there is any validity to the enemies’ claims. It is far better politically to characterize the enemy as crazed killers.
The conclusion to be drawn from this evidence is that the United States has spent trillions of dollars over the past ten years fighting the wrong enemy. The obsession with al-Qaeda fits into an attractive political message which is to sell this war as a simplistic battle between good Christians and evil Islamo-Fascists. While such scare tactics have generated massive black budgets for the intelligence agencies, it has blinded the U.S. Government to potentially deadlier threats posed by those (including Muslims) who are seeking revenge against America.
The CIA’s not so secret war of private militias, targeted assassinations and cross-border Predator attacks, when coupled with the Pentagon’s robust rules of engagement, have directly or indirectly resulted in a large number of civilian deaths, and injuries in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere; the full extent of which the United States refuses to disclose.
What officials at Langley and in the Pentagon fail to understand is that every man, woman and child killed has immediate family and relatives and friends, etc. Potentially hundreds of people may be traumatically affected by a single death, fueling revenge obligations by family, clan and tribal members.
Those within this revenge threat matrix may not be linked to a militant mosque or mullah or any recognized terrorist organization. As such these loners or small groups can fall beneath the intelligence radar. They can infiltrate friendly military and intelligence organizations; they can hold positions in power plants and at airports; they can even become trusted staff members of senior provincial officials. We may also find them working inside key nuclear facilities.
If the House and Senate Intelligence Committees would ever agree to publicly investigate the CIA’s accelerated campaign of violence, they would likely discover deep and substantial flaws in U.S. tactical intelligence. According to years of battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, they would find that an unacceptable number of targets are selected for killing based on mistakes or due to intentional informant misinformation (i.e., to settle grudges or due to tribal/clan/family or ethnic disputes). They would also find that some of the casualties were the result of targeting errors, blunders, “smart” bomb malfunctions and in some cases excessive use of force. Finally, even when the correct person was killed, in many cases they would find that the individual was of minor importance or a fringe participant and did not merit killing.
While the CIA’s war has reportedly had some significant successes, especially in 2009 and early 2010, there are no metrics available to evaluate these actions. For example if the CIA kills an aging and inept terrorist leader, only to have him replaced by a more daring and charismatic younger leader, than the effort was a failure. As political pressure mounts for more results, the CIA has responded with more killings under the assumption that more is better. There is no basis for such an assumption. The pressure to find more and more people to kill has resulted in more and more mistakes, thus resulting in an expansive cycle of return violence. As this author has written many times before, counterinsurgency is a slow and patient process and cannot be rushed to meet arbitrary domestic political time frames.
A chilling tale emerged in Tel Afar, Iraq, in or about 2006. A mini-van was approaching a hastily set up U.S. military checkpoint. For whatever reason, the vehicle did not slow down and was fired upon. The mother and father were both killed. Their young son was shot in the spine and permanently crippled. His sister survived but she was covered in her parents’ blood. Interviewed at the hospital by the British media she reportedly told them:
“I will drink the Americans’ blood for this.”
This young girl and countless others like her are apparently not being tracked by the CIA. Over the past ten years how many people have lost family members to American bombs or bullets, or had relatives arrested in the night who were never seen again, or had loved ones that were imprisoned in Abu Ghraib or the “pit” at Bagram Air Base? These people are potentially a more significant long-term terrorist threat than al-Qaeda. The CIA for its part seems oblivious to the long-term consequences of its actions. Its goal seems limited to the short-term disruption of all things “militant,” a term whose definition seems to broaden every year.
A report published last year by CIVIC (the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict) reveals that, based on the incidents investigated, on average, 3.33 civilian casualties occur with each CIA drone attack in Pakistan. The CIVIC report contains one case summary of a home destroyed in North Waziristan. The owner of the house said that Taliban troops came to his house and requested lunch. He felt he could not refuse them so he served them lunch. The next day his house was struck by a CIA missile, which killed his only son. Sometimes what the CIA calls “terrorist supporters” are simply ordinary citizens who feel that they have no choice but to feed armed soldiers. Predator drones, which cannot distinguish between these two, opt to just kill everyone.
President Obama should be reining in the CIA, which seems intent on creating new enemies for the United States.
At this point it is doubtful that the United States can even begin to assess how many enemies its actions have created. It may be that reckless U.S. killings and poor follow-up and mitigation efforts have created a whole new generation of hardened, determined enemies for the United States, many of whom may not mature into threats for another decade. These stealth threats have the potential to dwarf the capabilities of al-Qaeda.
It is not too late to change course and begin to comprehensively address this problem. It begins by having President Obama acknowledge that even one civilian casualty is one too many. For counterinsurgency to be successful, not killing is many times more important than killing. Terrorists thrive on botched U.S. night raids and errant bombing missions. It validates their propaganda and aids them in recruitment. President Obama must not simply be committed to reducing civilian casualties, but he should adopt a goal of “Zero casualties” with no tolerance for any deviations. No tolerance means swift and public accountability, firings, disciplinary actions and even prosecutions when warranted. When such deviations occur, a comprehensive and long-term effort has to be made to interact with the families impacted in an attempt to mitigate the effects of each casualty. If those efforts fail, then the fallback is for the CIA to begin tracking these potential threats.