The long and drawn out 2012 presidential election is finally over and President Barack Obama was reelected. Shortly after he was reelected, Obama launched another drone strike in Yemen — a harbinger of what’s to come in his second term. It is worth going through Obama’s foreign policy during the past four years in order to assess what he’s done and understand what the future holds.
For the most part, President Obama stuck to his promise of ending the war in Iraq. All combat troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011 (the deadline set by the Bush administration). But this was after Obama’s diplomats and generals pressured the Iraqi government to extend the deadline for troop withdrawal — desiring a prolonged U.S. presence in the country. Obama’s Iraq ambassador admitted this to Foreign Policy magazine. The Iraqis refused a prolonged U.S. military presence in their country and demanded U.S. troops not be granted immunity in Iraqi courts. Because of Iraqi resistance, the U.S. had no choice but to pull out when it did.
However, the U.S. maintains a large, militarized embassy in Baghdad, staffed by a significant amount of private military contractors. The CIA is maintaining a “large clandestine presence”, according to the Washington Post, in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to protect U.S. interests in the region, which includes “countering the influence of Iran” and fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The CIA stations in Baghdad and Kabul are likely to be the agency’s “largest overseas outposts for years”. In addition, several Western multinational oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, Shell, and British Petroleum (BP), got their hands on Iraqi and Kurdish oil. The U.S. is also sending small units of troops back to Iraq to help the Iraqi government with training, counterterrorism, intelligence (see this fact interestingly buried in the fifteenth paragraph of a New York Times article). The U.S. combat mission in Iraq is over but that does not mean its hegemony in the country, or wider Middle East, is gone.
The war in Afghanistan is one Obama always considered the “good war”. While he withdrew combat troops in Iraq, he expanded the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. In December 2009, President sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, which brought the total number of U.S. troops to over 100,000. The goal of the troop surge was to slow the Taliban’s momentum and bring security to Afghanistan. However, the surge failed to do that and even the U.S. military admits this.
The expansion of the U.S. war in Afghanistan increased bloodshed and misery for Afghan civilians. U.S. and NATO soldiers urinated on corpses, took pictures with the dead bodies of people they killed, and killed civilians, primarily through brutal night raids or air attacks. One massacre, in the Panjwai district of Kandahar, occurred when a U.S. soldier went from home to home and killed 16 innocent people, including 9 children, in cold blood. The sad reality is that this was not an isolated incident. It’s one example of the suffering and violence the Afghan people experience from the U.S./NATO occupation of Afghanistan, the Taliban, warlords, and the U.S.-backed Afghan government. This bloodshed is the sad but inevitable result of eleven years of military occupation.
President Barack Obama claims to want to end the Afghanistan war by 2014. But this is highly deceptive. In May, Obama reached an agreement with the Afghan government, led by President Hamid Karzai (who is often derided as the “Mayor of Kabul”). This agreement, called a Strategic Partnership Agreement, promises a prolonged U.S. commitment to Afghanistan through 2024. Details of the agreement are vague but one thing that is clear is that U.S. troops, mainly special operations forces, will be living on Afghan bases called “joint facilities”.
Recently, U.S. State Department officials have begun negotiations with the Afghan government about U.S. troop presence past 2014, as part of the Bilateral Security Agreement. While most U.S. combat troops will leave in 2014, a few thousand special operations forces will remain to conduct counterterrorism operations and train and advise Afghan security forces. NATO announced a plan that will keep an international military presence along with American troops in Afghanistan past 2014. The NATO troops will also train and advise Afghan security forces but won’t engage in combat missions.
Afghanistan is seen is a key hub for raids and drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan. This partly explains why the U.S. is keeping a small military presence well past 2014. As Spencer Ackerman, writing for Wired’s Danger Room blog, pointed out, these areas in Afghanistan include “Bagram airfield, a huge aerial hub near Kabul; the airfields at Kandahar in the south and Jalalabad in the east, places where armed drones heading for Pakistan already take off; and perhaps a brigade-sized base called Salerno in Khost Province, just barely west of the Pakistan border and Mazar-e-Sharif, a transit and resupply hub in the north.”
In addition, Afghanistan has a lot of natural resources. Even former General David Petraeus admitted this. About $1-3 trillion worth of mineral wealth lies in the Hindu Kush region stretching from central Afghanistan to northern Pakistan. Asia Times roving correspondent Pepe Escobar wrote, “There’s enough uranium, lithium, copper and iron ore to potentially turn Afghanistan into a commodities powerhouse.” Plus, there is plenty of natural gas and oil in the surrounding region. This makes Afghanistan an attractive territory for pipelines and oil and natural gas exploration.
Multinational corporations from other countries have already begun tapping into Afghanistan’s natural resources. The American investment bank J.P. Morgan Chase, with the Pentagon’s help, is currently mining gold in Afghanistan. Recently, New York Times reported “the China National Petroleum Corporation, in partnership with a company controlled by relatives of President Karzai, began pumping oil from the Amu Darya field in the north” this summer. It’s important to keep in mind that China shares a tiny border with Afghanistan.
Afghanistan also has a hydrocarbon law that opens its oil and natural gas to outside exploitation. According to analyst Shukria Dellawar and energy expert and journalist Antonia Juhasz, in January 2009, the Afghan government “implemented a new Hydrocarbon Law that transforms its oil and natural gas sectors from fully state-owned to all but fully privatized.” The law is “unknown to most Afghans” but makes easier for multinational corporations to exploit the country’s oil and natural gas. Therefore, the United States will not leave Afghanistan any time soon — especially since its geopolitical rival, China, is tapping into the country’s resources.
In February 2011, a large uprising occurred in Libya. It demanded the overthrew of dictator Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi who ruled the country for more than 40 years. This was part of a larger wave of Arab uprisings that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and continues to occur in places like Syria. Worried about an impending massacre of civilians in Benghazi by Qadhafi’s forces (though it is hard to tell if this would have happened), the United Nations, heeding calls by many in Libya, the United States, and Europe (with disagreements by Russia, China, Latin America, and even many African countries), passed UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which called for a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to “protect civilians”. Beginning mid-March, NATO bombed Libya in a campaign that lasted over 6 months. The bombing campaign killed scores of civilians and damaged civilian infrastructure — hardly protecting civilians. It’s worth mentioning that shortly after the 2011 civil war in Libya ended, several multinational corporations rushed to get access to the country’s oil reserves — exposing an ulterior motive behind the intervention.
What is particularly noteworthy about the NATO intervention is that Obama violated the War Powers Resolution to engage in it. Under the War Powers Resolution, the President is allowed to send U.S. armed forces into action provided that there is Congressional approval within 60 days. So a U.S. president can quickly send the armed forces without a formal declaration of war or authorization from Congress for less than 60 days. If the military operation lasts longer than 60 days, then the President needs Congressional authorization. Obama did not bother to get Congressional approval before or 60 days after participating in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya. The Obama administration said that the U.S. was not engaged in a war with Libya because no U.S. troops were in harm’s way. Because of that, Obama claimed, it was not necessary to get Congressional approval. Therefore, Obama justified bombing a country for over 60 days by claiming it was not at war. Congress, for the most part, did not put a fight against the President’s arrogant abuse of power.
Drones and Kill List
While Obama claimed that the NATO military intervention in Libya was not a war, he’s expanded the U.S.’s secret wars around the world. The Bush administration, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, invaded two countries — Iraq and Afghanistan — and detained and tortured people in places like Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, Abu Gharib prison in Iraq, and several CIA black sites around the world. Those days are sort of gone. Rather than engage in large-scale invasions (which most foreign policy elites see as too politically and economically costly), the Obama administration uses air power, drones, proxies, mercenaries, and special operations forces to project U.S. military power around the world — all under the guise of “national security” and “counterterrorism”. Obama’s approach reduces the harm to U.S. military personnel and allows the administration to conduct these operations with little transparency, debate, and accountability. The end result of Obama’s militarism, as with Bush’s, is more dead bodies — many of whom are civilians and not terrorists or dangerous militants who pose a serious threat to American national security.
President Obama has greatly expanded the U.S.’s drone program, which is largely run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) but also the military and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), with the CIA and JSOC occasionally collaborating in lethal operations. Unlike the military, much of the CIA’s and JSOC’s activities, such as their covert operations and budget, are classified and secret. This makes it difficult to know what’s going on and hold anyone accountable if something goes wrong. The Bush administration carried out 52 drone strikes, mainly in Pakistan. Obama, so far, has launched nearly 300 drone strikes and counting. Last year, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration “has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries.” Within this apparatus is a network of secret drone bases in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula.
Drones (also called “unmanned aerial vehicles”) are attractive weapons because the pilot is not put in harm’s way. The person piloting a drone controls it from a base far away from where the drone is flying. In addition, they are seen as precise weapons that minimize damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure. However, this is not the case.
Large numbers of civilians have died from U.S. drone strikes. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, of the nearly 3,000 killed by drone strikes and other covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, anywhere between 475 to nearly 900 were civilians. This is a conservative estimate because it is difficult to get count civilian deaths in these areas. So the actual number of civilian deaths could be higher. A Stanford/NYU report entitled “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan” points out that of those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, only 2% are high-level militants, while the rest are low-level fighters or civilians. The report concludes:
“U.S. drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury. Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.”
The Obama administration embraces a very broad and misleading definition of “combatant”, which considers any military-age male in a strike zone to be a militant unless proven innocent after death.
In addition, the U.S. launches different types of strikes that ensure massive civilian casualties. One is the signature strike, which is a drone strike based on patterns of life and movement of individuals without knowing their names, what they’ve done, or whether they are actual terrorists. This contrasts with the other strike, known as a personality strike, in which the names of the targets are known.
The reasoning for signature strikes rests on the assumption that anyone in a strike zone must be a potential terrorist or “up to no good” because the drones fly over areas of “known terrorist activity”. So any movement that looks like terrorist activity is enough to justify a strike, even if the activity could simply be normal behavior like a few guys “doing jumping jacks” or farmers loading fertilizer. This broad definition is based on a very flawed assumption. It puts many civilians in the category of “militant” and assumes they are guilty until proven innocent after death. As a result, the administration misleadingly claims it killed very few civilians even if it killed many. By redefining innocent civilians as “militants”, “combatants”, or “terrorists”, the Obama administration is able to justify their deaths. The U.S. carries out signature strikes in Pakistan and, just recently, began carrying them out in Yemen.
This is in addition to the Obama administration embracing, what the Washington Post reports as, a “broader definition of what constitutes terrorism”. In addition to striking “high-value” targets, the U.S. kills “lower-level figures who are suspected of having links to terrorism operatives but are seen mainly as leaders of factions focused on gaining territory in Yemen’s internal struggle.” Not only has Obama utilized Orwellian sophistry to redefine “militant”, it also embraced a broader definition of “terrorism” to include fighters with local grievances rather than aspirations for global jihad, thereby unnecessarily lumping them in the same category as al-Qaeda.
The other strike is known as a follow-up strike (or a “double tap”). After a drone strikes at a target, it will often strike quickly again at rescuers who rush to help the victims and mourners at funerals of those killed in a drone strike. The U.S. has carried many of these types of strikes in Pakistan, killing many civilians in the process, and angering the population. By embracing very broad definitions of “militant” and “terrorism”, launching signature strikes, and follow-up strikes on rescuers and mourners, the Obama administration is killing large numbers of civilians — many of which are unreported.
The killing of civilians by drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have angered the populations. Rather than curbing terrorism, drone strikes have exacerbated the strength of militant groups in those countries. Civilian deaths by drone strikes in Pakistan increase support for the Taliban as angry new recruits join to get revenge on the United States. The same is happening in Yemen. Mohammed al-Ahmadi, a Yemeni human rights lawyer, told the Washington Post, “Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people, especially in al-Qaeda-controlled areas. The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes.” Part of the reason why anti-American riots occurred in Yemen is because of anger at U.S. policy, particularly drone strikes and U.S. support for ousted Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Sitting atop this global robotized killing apparatus is President Obama, who personally approves every drone strike in Yemen, Somalia, and a third of those in Pakistan. Three of those killed in drone strikes were U.S. citizens: Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, and Anwar’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. There was no due process, no charges, no trials, nor convictions before their deaths, even though due process is guaranteed to American citizens under the U.S. Constitution. Regardless of what one thinks of these individuals, this sets a very dangerous precedent. Obama has arrogated the authority to kill whomever he wants, regardless of nationality, anywhere at any time. This extreme power is unconstitutional, tyrannical, violates human rights, undermines the laws of war, makes it easier to wage endless war with little constraints, and is profoundly immoral.
After Obama leaves, this authority will be extended to future presidents who, like Obama, will inevitably abuse it. The Obama administration has set up a “disposition matrix”, a database containing the names of suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens, around the world. According to the Washington Post, “the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the ‘disposition’ of suspects beyond the reach of American drones”. This means that the U.S. will keep adding names to its kill lists, thereby institutionalizing the practice of targeted killing in U.S. counterterrorism operations and creating a new, disturbing era of permanent war.
Militarism in Africa
In Africa, Obama is expanding the U.S.’s shadow wars on the continent. In 2008, the U.S. established United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) to coordinate its military operations in Africa. Many Africans vocally protested having a U.S. military beachhead on their continent, which is why AFRICOM is headquartered in Germany rather than an African country.
The U.S. is conducting a number of military operations in Africa. Secret spying missions are carried out by U.S. special operations forces and private military contractors. The purpose of these missions are to “spy on terrorist hideouts from the fringes of the Sahara to jungle terrain along the equator”, according to the Washington Post. That’s just scratching the surface.
American private military contractors (contracted by the U.S. State Department) train African troops to al-Shabaab in Somalia. Many of the trainees come from Uganda and Burundi, which are U.S. allies. Private military contractors are not the only ones who train African militaries. The U.S. military also provides training and participates in military exercises with African governments (many of whom have harsh human rights records). In addition, the U.S. provides cash to African governments, such as Uganda and Burundi, for counterterrorism operations, particularly in East Africa.
This is part of a proxy war the U.S. is fighting against al-Shabaab in Somalia. Rather than have American soldiers kill and fight in another Muslim country, the U.S. outsources the dirty work to cooperative African governments. The U.S. provides the weaponry, training, and intelligence (sometimes, the U.S. provides additional airstrikes) to African militaries that do the fighting and killing. Recently, the Los Angeles Times reported on the U.S.’s proxy war in Somalia and summed it well here (emphasis added):
“The U.S. has been quietly equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to wage a widening proxy war against the Shabab, the Al Qaeda ally that has imposed a harsh form of Islamic rule on southern Somalia and sparked alarm in Washington as foreign militants join its ranks.
Officially, the troops are under the auspices of the African Union. But in truth, according to interviews by U.S. and African officials and senior military officers and budget documents, the 15,000-strong force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon, trained and supplied by the U.S. government and guided by dozens of retired foreign military personnel fired through private contractors.”
Al-Shabaab is certainly not full of angels. They stone women and proselytize a harsh and reactionary form of Islam — Wahhabism. On the other hand, the war-torn and impoverished conditions of Somalia are what allow a group like al-Shabaab to survive. In addition to implementing a harsh form of Islamic rule, al-Shabaab provide basic social services to Somalis. During the 2006-2009 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia (which the U.S. backed by providing the Ethiopians with weapons, training, intelligence, and occasional airstrikes that killed civilians), al-Shabaab provided itself to be a formidable force by fighting against the invaders, which helped them consolidate a base of support. So rather than quell violent extremism, U.S. militarism emboldened it.
As part of its shadow wars in Africa, the U.S. is increasing spying and drone operations on the continent. In June, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. military is “expanding its secret intelligence operations across Africa, establishing a network of small airbases to spy on terrorist hideouts from the fringes of the Sahara to jungle terrain along the equator”. These operations are largely carried out by JSOC and private military contractors, adding extra layers of secrecy. As mentioned earlier, there are already drone bases in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, including one in Ethiopia and Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. As in Pakistan and Yemen, these drones carry out targeted killings against suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia. While not as intense as in Yemen or Pakistan, U.S. drone strikes in Somalia have already killed dozens of people, including many civilians. There many U.S. airstrikes conducted by manned aircraft that occur in Somalia, as well, that achieve the same deadly result.
America’s militarism in Africa is cloaked under the guise of “fighting terrorism” — specifically against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Shabaab in Somalia. However, this is smoke and mirrors. The U.S. has deeper geopolitical reasons that motivate its growing militarism in Africa. The African continent is rich in natural resources, particularly oil, natural gas, diamonds, timber, gold, copper, and coltan, which is used in electronic devices, such as cell phones and computers. It is expected that one-quarter of U.S. oil imports will come from Africa by 2020. In addition, multiple American oil companies operate in Africa, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips. The U.S. is also worried about China’s growing influence, primarily economic, in Africa, and hence, countering it with military power. Africa is also seen as a good home for “lily pads” (small, secretive bases for troops, particularly special operations forces) that allow the U.S. to militarily strike multiple global hotspots. This is America’s 21st-century scramble for Africa.
Continuing militarism in the second term
There are other issues and regions that will likely flare up in the second term, such as a possible U.S./Israeli war against Iran. While the U.S. has not invaded Iran, nor seems eager to do so, it has utilized other unconventional tactics to undermine the regime. The United States, along with Israel, launched cyber attacks in Iran and is imposing brutal sanctions in the country that are harming the Iranian people and economy. The justification for this is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, even though it does not possess one, nor seems intent on getting one. Instead, Iran has a nuclear program for civilian purposes, particularly energy. However, Israel possesses many nukes but this doesn’t seem to worry the United States. A nuclear-weapons-free zone for the Middle East would be the best way to halt nuclear proliferation in the region. It’s an idea favored by Iran and Arab nations. However, the U.S. and Israel seem more eager to bomb and sanction Iran than pursue this rational idea.
Obama’s first term saw a drawdown of large scale military operations, such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and an expansion of covert operations, proxy wars, and drone strikes. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect a continuation of these policies in the second term. Especially since targeted killing has been institutionalized in American foreign policy infrastructure with the disposition matrix. Barack Obama, like most American presidents before him, is continuing the machinery of American militarism — a machine that inflicts immense human suffering around the world and diminishes international peace.