Recently, President Barack Obama gave a speech about his counterterrorism strategy at National Defense University. In it, he justified his targeted killing policy and drone strikes of suspected terrorists around the world. He also announced his plan to finally shut down Guantanamo Bay prison.
The speech is lauded by many as a signal that President Obama wants to end the War on Terror. But the speech was full of clever sophistry and Orwellian doublespeak that made it seem like the perpetual war was ending just as it’s being institutionalized and normalized. In essence, it was a repackaging of America’s targeted killing program and system of permanent war.
A few times during his speech, he was interrupted by antiwar activist and CodePink member Medea Benjamin who called for shutting down Guantanamo Bay prison, an end to drone strikes, and asked tough questions about the killing of 16-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki by a U.S. drone strike in October 2011. Abdulrahman was the son of Islamic extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who was killed in another U.S. drone strike two weeks earlier. Obama justified Anwar’s death but said nothing about Abdulrahman in the speech.
The day before the speech, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) admitting that the United States killed four U.S. citizens by drone strikes, including Anwar al-Awlaki. Three of whom — Samir Khan, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and Jude Kenan Mohammad — were “not specifically targeted”. Despite this, the letter defended the administration’s policy of killing, without due process, of U.S. citizens it suspects are members of al-Qaeda or “associated forces”.
Near the beginning of the speech, Obama said he wants to “finish the work of defeating al-Qaeda and its associated forces.” The term “associated forces” is multiple times in the speech. He used it again to justify U.S. targeted killing operations when he said, “Under domestic law and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces…this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.” His administration has used the term “associated forces” many times. However, it doesn’t appear in the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), a law passed shortly after 9/11 that has been the legal framework for the U.S. to conduct a global war against suspected terrorists.
The best understanding of this term comes from Jeh Johnson, former general counsel at the Defense Department during Obama’s first term. In a February 2012 speech at Yale University, Johnson spelled out what an “associated force” is. He said, “An ‘associated force’ is not any terrorist group in the world that merely embraces the al-Qaeda ideology”. Rather, it must be both “an organized, armed group that has entered the fight alongside al-Qaeda” and a “co-belligerent with al-Qaeda in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” This could mean a whole host of groups.
In fact, the Obama administration has been debating whether the AUMF can be “extended to militant groups with little or no connection to the organization responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001”, reported the Washington Post. The administration and federal courts have interpreted the law to include “associated forces” but some legal advisers in the Executive Branch from the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and intelligence agencies are wondering whether it could be stretched to cover “associates of associates” — or basically friends of friends of al-Qaeda. This would include militant groups in North Africa and the Middle East, such as Ansar al-Sharia (the group that attacked the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi Libya on September 11, 2012), the al-Nusra Front in Syria, or groups in Mali. So as Obama talks about targeting “associated forces”, keep in mind that his administration is using this term very broadly.
Obama also said, “…I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end.” This part of the speech has led many to believe that Obama is serious about ending the global war on terror.
However, at a Senate hearing last week on reauthorizing the AUMF, President Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, Michael Sheehan, predicted that the war against al-Qaeda would last “at least 10 to 20 years.” Other Pentagon officials, including acting general counsel Robert Taylor, said that the president and future presidents could launch a drone strike or send troops into Yemen, the Congo, or anywhere around the world wherever there is a suspected terrorist without changing the AUMF. To them, the world is a battlefield.
Yet, many of the people the U.S. wants to strike were not responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which is what the AUMF focuses on. That’s why there’s a debate on whether to renew it. The Obama administration, while it’s fine with the current AUMF, is getting around this by interpreting international law in a way to justify such strikes. Therefore, even if the AUMF were repealed, the Obama administration could still claim the authority to launch lethal operations against suspected terrorists around the world by twisting other laws.
Earlier in the speech, Obama redefined the “global war on terror”. “Beyond Afghanistan,” he said, “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” This twisted wording is an example of Orwellian doublespeak. In one instance, he wants to end the “global war on terror” but, in another, continue “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” As mentioned before, the “specific networks of violent extremists” could include a large host of groups. Considering his defense and institutionalization of targeted killing, such “persistent, targeted efforts” will surely include killing that wide group of targets, which is not an end to the targeted killing program, just a rebranding. It’s like saying the nation is not at war but continuing nearly everything that constitutes war.
This is what Obama did to justify the 2011 U.S. military intervention in Libya. His administration claimed that because the United States was not at war in Libya, there was no need to get congressional authorization under the War Powers Resolution. This is despite the fact that the United States, along with NATO allies, bombed Libya for seven months.
Drone strikes and other lethal counterterrorism operations have hundreds of civilians and inflicted serious suffering. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, so far, around 3,000 to 4,000 people have been killed by U.S. counterterrorism operations, which includes between nearly 500 to over 1,000 civilians. It is very possible the number could be higher, given the difficulty of counting civilian deaths and how the Obama administration, in their internal, due-process-free process to determine who they will kill, considers any military-aged male in a strike zone to be a “militant”. Moreover, drone strikes in Pakistan terrorize and inflict “anxiety and psychological trauma” among civilians, according to a report done by Stanford and New York University (NYU) law schools.
As McClatchy reported, the U.S. government has no idea of who they’re killing much of the time. “Contrary to assurances it has deployed U.S. drones only against known senior leaders of al Qaida and allied groups”, McClatchy notes, “the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified ‘other’ militants”. The success rate is very low. Of those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, only 2% are high-level militants, while the rest are low-level fighters or civilians, according to the Stanford/NYU report.
While Obama lamented civilian deaths, he said such a price was necessary to pay to fight terrorism, arguing that the threat and damage from terrorism are far worse. One could easily dispute this by comparing the number of deaths from terrorist attacks with the number of deaths caused by U.S. militarism in the last decade. While terrorist attacks have killed thousands since 9/11, U.S. conventional and covert wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere killed nearly to over a million. Moreover, add the deaths caused by U.S. military interventions in previous generations — from the wars against the native Americans up to today — and the number is far higher. In addition, more people die by gun violence (either homicide or suicide) than from terrorist attacks. This is not to minimize the tragedy and suffering terrorism inflicts. Terrorism causes serious damage but U.S. militarism has far more blood on its hands.
Moreover, terrorism is a brutal reaction to violent oppression, such as invasions, occupations, bombings, and military intervention. When populations are bombed, occupied, or killed, it is common and not unsurprising that they would violently lash out at their attackers in response. So terrorism is also a wayward child of militarism.
Obama did not signal he would end the use of signature strikes, where the government kills people based on patterns of behavior without knowing who they are. This, along with expanding the definition of “militant” to include possible civilians, is a significant factor in drone strikes killing civilians. His administration’s new policy guidelines could decrease the use of signature strikes but whether the practice will end is entirely ambiguous.
The White House published a fact sheet for the Presidential Policy Guidance that Obama signed and mentioned in his speech. He said this Guidance will “establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists” with “clear guidelines, oversight and accountability”. The guidance says that lethal force can only be used if capture is not feasible, no alternative exists, “near certainty” that the target is present and no civilians will be injured or killed, and that host governments are unable to take action. In addition, it says that “the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.”
However, the Obama administration already defined “imminence” out of existence. The common international legal definition of “imminence” derives from the 1837 Caroline affair. States may use force in self-defense against an “imminent” threat when “necessity of that self-defense is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no means, and no moment for deliberation.” The Obama administration, on the other hand, as outlined in a leaked white paper summarizing secret legal memos, believes that for an “operational leader” of al-Qaeda to “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.”
Instead if an “high-level official” believes a suspected terrorist is an “imminent threat” then that’s enough to have them killed. The white paper says:
“…a high-level official could conclude, for example, that an individual poses an ‘imminent threat’ of violent attack against the United States where he is an operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force and is personally and continually involved in planning terrorist attacks against the United States. Moreover, where the al-Qa’ida member in question has recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities, that member’s involvement in al-Qa’ida’s continuing terrorist campaign against the United States would support the conclusion that the member poses an imminent threat.”
So if a high-level official suspects that an individual is an “operational leader” or al-Qaeda or an “associated force” “personally and continually involved in planning terrorist attacks” against the U.S. and there is “no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities” then the government can conclude that that individual poses an “imminent threat” to the United States and deserves to die with no due process. No charge, no evidence presented in a court of law, no trial, no legal defense. The administration claims it can do this under the inherent right of self-defense in international law. That obliterates the meaning of “imminence” and distorts the right of self-defense. It is incredibly broad and covers a wide range of individuals involved in a number of activities that may or not be potential terrorist attacks against the United States, regardless of real imminence.
What this amounts to is pure extra-judicial murder, which is illegal and immoral. As legal expert Naz Modirzadeh explained to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:
“Not to mince words here, if it is not in a situation of armed conflict, unless it falls into this very narrow area of imminent threat then it is an extra-judicial execution. This is absolutely unlawful under IHRL [international human rights law] and of course under domestic law in any place in which such an attack might occur. So then we don’t even need to get to the nuance of who’s who, and are people there for rescue or not. Because each death is illegal. Each death is a murder in that case.”
The Obama administration’s definition of “imminent threat” is far from narrow. Moreover, to wage a global war against nebulous non-state groups, such as al-Qaeda and “associated forces”, as the Obama administration claims it has the right to do, undermines the basic principles of international law. This Orwellian redefining of terms, such as “imminence”, using “associated forces” to cover a wide range of groups, distorting of domestic and international law, and claiming the authority to launch drone strikes and send troops into various countries without new congressional authorization ensures that the Obama administration will continue the perpetual war on terror but under new legal and linguistic packaging.
In the speech, he also discussed his plans to close Guantanamo Bay prison. Obama said he plans to lift the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, which would make it easier to transfer detainees (many of whom are cleared for release) back to their homes. He also promised a stronger fight to accomplish this. This is welcome news, especially as there dozens of prisoners are on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay prison to protest their brutal treatment (which probably pressured the president into this position). Whether he keeps this promise will have to be seen with concrete action.
However, what made Guantanamo Bay prison so odious was not its location but the practices that went on there, particularly torture and indefinite detention. The Obama administration has no repudiated indefinite detention. It always approved of the heinous practice. The biggest evidence of this is Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA) of 2012 and 2013, which both contain provisions allowing for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens suspected of ties to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or “associated forces”. Obama’s plan for Guantanamo is to transfer that system of indefinite detention from Cuban soil to the U.S. Therefore, even if Guantanamo Bay prison were to close (as it should), the practices that made it odious will, unfortunately, continue.
The infrastructure for permanent war and empire remains in place. The Obama administration has created a database, known as the “disposition matrix”, containing the identities of suspected terrorists around the world be captured or killed. The government intends to keep adding names to its kill or capture lists for years to come.
Drones are one tool in America’s war and counterterrorism arsenal. The U.S. has used other tools to strike suspected terrorists. They include raids by special operations forces working around the world, airstrikes, helicopter and AC-130 gunship attacks, cruise missiles, cluster bombs, private military contractors, and proxy forces. In Somalia, for example, the U.S. mostly utilizes other weapons to strike targets linked to the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab (a group that has loose ties to al-Qaeda). Those weapons are largely airstrikes, missiles, direct actions by special operations forces, and African soldiers trained and armed by the U.S. government and private military contractors. This is why the number of drone strikes in Somalia is relatively low compared to those carried out in Pakistan and Yemen. Making matters worse, the Los Angeles Times reported that U.S. counterterrorism policy, is partly to blame for Somalia’s 2010 to 2012 famine, which killed thousands of people, since U.S. sanctions on al-Shabaab made it difficult for groups to deliver aid in Somalia without fear of supporting terrorism.
Moreover, the United States has a worldwide network of drone bases. They exist in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula, notably Ethiopia and Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, and another one being built in Niger. The CIA has clandestine stations in Iraq and Afghanistan to attack al-Qaeda and the Taliban and counter Iran. In Iraq, there is a large, militarized embassy in Baghdad staffed by over 5,000 private military contractors, in addition to 17,000 civilians. The U.S. will also retain nine military bases in Afghanistan, after combat troops withdraw in 2014. Finally, the U.S. is building multiple “lily pads” — small, secret bases for troops, mainly special operations forces, to strike numerous hotspots around the world. This adds to the more than 700 to 1,000 U.S. military bases around the world.
Therefore, to truly end perpetual war means addressing and dismantling this infrastructure. The point of this permanent war system is for the United States to militarily project power across the world, control markets and resources, and counter threats to its hegemony. Terrorism, like communism during the Cold War, serves as a pretext to justify that. President Obama’s speech does not signal an end to the perpetual war on terror. Instead, it was a clever rebranding of permanent war.