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The need for accountability in the War on Terror
on 6 August 2013
This is an astonishing well written book of reportage, and I think a must-read about the Obama version of the war on terror (or whatever words cover it now). Scahill also has a particular viewpoint, which I disagree with, but the reportage seems first rate.
First the excellent stuff - there are reports of special forces and CIA operations in Somalia and Yemen, which I had not been aware of. Scahill updates our usual view that the war on Terror involves operations in Afghanistan or Pakistan, though these are covered also. He covers the operation which killed Osama Bin Laden, but he also highlights other operations which went disastrously wrong - the shooting dead of seven people, including two pregnant women in Gardez in 2009; the bombing of al Majalah in Yemen which stirred great local resentment of the US; the killing of Anwar al Awlaki's sixteen year-old son, a week after this father was killed. By taking us through eye witness accounts, Scahill forces us to recognize that the drone war on terror is not the clinical, decisive strike imagined.
Scahill's message is that the drone strikes, targeted killings etc are spreading more disaffection and recruiting more terrorists than they are removing. It seems that some of the Yemeni and Somali strikes were based on information from one rival wishing to destroy another rival - in particular the Yemeni president wishing to dispose of people who might displace him. There is reportage of the justification fro the al Majalah bombing being rushed through whatever (non-accountable) White House targeting process in just 45 minutes, based on the need to use the `actionable intelligence'. The book also mentions, via un-attributable sources, that the President was unhappy with and called for a review of the targeting information that led to the death of Al-Awaki's son and three of his teenage cousins.
What I definitely take from the book is that there needs to be accountability for these mistakes - which officially are not happening, up to quite recently the President did not acknowledge US responsibility for some drone strikes. This is incredible power the US is taking to itself - for instance if you take the sentence "US kills Al Queda terrorist cell in village in remote Yeman" and substitute China, Tibetan, India in the sentence, I'm sure there would be international outrage.
Scahill charts the course of Anwar Al Awlaki's progression from moderate, US based muslim cleric - even invited to a Pentagon focus group, post 9-11, to supported (maybe leader) of Al Queda in Yeman through the decade. Scahill asserts that Al Awlaki had not case made against him, had no way of answering any charges that US might put to him and, as a US citizen was executed by the executive branch of the US government without due process. Scahill makes a big deal about Al Awlaki's US citizenship. I don't really buy any of this, the citizenship issue, to me, neither makes Al Awlaki more or less special. I can only presume there was clear intelligence linking him to terrorism, and there was no reliable way to apprehend him without risking US lives.
One point on style, which may be revealing. From my reading, I think Scahill uses the word `bold' only to describe insurgent attacks in the various countries he visits. I think this might reveal a worrying lack of objectivity.
Nonetheless an excellent read.