Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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America’s Third War

by Micah Zenko
April 23, 2012

File photo of a Predator drone flying above the USS Carl Vinson (Courtesy Reuters/Handout). File photo of a Predator drone flying above the USS Carl Vinson (Courtesy Reuters/Handout).


“The only valid national security reason for classifying information is that a hostile element whose goal is to damage the interests of the United States should not have use of the information.” Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1986

A democratic government is responsible for informing its citizens about its activities, while simultaneously protecting legitimate secrets that, if revealed, could potentially harm its national security. Nowhere has this tension been more pronounced than in America’s decade-long targeted killings campaign outside the battlefields in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Since 9/11, the United States has attempted targeted killings in four other countries: approximately three hundred in Pakistan, thirty in Yemen, twenty in Somalia, and one in Syria. These attacks were primarily conducted by armed drones, but also by ship- and aircraft-launched cruise missiles, AC-130 gunships, and special operations raids. Although estimates vary, perhaps three thousand people were killed in these attacks, including suspected al-Qaeda members, local militants, and some unintended civilian victims.

By any common-sense definition, these vast targeted killings should be characterized as America’s Third War since 9/11. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan—where government agencies acted according to articulated strategies, congressional hearings and press conferences provided some oversight, and timelines explicitly stated when the U.S. combat role would end—the Third War is Orwellian in its lack of cogent strategy, transparency, and end date.

The Bush and Obama administrations have contended that some—but not all—of their attempted targeted killings were covert actions, defined by law as “that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” For example, President Obama acknowledged drone strikes in Pakistan in January: “Obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan] going after al-Qaeda suspects.”  He added, “There’s this perception that we’re just sending a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly,” but “this thing is kept on a very tight leash” and not managed by “a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions.”

This is mere assertion. It echoes other senior administration officials’ repeated remarks about the legality, near-infallibility, effectiveness, and inevitability of targeted killings. The U.S. government has provided no information that would allow any review, scrutiny, or oversight of its 350-and-counting targeted killings.

In Yemen, drone strikes target al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a terrorist organization that did not exist on 9/11 but now has “more than a thousand members,” according to John Brennan, senior White House counterterrorism adviser. Last week, CIA director David Petraeus reportedly requested permission to expand drone attacks in Yemen to include “signature strikes” against anonymous suspected members of AQAP. Since these attacks are covert, the administration will offer no public defense, although it begs Petraeus’s haunting question at the onset of the Iraq war in 2003: “Tell me how this ends?”

Obviously, some operational details have not appeared in the open press and should remain classified. However, the existence of these drone strikes is no secret, and no longer justifies the thick veil of secrecy surrounding the program. When it comes to the well-documented U.S. targeted killings, there is no well-informed citizenry. The charade of the ‘covert’ nature of the Third War is indefensible.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Bill Michtom

    “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a terrorist organization that did not exist on 9/11 but now has “more than a thousand members,” according to John Brennan, senior White House counterterrorism adviser.”

    Lest we forget, this is the same person who claimed there have been no civilian causalities in the drone attacks:

    In late June, President Obama’s chief Terrorism adviser, John Brennan, made an extraordinary claim about drone attacks in Pakistan: “in the last year, ‘there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.” http://bit.ly/JlLpVl

    Why should we believe anything he says or quote him without noting that he is a documented liar?

  • Posted by John Bezou

    There will always be things about this program that will be classified – just as in any military/governmental operation. But instead of a conventional war – which most people believe lives strictly in the Military realm – I think that you have to look at this as more of strategic messaging from the United States. Remember there are four elements of national power (Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic). We can wage war along any of these lines of effort and often do. Although “combat operations” are ending in Iraq and Afghanistan the strategic message still rings clear. How does this end? It ends with the capitulation of the enemy. We have taken a page from Giulio Douhet and updated it to work in our time. We are using “strategic bombing” to weaken the morale of the enemy. We are on the strategic offensive.

  • Posted by Javed Mir

    ‘The charade of the covert nature of the Third War is indefensible”. In fact this is neither a war, nor a civil war and nor a holy war. In order to avenge the death of 3000 Americans as a result of 9/11, has caused loss of so many other human lives and resources. Prudence demands that this killing should now be stopped.

    There is no harm if some compromise is made for the sake of peace. Global media should play a positive role and should avoid excessive publicity of human bloodshed. Soft war be started and USA is still well positioned to take the lead.

  • Posted by James Cricks

    It is widely known that the US is attacking terrorists. It is not always advisable to be disclosing all of our sources and methods, especially since the conflict is ongoing. Micah Zenko has the false sense of security that increases as we get further away from 9/11. Terrorists learn from these disclosures and do take countermeasures. I agree that the American public can hold the US military accountable for their actions. I hope Micah Zenko votes at every opportunity.

  • Posted by Laser Haas

    We are all in front row seats and watched the GOP nominee race being fleeced blatantly & flagrantly without remorse/ relent.

    Now, we shall watch the same thing happen to the POTUS.

    Secret deals made to place one of the greatest Rockefeller, Rothschild wannabe’s into the White House.

    Mitt the pitts will make this story and what George Bush has done to this country;

    look like child’s play.

  • Posted by Sean Gerald

    The primary goal of the military and president is to protect America, her citizens and her interests. War, as defined in 1810, is a thing of the past. Wars are fought with keyboards just as much as with missiles. I’m sorry that in this current world we cant define this so called “third war” by typical country boundaries. The american military MUST hunt down terrorists wherever they lay there heads. These are people who spend their waking hours actively plotting out ways to kill as many of us(Americans) as possible. We cannot be limited by borders in our attempts to eliminate this enemy. Once we say a certain part of the world is off limits, in terms of going in and eliminating an enemy combatant, guess where they’ll all go to live and plot out terrorist acts?

  • Posted by gram64

    America and Britain should have as thei publicly declared aim the complete and unconditional surrender of Al Qaida.

    That terrorist organisation has a structure, however loose, and it has a chief, deputy chief, and much else that is very clearly set out. If the top leaders of the organisation were forced into surrender, the lower levels could not work effectively, no matter how much the ‘limbs’ kept twitching.

    As for the Taliban – the same should apply to them, post ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan, if they threaten the West directly or harbour those who do so.

    America and Britain should use their military and political power to the utmost extent to achieve those ends. No point in calling on others to do so – there are no other Western countries with the will to go for such a clear end-game.

    Neither Britain or America have used their military or political power sufficiently. Afghanistan should have been under direct governance by committed Western powers long ago. That was the only way to effectively attack Al Qaida and the Taliban, and to end the hopelessly high levels of corruption and warlordism in that benighted country. Unfortunately, there wasn’t and isn’t the kind of political will needed to implement such a policy. As a result, the West pays a high price in blood and treasure for needlessly protracted low-level wars.

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