The other ten-year anniversary: A decade of the global war on terror

Ten years ago today – three days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington – Congress overwhelmingly passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force, providing President George W. Bush the authority “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”

The only Member of Congress to vote against the resolution was Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who spoke on the House floor about the dangers of granting the President blanket authorization to wage war around the world.

“However difficult this vote may be,” she said,

some of us must urge the use of restraint. There must be some of us who say, let’s step back for a moment and think through the implications of our actions today – let us more fully understand its consequences.

We are not dealing with a conventional war. We cannot respond in a conventional manner. I do not want to see this spiral out of control. This crisis involves issues of national security, foreign policy, public safety, intelligence gathering, economics, and murder. Our response must be equally multi-faceted. …

[W]e must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes.

Ten years later, it is now clear how prescient those words were, as it is even dawning on some members of the establishment that the term “endless war” really does mean a war without end. A recent article in the Washington Post captured the new reality well, noting that “This is the American era of endless war.”

“In previous decades,” the article continues,

the military and the American public viewed war as an aberration and peace as the norm.

Today, radical religious ideologies, new technologies and cheap, powerful weapons have catapulted the world into “a period of persistent conflict,” according to the Pentagon’s last major assessment of global security. “No one should harbor the illusion that the developed world can win this conflict in the near future,” the document concludes.

By this logic, America’s wars are unending and any talk of peace is quixotic or naive. The new view of war and peace has brought about far-reaching changes in agencies such as the CIA, which is increasingly shifting its focus from gathering intelligence to targeting and killing terrorists. Within the military the shift has reshaped Army bases, spurred the creation of new commands and changed what it means to be a warrior.

The era of endless war also has marked the end of an era in which international law provided a basis for American foreign policy. Following the alleged assassination of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Special Forces in May, the highly regarded British barrister Geoffrey Robertson described Obama’s claim that “justice was done” as an “absurdity.” He noted that Americans once stood uncompromisingly for an international system based on the rule of law:

When the time came to consider the fate of men much more steeped in wickedness than Osama bin Laden – the Nazi leadership – the British government wanted them hanged within six hours of capture. President Truman demurred, citing the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson that summary execution ‘would not sit easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride… the only course is to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused after a hearing as dispassionate as the times will permit and upon a record that will leave our reasons and motives clear.’

The American mentality championing due process even for world’s most contemptible criminals has given way to an approach of administering “justice” at the barrel of a gun. Due process, the rule of law and even intelligence-gathering have been abandoned in favor of targeted killings, extraordinary rendition and torture.

The CIA, for example, has essentially been transformed into a paramilitary force given free reign to carry out assassinations around the world, utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to perform targeted killings by the thousands, violating important principles of international law.

While international law does provide exceptions to the general ban on political assassinations, for example when two states at war with each other, even during war a “targeted killing” is only legal if it meets certain standards under the law of war. Article 23 of the Hague Convention IV of 1907 provides that “it is especially forbidden … to kill or wound treacherously, individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army.”  Treacherous assassinations, for example by unmanned aerial drones, are illegal under the law of war.

Yet, as noted by the Washington Post,

  • The drone program has killed more than 2,000 militants and civilians since 2001, a staggering figure for an agency that has a long history of supporting proxy forces in bloody conflicts but rarely pulled the trigger on its own.
  • The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which had 300 employees on the day of the attacks, now exceeds al-Qaeda’s core membership around the globe. With about 2,000 on its staff, the CTC accounts for 10 percent of the agency’s workforce, has designated officers in almost every significant overseas post and controls the CIA’s expanding fleet of drones.
  • Even the agency’s analytic branch, which traditionally existed to provide insights to policymakers, has been enlisted in the hunt. About 20 percent of CIA analysts are now “targeters” scanning data for individuals to recruit, arrest or place in the cross­hairs of a drone.

The assassinations are carried out not only in countries living under U.S. occupation, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in countries with which the United States is not at war, including Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Syria. The Sept. 14, 2001, authorization for military force against “nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks” of 9/11 has clearly been exploited to the fullest.

A recent analysis by Al Jazeera found that the assassination policies have their roots in decisions made immediately following the 9/11 attacks:

Days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration started making decisions that led to the official authorisation of torture tactics, indefinite incommunicado detention and the denial of habeas corpus for people who would be detained at Guantanamo, Bagram, or “black sites” (secret prisons) run by the CIA, kidnappings, forced disappearances and extraordinary rendition to foreign countries to exploit their torturing services. …

The detention policy debacle has played a powerful but under-analysed role in the ascendance of kill operations in the ongoing and ever more global war on terror. People suspected of being terrorist operatives who once might have been targeted for arrest by the military or the CIA in order to interrogate them for intelligence are now likely to be targeted by predator drones.

Today, the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) pursue suspected terrorists with deadly force in Afghanistan as well as in a number of countries not at war with the US, notably Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Despite the clear and shameful record that has been established over the past ten years of the global war on terror, U.S. officials continue to insist that the fight against terrorists has been exemplary. In a speech called “Smart Power Approach to Counterterrorism” to the John Jay School of Criminal Justice last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that “When we capture al-Qaida members, we detain them humanely and consistent with international standards. And when we do strike, we seek to protect innocent civilians from harm. Terrorists, of course, do exactly the opposite.”

A cursory glance at the numbers proves this statement incongruous with basic facts.

As the Center for Constitutional Rights documents, the government has illegally detained thousands of people, the most notorious example being the men at Guantánamo. With the Guantánamo prisoners entering their tenth year of arbitrary detention, the U.S. government now concedes that 92 percent of the men held in Guantánamo were not “Al-Qaeda fighters” after all. While 600 have been released without ever being charged with a crime, another 89 have been cleared for release from Guantánamo but remain in detention and 47 are slated for indefinite detention without charge or trial. The government claims they can neither be released nor prosecuted. Eight men have died in the prison.

Clinton’s claim that the U.S. goes out of its way to protect civilians – which distinguishes the United States military from terrorists – also doesn’t square with the facts. While only a handful of Americans are killed worldwide by terrorists each year (according to the U.S. State Department, 15 died last year, fewer than the number of Americans killed by dog bites or lightning strikes), thousands upon thousands of civilians have been killed by the U.S. military in recent years.

In the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, 24,865 civilians were reported killed, with women and children accounting for almost 20% of all civilian casualties. Over half (53%) of all civilian deaths involved explosive devices, with airstrikes accounting for 64% of the explosives deaths. Children were disproportionately affected by airstrikes and unexploded ordnance, including cluster bombs dropped by U.S. war planes.

In her “smart power” speech, Hillary Clinton also extolled the U.S. record in using law enforcement mechanisms to prosecute terrorists through the criminal justice system. “This also means putting terrorists on trial in civilian courts, which have time and again shown their effectiveness at convicting terrorists,” she said, despite the fact that President Obama famously reversed an earlier pledge to renounce the fundamentally flawed military commissions just five months ago.

In response to that reversal on April 4, Amnesty International lamented, “The President came into office pledging to restore the United States’ global reputation by closing the detention facility at Guantanamo and doing away with the widely discredited kangaroo court system cobbled together by the Bush administration. That pledge died today.”

Clinton also highlighted in her “smart power” speech a recent Associated Press investigation into the sharp spike in global arrests and prosecutions of suspected terrorists in recent years. “The AP just did a recent study that there have been 120,000 arrests around the world in the last 10 years of terrorists, and 35,000 convictions,” she said. “Thanks to our military intelligence and law enforcement efforts over the last decade, al-Qaida’s leadership ranks have been devastated.”

Although Clinton heralded these arrests as evidence of an aggressive international approach to counter-terrorism that respects the rule of law, the point of the AP article was actually the exact opposite: While 35,000 people worldwide have been convicted as terrorists in the decade since 9/11, many of these individuals were guilty of nothing more than “waving a political sign or blogging about a protest.”

“The sheer volume of convictions,” reports the AP, “along with almost 120,000 arrests, shows how a keen global awareness of terrorism has seeped into societies, and how the war against it is shifting to the courts. But it also suggests that dozens of countries are using the fight against terrorism to curb political dissent.”

Ten years after the launching of the global war on terror, despite the disingenuous claims of U.S. officials like Hillary Clinton, the ugly realities of this endless war are coming more clearly into focus. If there is a chance of reclaiming the values once championed by Americans, such as the rule of law and respect for human rights, a good place to start would be with repealing the blanket authorization for military force enacted ten years ago.

Barbara Lee, the sole Congressperson to have voted against that authorization on Sept. 14, 2001, has introduced legislation to do just that.

Her ‘Repeal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Act of 2011’ would reverse the 2001 joint resolution providing broad authorization to the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against terrorists anywhere in the world. In a letter to her colleagues, Barbara Lee wrote:

This broad authorization of force has had far-reaching implications which shake the very foundations of our great nation and democracy. It has been used to justify warrantless surveillance and wiretapping activities, indefinite detention practices that fly in the face of our constitutional values, extrajudicial targeted-killing operations, and an ever-growing and indefinite pursuit of an ill-defined enemy abroad.

We must repeal this authorization for use of military force, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and re-focus our energy and efforts into those actions which truly improve our national security, including developing emerging economies and diplomatic efforts.  Please join me as an original cosponsor of this legislation to remove this overly-broad blank check for war anytime, anywhere.

Her proposal follows a public push by the ACLU, Human Rights First and others to strip out of the 2012 Defense Authorization Act language that would radically expand, rather than repeal, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

Section 1034 of the bill reaffirms the original 2001 authorization and grants the president substantial new authority to use military force without specific congressional approval. It declares that the United States is in an “armed conflict” not just with al Qaeda, the Taliban, or “associated forces,” but also an ill-defined category of nations, organizations, and persons that “substantially support” or act “in aid of” al Qaeda, the Taliban, or “associated forces.”

Having passed the House, the legislation is now waiting to be considered by the Senate. When considering whether to repeal or reaffirm the 2001 launching of the war on terror, lawmakers would do well to heed the recent words of former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Mary Robinson, who, along with Barbara Lee, was one of the lonely voices of reason ten years ago:

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