Syria: Four Blackhawk helicopters skimmed across the Iraqi border, landing at a small farmhouse near the town of al-Sukkariyeh. Black-clad soldiers poured from the choppers, laying down a withering hail of automatic weapons fire. When the shooting stopped, eight Syrians lay dead on the ground. Four others, cuffed and blindfolded, were dragged to the helicopters, which vanished back into Iraq.
Pakistan: a group of villagers were sipping tea in a courtyard when the world exploded. The Hellfire missiles seemed to come out of nowhere, scattering pieces of their victims across the village and demolishing several houses. Between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009, 60 such attacks took place. They killed 14 wanted al-Qaeda members along with 687 civilians.
In each of the above incidents, no country took responsibility or claimed credit. There were no sharp exchanges of diplomatic notes before the attacks, just sudden death and mayhem.
War without Declaration
The F-16s were Israeli, their target an alleged shipment of arms headed for the Gaza Strip. The Blackhawk soldiers were likely from Task Force 88, an ultra-secret U.S. Special Forces group. The Pakistanis were victims of a Predator drone directed from an airbase in southern Nevada.
Each attack was an act of war and drew angry responses from the country whose sovereignty was violated. But since no one admitted carrying them out, the diplomatic protests had no place to go.
The "privatization" of war, with its use of armed mercenaries, has come under heavy scrutiny, especially since a 2007 incident in Baghdad in which guards from Blackwater USA (now Xe) went on a shooting spree, killing 17 Iraqis and wounding scores of others. But the "covertization" of war has remained largely in the shadows. The attackers in the Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan were not private contractors, but U.S. and Israeli soldiers.
In his book The War Within, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward disclosed that the U.S. military has developed "secret operational capabilities" to "locate, target, and kill key individuals in extremist groups."
In a recent interview during a Great Conversations event at the University of Minnesota, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh revealed a U.S. military "executive assassination ring," part of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Hersh says that "Congress has no oversight" over the program.
According to a 2004 classified document, the United States has the right to attack "terrorists" in some 15 to 20 nations, including Pakistan, Syria, and Iran. The Israeli military has long used "targeted assassinations" to eliminate Tel Aviv's enemies. U.S. and NATO "assassination teams" have emerged in Iraq and Afghanistan, where, according to the UN, they have killed scores of people. Philip Alston of the UN Human Rights Council charges that secret "international intelligence services" allied with local militias are killing Afghan civilians and then hiding behind an "impenetrable" wall of bureaucracy.
When Alston protested the killing of two brothers in Kandahar, "not only was I unable to get any international military commander to provide their version of what took place, but I was unable to get any military commander to even admit that their soldiers were involved," he told the Financial Times.
In Iraq, such special operations forces have carried out a number of killings, including a raid that killed the son and a nephew of the governor of Salahuddin Province north of Baghdad. The Special Operations Forces (SOF) stormed the house at 3AM and shot the governor's 17-year-old son dead in his bed. When a cousin tried to enter the room, he was also gunned down.
Such "night raids" by SOFs have drawn widespread protests in Afghanistan. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, night raids involve "abusive behavior and violent breaking and entry," and only serve to turn Afghans against the occupation.
Iraqi Prime Minster Nuri Kamal al-Maliki charged that a March 26 raid in Kut that killed two men violated the new security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq.
The Predator strikes have deeply angered most Pakistanis. Owais Ahmed Ghani, governor of the Northwest Frontier Province, calls the drone strikes "counterproductive," a sentiment that David Kilcullen, the top advisor to the U.S. military in Afghanistan, agreed with in recent congressional testimony. The U.S. government doesn't officially take credit for the attacks.
Budgets and Strategy
If Congress agrees to the Defense Department budget proposed by Pentagon chief Robert Gates, attacks by SOF and armed robots will likely increase. While most the media focused on the parts of the budget that step back from the big ticket weapons systems of the Cold War, the proposal actually resurrects a key Cold War priority of the 1960s.
"The similarities between Gates' proposals and the strategy adopted by the Kennedy administration are too great to ignore," notes Nation defense correspondent Michael Klare. These similarities include "a shift in focus toward unconventional conflict in the Third World."
Gates' budget would increase the number of SOFs by 2,800, build more drones like the Predator and its bigger, more lethal cousin, the Reaper, and enhance the rapid movement of troops and equipment. All of this is part of General David Petraeus's counterinsurgency doctrine.
The concept is hardly new. The units are different than they were 50 years ago — Navy SEALS and Delta Force have replaced Green Berets — but the philosophy is the same. And while the public face of counterinsurgency is winning "hearts and minds" by building schools and digging wells, its core is 3AM raids and Hellfire missiles.
The "decapitations" of insurgent leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is little different — albeit at a lower level — than Operation Phoenix, which killed upwards of 40,000 "insurgent" leaders in South Vietnam during the war in Southeast Asia.
In the past, war was an extension of a nation's politics "too important," as World War I French Premier Georges Clemenceau commented, "to be left to the generals."
But increasingly, the control of war is slipping away from the civilians in whose name and interests it is supposedly waged. While the "privatization" of war has frustrated the process of congressional oversight, its "covertization" has hidden war behind a wall of silence or denial.
"Congress has been very passive in relation to its own authority with regard to warmaking," says Princeton international law scholar Richard Falk. "Congress hasn't been willing to insist that the government adhere to international law and the U.S. Constitution."
The SFOs may be hidden, but there are eight dead people in Syria, four of them reportedly children. There are at least 39 dead in northern Sudan, and more dead in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of civilian dead in Pakistan runs into the hundreds.
The new defense budget goes a long ways toward retooling the U.S. military to become a quick reaction/intervention force with an emphasis on counterinsurgency and covert war. The question is: Where will the shadow warriors strike next?
Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.