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Turmoil in the United States…

ISN Security Watch

ISN Security Watch

ISN Security Watch was a geopolitical news publication run by ISN ETH Zurich.

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America and the Jungle of Serpants

An official directive that grants the US army expanded counterinsurgency powers reveals Washington’s imprisonment in an exhausted vision of security.

An early decision of Bill Clinton after he became president in January 1993 was the appointment of R James Woolsey as director of the CIA. At his Senate confirmation hearings, Woolsey was asked how he would to characterise the current era, following the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He replied that the United States had slain a "large dragon" (the Soviet threat) only to find itself living "in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes".

George W Bush made a similar point in his own style during the campaign for the United States presidency in 2000:

“When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world and we knew exactly who the 'they' were. It was us versus them and we knew exactly who ‘them’ was. Today we're not so sure who the 'they' are, but we know they're there.”

The identity of some of the “they” became apparent on 11 September 2001. The United States chose not to respond by studying and searching “the jungle” and seeking them out, but by tearing through that jungle and waging two multi-year wars in the process.

A new script

In the early months of 2010, it had begun to look as if at least one of those destructive wars - that in Iraq - might at last be easing. The number of US troops in the country fell below 100,000 for the first time since 2003, a symbolic reduction that was accompanied by a military surge in Afghanistan that exceeded the same figure (see Ben Farmer, “US troops in Afghanistan surpass number in Iraq”, Daily Telegraph, 26 May 2010).

But the violence in Iraq is continuing and perhaps even intensifying. Much of it may be due to the release of many thousands of prisoners detained without trial for months and years in US-controlled prisons. There are disturbing signs that many of them have enhanced their sense of purpose and organisation while in prison, and are now re-invigorating the Sunni-based insurgency (see “Iraq says prisoners released by US rejoined Qaeda”, AFP, 18 May 2010). This may become so serious that it could even check the Barack Obama administration’s intention to reduce the number of American forces to barely 50,000 by September 2010 (see Borzou Daraghi, “Iraq’s middle class short on hope”, Los Angeles Times, 21 May 2010).

Meanwhile, the reinforced US presence in Afghanistan is gearing up to try and take control of the key Taliban centre of Kandahar city, just as the Taliban themselves accelerate their own policy of selective assassinations of those deemed close to the American purpose (see Richard A Oppel Jr & Taimoor Shah, “A Killing Further Erodes Afghan Faith in Leaders”, New York Times, 20 April 2010).

This latest tactical change by the paramilitaries is especially significant. In many previous such switches of emphasis, the militants have been responding to US operations (such as when retreating before the Nato/Isaf offensive in Marjah, central Helmand, in February 2010); but the Kandahar assassinations are designed to help pre-empt any possibility of US success in a conflict yet to come (see Ulrike Demmer & Matthias Gebauer, “The Taliban's New Threat to NATO”, SpiegelOnline, 26 May 2010).

Kandahar is one of the two main areas where the US is focusing its counterinsurgency efforts. The tactics include deploying special forces in night-time raids on houses and compounds where they kill or detain presumed insurgents. The other key zone is north Waziristan, across the border in northwest Pakistan, where armed drones are the more common weapon of choice.

These are targeted efforts to address threats to American (or Pakistani) control in specific localities. A much wider issue is the existence of al-Qaida-connected groups in areas well beyond the “AfPak” theatre. The Pentagon’s reaction to this phenomenon includes a directive signed on 30 September 2009 by General David H Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, permitting the expanded use of special-force units across the broader region (see Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. Is Said to Expand Secret Actions in Mideast”, New York Times, 24 May 2010).

The directive - formally entitled the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order - is reported by the New York Times to authorise:

“the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces. Officials said the order also permits reconnaissance that could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate.”

An old dream

At first sight, a reasonable response to this news is “so what?” After all, the United States staged cruise-missile raids in the 1990s against targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan; and in the 2000s the CIA has carried out drone-attacks in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

More generally, the US marines and the CIA operated in numerous countries across Latin America and the Caribbean during the cold-war years. The marines in particular were in the frontline of protecting US interests throughout central America even in the 1920s and 1930s (see Max Boot, The Savage Wars Of Peace: Small Wars And The Rise Of American Power [Basic Books, 2003]).

The Latin America specialist Jenny Pearce chronicles much of that in her book Under the Eagle (Latin American Bureau, 1982). She also reproduces the testimony of marine-corps General Smedley D Butler, speaking in 1933:


“I spent thirty-three years and four months in active service as a member of our country's most agile military force - the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from a second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that time I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism. Thus I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank to collect revenues in… I helped pacify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras 'right' for American fruits companies in 1903.”

Many connecting features link General Butler's experience in the first decades of the 20th century, and the US military’s adventures in the “greater middle east” in the first decade of the 21st (see James R Arnold, Jungle of Snakes: A Century of Counter insurgency Warfare from the Philippines to Iraq [Bloomsbury, 2009]). But the current plans also represent an important departure from the cold-war days (when the CIA played the leading role in non-conventional foreign projects) in that the US army and special forces will be allowed to take the initiative in operations in friendly - as well as hostile - states (see Rupert Cornwell, “US to launch covert strikes on terror targets”, Independent, 26 May 2010).

In a range of countries - Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia - the United States army’s regular forces will now be engaged in a further extension of the “war on terror”. True, it is more than likely that this has been covertly the case for several years; but that the process is now being formalised marks an important moment.

This, moreover, comes at the very time when the US seeks to put multilateral diplomacy and "new partnerships" at the centre of a new natural-security strategy published on 27 May 2010. Barack Obama's introduction to the sixty-page document even says: "Our long-term security will not come from our ability to instill fear in other peoples but through our capacity to speak to their hopes" (see Toby Harnden, "President Obama declares the War on Terror is over", Daily Telegraph, 27 May 2010).

The tension between this sentiment and the explicit counterinsurgency directive that preceded it is obvious. The latter is but one part of a transition which the United States deems necessary if it is to respond successfully to the challenge of irregular or asymmetric warfare in the early 21st century. In the context of the dominant thinking of the post-cold-war period enunciated so vividly by R James Woolsey, the policy represents a deepening of the desire to “tame the jungle”. It is certain that the jungle will, in due course, find its own ways to adapt and respond.

By. Paul Rogers

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