Shadow Wars

by einsteinapple

President Obama

President Obama

Source used for essay: Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and The Soul of the Obama Presidency (Author, Daniel Klaidman) Link

What is War ?

Does war mean we should have thousands of boots on the ground ? Does the definition include having military tanks and army bases in a strategic region ? Does it mean we have a tacit (and at times, murky), yet mutual understanding of co-operation between both governments (the one that attacks, and the one whose land is a strategic base) ?

These encompass a few of the traditional definitions about warfare. As the world marches towards development, progression and a need for sustainability – there is little doubt that the rules and the art of warfare and counter-insurgency have changed significantly.

No more does a government needs boots on the ground, and neither does it need to acknowledge its official presence, and in strict legal vacuum, it might even present a reasonable case that it is not at war in countries other than Iraq and Afghanistan. These are what we call – ‘Shadow Wars‘. The ones that are very effectively lethal, with almost no footprint on the ground. Are they a moral and legal nightmare ? Probably …

National Security Policy is the holy grail of any presidency – it is as complicated as its political. It is intrinsically complex because it is at the intersection of the congress, and the departments of defense and justice. Add to it the political punditocracy of the ever present media, Guantanamo detention policy, and lobbying groups for human rights such as ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) – it can get pretty chaotic on the first hour, of day one. Then there is always the little obligation of keeping the country safe.

We can have a Republican congressmen who argues her case with merits – indicating that a person who has attacked a country does not deserve the same rights as a criminal, and hence should not be treated as one, in a court in southern Manhattan (and must be shipped away to Guantanamo for detention indefinitely). The devil is always in the details, right ? Does this standard apply to terrorists, or potential terrorists the administration picks up ? Make no mistake, the potential terrorist is just as dangerous as the ones who have already committed the crime, but the crime has not been committed yet – nonetheless. On the contrary, we can have ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) presenting its case (with merits, again) for all criminals needing to be treated adhering strictly to the United States constitutional framework. The latter argument resonates the principle of ‘We are not Them, and we are different from those who want to destroy us‘.

There is no one size fits all responses to these questions, and neither are there any easy responses. I loved these lines from the book: “lawyers, they lived in a world of abstract constitutional analysis and intellectual reasoning, insulated from the raw immediacy of terrorism and its political fallout”. It is true, and I have learned it with age. One of the most important talents of an artist is to choose the most appropriate tool from the box, for the job in hand. Choosing intellectual analyses over middle ground – when it comes to events as visceral as terrorism is analogous to playing flute to deaf ears. As much as the administration wanted to close down Guantanamo, the deal breaker predicated on what one would do with the two hundred inmates.

The Republican congress and the people in general – never warmed up to the idea of bringing the prisoners into the country. Even the few chinese dissidents (incorrectly picked up) were held onto for almost seven years because there was no where they can go – even though the administration wanted to set them free. They were finally shipped off to Bermuda. One has to pick his battles to win, and with the political climate in Washington – the President picked health care policy and economy over detention policy (and some might argue, over constitution). However, decisions made by presidents do not occur in vacuum, and they definitely cannot be binary. In Obama’s case – he always intends to converge rather than dissent, and find middle ground rather than hold on to a specific side of the spectrum.

With time, fact tends towards fiction. In more ways than one, the current administration’s counter-terrorism policy and warfare reminds me of Steven Speilberg’s ‘The Minority Report’. With the rapidly increasing drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, Obama’s administration has walked the fine line between taking terrorists and at times – potential terrorists off the grid with lethal precision. There are perfectly acceptable arguments for both moral and legal standards – on both sides of this complicated spectrum (i.e. right V wrong). But I am more interested in ‘what is‘, in this case rather than ‘what it ought to be‘.

At times, they take out potential combatants through hell fire missiles and drone strikes fired from above. These strikes eliminate high value targets with precision, and intend to avoid civilian casualties at all times (women and children). The classification of which target to eliminiate, and what metrics to apply – for deciding those targets are evolving. As it is with any process that is evolving – mistakes have been made.

Perhaps the lack of attention towards reforming detention policy – dovetails elegantly with the question of what to do with a high value target, when you identify one? If you take him alive, then he proves to be a repository of information using which potential future attacks can be neutralised. But if you take him alive, you have to mirandize him, and would you try him in a military or a civil court of law? Would you bring him into the United States and risk another political fire-storm? At times they keep the target (if captured alive) in a vessel, off the coast near a strategic base, and I find the term ‘Floating Guantanamo‘ for the vessel intriguing. Once they extract immediate information about potential attacks, the FBI take over – for the justice department to handle the case, after the counter-terrorism experts have gotten the information they wanted.

The justice department does not accept any information provided by the prisoner under stress, and hence there has to be a clean transition between the counter-terrorism investigation, and the FBI investigation (which can be used in court to prove the act of terrorism). The conditions provided to the prisoner must be in adherence to The Geneva Convention, and if the prisoner asks for an attorney – you have to provide him one. Most importantly – if the prisoner is a citizen, then it changes the entire dynamic. The more prisoners you capture, the more you will have to house them somewhere. The administration does not know what to do with one Guantanamo, and it definitely does not want to open another one.

Eliminating targets and exercising executive power to make such decisions – are fraught with risk, right ? Setting such presidential precedents are analogous to ‘a loaded weapon lying around’. The grating question of how my successor would extend the limits of such executive decision making remains in every incumbent’s mind, as it does with President Obama’s mind.

As I said, there are no easy decisions. At some point it comes down to the overall benefits and costs of a decision – right? The option of Kill or Capture, will be more of an actual option, when the detention policy is reformed, if its reformed.