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February 13, 2013

Obama’s State of the Union: Afghanistan Drawdown & the Covert Drone War

Posted in: War on Terrorism

President Barack Obama delivered his “State of the Union” address on Tuesday night. And though he suggested there may be minimal reductions to wartime spending, he jingoistically declared, “We will maintain the best military the world has ever known.”

The speech renewed the US government’s commitment to a permanent war on terrorism. While it signaled the country would no longer be engaging in full-scale occupations or nation-building efforts while Obama was president, there was no indication that America’s dominance in the world would be reduced. America’s global military footprint of around 1,000 bases would be preserved.

Though the president had said weeks ago in his inaugural address, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” he did not hint at a period of peace in his State of the Union. He did not say anything like a “decade of war is now ending.”

In his address, it sounded like President Obama was definitively announcing the war in Afghanistan, which has been ongoing for twelve years, would be over by the end of 2014. Saluting American troops, he said:

…America will complete its mission in Afghanistan, and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda. Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.

There are about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan right now. Withdrawing 34,000 American troops over the next year will mean approximately 32,000 troops remain in Afghanistan.

Somewhere between 45,000 and 55,000 troops were in Afghanistan at the end of 2008. In 2009, Obama escalated the war with a surge of 30,000 troops that were sent to Afghanistan. So, withdrawing 67,000 troops would still leave tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan, not to mention the private military contractors helping the United States conduct war.

The war would not be over. As long as the US is engaged in missions that involve “training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos” and “counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates,” the war will not be over. It will especially not be over if the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) remains in effect while these missions are ongoing.


Al Qaeda, “the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self,” said President Obama.

In 2009, it was reported that US intelligence officials had concluded there were only about 100 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. The war continued and the United States escalated warfare against al Qaeda, its affiliates and other terror groups in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. (Notably, Pakistan was not mentioned.)

Obama spoke about going after “these groups,” which pose an “evolving” threat. He said America can do it without sending “tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations.” In other words, America doesn’t have to engage in nation-building or wage occupation. America can send in drones and air force artillery to engage in targeted assassinations against terrorists.

It is a false choice. Why do drones or air forces have to be sent in at all? Why can’t there be a third option developed that does not draw an extremist group into a long-drawn out battle they may want to fight that will only further destabilize a country?

Furthermore, it’s purely based on a political calculation that this is warfare that can be fought without costing the lives of Americans. Like Joe Klein said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “Our troops don’t have to do this . . . You don’t need pilots any more because you do it with a joystick in California.” He also said, “Bottom line in the end is - whose 4-year-old get killed? What we’re doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.”

At the end of last year, the Washington Post published a feature story on the drone war in Yemen by Sudarsan Raghavan. It showed in some instances, like with a September 2, 2012 attack, the country’s leaders continue to provide cover for the Obama administration, saying its jets carried out attacks that killed al Qaeda militants when in reality it was a US strike that killed civilians.  It highlighted how the drone war has militants to take up arms against the Yemeni government, which they view as being backed by the US.

Fueling terrorism by waging warfare is something purveyors of American empire never wish to admit they are doing, but the fact is that military interventionism has been directly responsible. For example, Mali is suffering the conflict it is experiencing right now because America intervened in Libya:

Stephen Kinzer, a Boston University professor, wrote in July 2012:

…This catastrophe did not “just happen.” It is the direct result of an episode that may at first seem unrelated: the US-led intervention in Libya last year. Rarely in recent times has there been a more vivid example of how such interventions can produce devastating unexpected results.

Under the regime of Moammar Khadafy, who was killed during the Libyan war, a portion of the army was made up of Tuaregs. They are a nomadic people whose traditional homeland is centered in northern Mali. After Khadafy was deposed, they went home — armed with potent weaponry they brought from Libya. Seeking to press their case for a homeland in Mali, they quickly overran the lightly armed Malian army.

Into this upheaval stepped another group, shaped not by ethnicity but by devotion to an extreme form of Islam. It has attracted Al Qaeda militants from many countries, including Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Algeria. They seek to create a pure Muslim state — and are destroying mosques and Islamic monuments that they believe represent the wrong kind of Islam… [emphasis added]

The US has tried to fight Islamic extremism in Mali.  As the New York Times detailed, “Commanders of [Mali's] elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle.”

an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against… [emphasis added]

The reality is the way America fights terrorism does more to destroy countries than it does to “help” them. That is something African countries should be wary about as the Obama administration expands counterterrorism operations.


Obama said in his speech that his administration had “worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations.”

It is known the administration has been working on a counterterrorism manual or “playbook” that could cover targeted killing operations. The “playbook” is actually expected to exempt CIA drone strikes. But it is hard to know if this is the “framework” he was referencing.

Currently, the “legal” framework for counterterrorism is mostly the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which allows the government to launch just about any operation it wants against any person or group if it can connect that person or group in some way to Al Qaeda. Very little evidence is required to launch an operation, as was demonstrated by the patchwork of legal citations and jargon in the Justice Department’s “white paper” on the legal basis for using lethal force against American citizens.

Obama said, “We have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts.” Anyone who listened to frustrated senators at John Brennan’s CIA confirmation hearing would have thought otherwise. It seems like the Obama Administration has obstructed or, at best, significantly limited what members of Congress are able to know about how targeted killings are being carried out. Up until last week, the legal basis for targeted killings was mostly a secret to Senate members on the intelligence committee.

The president added, “I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way.” The way his administration has set up the targeted killing program to function, one would be forgiven for thinking that Obama expects people to trust he is doing things “the right way,” keep calm and carry on.

He concluded this portion of his speech with the following, “I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” That implies that that America’s targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists has been “transparent.”

The Obama administration has fought groups like the ACLU in court in order to keep information on the drone programs concealed. They have refused to acknowledge the existence publicly. As far as detention goes, it is unclear what type of policy the government has right now, but it would seem it is one where the US government outsources detention to “foreign partners.” What assurances does the US have that those detained are not being tortured or mistreated? How much does the US know?

Also, the practice of rendition never ended. A loophole was left open in an executive order Obama signed in 2009 ordering the CIA to close its secret prisons. To what extent is rendition being used and how many of the secret prisons that were to be shuttered are still open because of a loophole allowing them to remain in use if they were holding detainees for a short period, like a day or two?

Though prosecutions at the Guantanamo military commission are a complete farce, At least most of what is happening is out in the open for the world to see. The government claims to control the “thoughts” and “experiences” of terror suspects being held in the prison. These “thoughts” or “experiences” are classified to the government so they can prevent them from talking about their torture experience at the hands of CIA interrogators in open court. It is a sham compounded by the fact that the presiding judge is quite obviously making up the rules for the military commission process as he goes along. Trials could have taken place in federal courts, but Obama bowed to Republican hysteria.

Finally, exactly how does he plan to be more transparent? Selective leaks? The Obama administration could continue to leak details on efforts to “institutionalize, codify and make as rigorous as possible” processes and procedures involving counterterrorism. After all, someone in the administration has been leaking details on the targeted killing program when leaks are suitable to the administration. Brennan has been considered a suspect and based on remarks about working with reporters, which he made during his hearing, one might certainly suspected he has had something to do with what we do and do not know so far.

Photo by Elizabeth Cromwell under Creative Commons license

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