Relentless Expansion of the Great War on Terror Despite Achieving Primary Goal

Predator drone (US Air Force photo)

It is widely acknowledged that with the death of Osama bin Laden and a number of other high level leaders, al Qaeda is severely crippled in its one-time haven of Pakistan.  Rather than acknowledging this victory in the primary objective of Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Afghanistan (passed on September 18, 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks) and beginning to phase out the War on Terror, the US instead is finding a new target in Pakistan and building bases from which to launch even more drone attacks in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, moves which amount to a significant expansion of the war effort.

In Pakistan, the Washington Post reports that the US is applying extreme pressure on Pakistan to dissolve the relationship between the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence service) and the Haqqani network:

The Obama administration has sharply warned Pakistan that it must cut ties with a leading Taliban group based in the tribal region along the Afghan border and help eliminate its leaders, according to officials from both countries.

In what amounts to an ultimatum, administration officials have indicated that the United States will act unilaterally if Pakistan does not comply.

This threat of unilateral action is unlikely to be seen as mere bluster since the hit on bin Laden was unilateral.

It turns out that the Haqqani network is yet another example of a group the US helped to form only to become one of its targets:

The organization was formed by Jalaluddin Haqqani as one of the resistance groups fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, with U.S. and Pakistani assistance. In the Afghan civil war that followed, Haqqani sided with the Taliban forces that took power in Kabul in 1996. His fighters fled after the Taliban overthrow in late 2001 to Pakistan, where U.S. intelligence officials think they are in close coordination with al-Qaeda forces.

Pakistani intelligence maintained close connections to the network, now operationally led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the founder’s son, as a hedge against the future in Afghanistan.

The Post article goes on to speculate that the Haqqani network’s attack on the US embassy in Kabul last week may have been final act to drive such strong language coming from Washington.

As if the declaration of a new enemy in Pakistan worthy of unilateral US action were not enough in the escalation of US war efforts, we also learn from the Washington Post that a new network of bases for drones is being built:

The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said.

One of the installations is being established in Ethi­o­pia, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month after an experimental mission demonstrated that the unmanned aircraft could effectively patrol Somalia from there.

The U.S. military also has flown drones over Somalia and Yemen from bases in Djibouti, a tiny African nation at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition, the CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones over Yemen.

Recall that just last week, the Obama administration was depicted as being in an internal debate on the legality of expanding the drone war outside of Pakistan to these very areas where the bases are being built.  Considering that the bases are now already under construction, last week’s “debate” story would appear to have been nothing more than a mere academic exercise whose outcome had already been determined.

Only a fool would bet against Washington choosing more war in more locations.

25 replies
  1. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    I’ll take issue with the next to last paragraph, having heard Charlie Savage talk about this at the Harvard Law School Law, Security and Liberty conference (my writeup here:

    Savage describes his process as hearing chatter for awhile, sensing something’s afoot, then drilling down to find out what they hell that is. He struggles to report things in “real time”.

    So, my reading of this would be: There was a debate and we didn’t hear about it until it was over.

    And the debate, from what was described at the conference (remember, if you know there’s a drone program you can’t talk about the drone program) the debate seemed to be more about how low in the org charts of the terrorist groups you could go and still be considered to be covered by the AUMF. The lower levels of the groups are focused on more parochial concerns than the defeat of the United States, and attacking them requires a logical leap, that their activities are supporting those in their groups who are trying to defeat the US. No one seemed to describe the administration position as “there’s no one there we could attack with drones” just how many and who.

  2. MadDog says:

    The news reports continually describe the new CIA secret airbase as being on the “Arabian Peninsula”.

    Given the geography of the Arabian Peninsula, that means there are only a few countries where that base could be located. A quick examination of a Google Maps will quickly solve the “mystery”:

    1. Saudia Arabia – Not likely given both the recent cooling of relations with the US regarding the Arab Spring, and also because the Saudis have always been concerned about their “birthplace of Islam” public relations appearance problem of having an “infidel” footprint (secret or not) on their territory.

    2. The Gulf Coast states – Not likely either since any drone flightpath would either have to overfly Saudi Arabia or take a really long trip down and around the coast to the Gulf of Aden.

    3. Yemen – Not likely due to current political instability and potential for a new leadership that may be in direct opposition and/or conflict to US policies in the region and in the country.

    4. Oman – Bingo! Bordering Yemen and considered “one of the most developed and stable countries in the region” and “and has long-standing military and political ties with the United Kingdom and United States”.

  3. Jim White says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum: Thanks, I just read your write-up a bit earlier this morning.

    I agree generally with the points you make, so at least maybe we can agree that the “debate” was only for show once it was revealed to have happened.

  4. Jim White says:

    @Jim White: Oops, hit publish too soon. I would add that it would make little sense to build these bases if only the highest level terrorists were being targeted; the fact they’re being built argues that the attacks will target virtually anyone even loosely affiliated with the groups.

  5. MadDog says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum: I think another important part of the “debate” has probably been regarding the differences in Title 10 versus Title 50 authority, reporting requirements, and “plausible deniability” differences between CIA-operated drones and DOD-operated drones.

  6. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    @MadDog: In the context of the conference I was at, the only mentions of Title 10 versus Title 50 was in the context of cyberwar and, I believe, that was by Brennan himself.

    Notable, when someone asked Charlie Savage what he wants to know about from the government it was the Title 10 versus 50 debate in the cyberwar arena. He says he knows that a vast amount of government atention is being spent on this, and he wishes he understood what that meant.

  7. Garrett says:

    Administration official talks to WaPo:

    “What’s different is that we have begun a transition” in Afghanistan, one administration official said. “We’ve got a credible program to build an effective Afghan security force, and transition is happening, whether people like it or not.”

    [Hold on. Excuse me. I’ve got an important call on the other line.

    Rabbani is dead, you say? Maybe Haqanni did it? Wow. Holy shit. Thanks. Bye.

    Now, what was I saying? Oh yeah.]

    “For those who are wedded to the past — past relationships, past support structures — and for those who would destabilize Afghanistan,” the official said, “they’ve got to take account of the fact that things are different.”

  8. MadDog says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum: Interesting! Perhaps they only comfortable talking in public about the purported bloodless nature of Title 10 versus Title 50 Cyberwarfare as opposed to real blood and guts warfare.

    As to the vast amount of government attention to Cyberwarfare, in some sense that follows the same faddish high tech slavishness shown by US consumers.

    Thinking that geek stuff is cool has been going on now for over a decade. Thus speaks the blasé techie for the last 3 decades.

  9. rg says:

    This “debate” about what might be done reminds me of the affair where Harman (was it her?)said she was told about waterboarding as a little something that was being considered that also might be done. When discovered that it had been done, it was also asserted that she had been so “informed”.

  10. Mary says:

    @MadDog: Of course, Al-Jazeera’s head did just step down in Qatar.
    So, with the military already run drones out of Djibouti, any chance that the “secret” site is going to be kind of like the Salt Pit, in essence near but operating independently of the nearby military facility? It would make for some economies of scale, but would you call the peninsula? Back in June/July there were stories that a base was actually being built in Yemen, despite the chaos there – fwiw.

  11. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    @MadDog: On reflection, this has helped me articulate one thing I found off about the conference: it’ focus on the presidency, the, DOJ and the CIA. I don’t think there were any (former) DOD lawyers there, the NSA never got mentioned, Homeland Security was only lightly touched on, and the huge build out of our domestic security apparatus wasn’t talked about.

    I don’t think this was deliberate so much as it was a side effect of who was invited, and this was very much a gathering of two clubs: Harvard and elite national security lawyers, between which there was, of course, great overlap.

    Cyberwarfare wasn’t really touched on either, just referenced by Brennan, and by Julliette Kayyem who talked about it mostly in the context of making corporations pay for their own cybersecurity.

    And almost all of the discussion was “bloodless”. It was only Stephen Carter who stepped right over the euphemism and talked about killing.

  12. Mary says:

    @Garrett: Are they really making the call that Haqqani was behind the Rabbani killing?

    I swear that’s a tangled bit of floss.

    Haqqani and Hekmatyar fight together against the Soviets within one umbrella org. Then they split. Both, but esp Haqqani, have ISI ties. Both are not al-Qaeda and were not al-Qaeda worldwide jihad affiliates, but both were against US occupation of Afghanistan. And now both operate with al-Qaeda ties and Haqqani pretty much asserts allegiance to the Taliban.

    The US tortures to death one of Hekmatyar’s guys early on at the Salt Pit. Haqqani’s crew is behind the bombing of the CIA station/agents and the recent Kabul embassy attack.

    OTOH, Haqqani’s crew have said that they were supportive of the Taliban peace talks that Rabbani was trying to set up, while Hekmatyar was telling Rabbani to suck eggs.

    And the US is sitting there with a big and very painful grievance over Haqqani’s network and our dead CIA agents – while Haqqanico is chirpily saying it’s all about the Taliban peacetalks, while it organizes the also painful and very embarassing Kabul attack that undermines everything Obama ever said about Afghanistan progress. And there’s Obamaco, in the works with lots of drone options on the table, and Panetta and Brennan both telling Pakistan that they are going to just drone out Haqqani’s network – – and Haqqani’s son, the de facto leader of late, goes public with a statement that hope, he’s just chilling with his buds in Afghanistan so those Pak drones the US plans on sending won’t be finding him at home.

    All the agendas, all the mis-speak, double speak, lies, half truths and disassembled facts – even with the haze of it all, it seems to me that there were interests other than the Haqqani network who might want to see Rabbani’s efforts fail and so enable the drone strike/strike-back plans to carry forward with extra impetus, instead of hanging out on hold during talks. Fwiw. I just hadn’t seen Haqqani getting the nod for the Rabbani killing yet. That’s interesting.

  13. Mary says:

    Great post JW.

    Here’s a sideways related story that I think adds some differnt flavor since its from the Asia Times – with a little different twist on their views
    In addition to Panetta, they point to Cameron Munter going on Radio Pakistan and saying that we have evidence linking Haqqani’s network with the Pak gov, and that this was followed up by Brennan saying, “The United States does not view our authority authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to hot battlefields like Afghanistan. We reserve the right to take unilateral action.”

    It seems to me that someone, somewhere (I guess in the non-Dawn Johnsen OLC, although Jeh Johnson is a contender) has decided to take the legal “battelefield” doctrines and introduce a new concept – “hot” battlefields v. “non-hot” aka “the world is our” battlefields.

    Anyway – great post and while I got to it too late to comment, great first post (here) as well.

  14. Garrett says:


    What DOD says:

    Although not yet willing to blame the Haqqani network for assassinating the former Afghan president, Pentagon leaders emphasized today that they will continue to pressure Pakistan to keep insurgents there from spilling into Afghanistan.

    I’m only trying to peer through the haze to see what the U.S. position is. Not to even hazier question of who might have done it.

  15. Mary says:

    @Jim White: I just did a quick google, since the “hot” battlefield vis a vis “legality” of actions under the AUMF is new terminology for me, and mostly found gamer references to hot battlefields, except I did find this one piece recently by Lederman, talking about a Brennan speech:

    The way Lederman uses quotes on the “hot” references as well, yet never really delves into that, may be because it is something he has already posted about a lot, but if so, that didn’t come up in my google search. Or it might be that he is very aware of that use of the terminology and knows it is being used as a presumptively defined term, from his OLC time.

    I had to laugh a bit when I read one of his conclusions – that because Brennan (trained by the CIA – now what is it they train their guys to do, again?) said, in a speech, that the Obama admin is not copping out of legal battles by going ahead and killing off people instead of taking them captive, it is somehow conclusively and verifiably *the truth.* After all – if Brennan and Obama had decided to go ahead and and send out lots of “kill, don’t capture” orders and implement “kill, don’t capture” policies, especially with all the demonstrable instances where those policies and orders resulted in deaths of innocent civilians – – I mean, why wouldn’t they just put it out there? Sure Marty. That’s the ticket – just ask a guy who is ordering up kills if he’s doing it so that, if he has the wrong guy, there won’t be lawsuits, or not. I can’t imagine you’d get a self interested, misleading, answer – and especially not from someone trained to lie.

    Anyway – it’s an interesting synopsis from someone who has always and unabashedly been against any kind of consequences for Executive branch torture. He did a great job of acting shocked over it – but never for a minute did he ever pursue making the case for consequences.

    And here we are.

    The Ledermans and Kohs are the quatum manifestations of Lord of the Rings, the Frodos who give the ring to Galadriel and think that’s the brillian solution – a prettied up holder of the obscene.

  16. Mary says:

    Another reference, again solely in connection with Brennan’s use of the terminology in his speechifying:
    “John Brennan, President Obama’s senior advisor on homeland security and counterterrorism, gave a speech at Harvard Law School in which he defended the United States’ use of drones to kill terrorists who are far from any “hot battlefield.” Brennan argued that the United States is justified in killing members of violent Islamist groups far from Afghanistan if they pose a threat to the United States, even if the threat is not “imminent” as that term has traditionally been understood.” BTW – this games playing with imminence (typically a LEGALLY defined term, that Brennan is now saying he is bribing (uh, strike that, “talking them into”)”our” “counterterrorism” “allies” into accepting was something that Hayden did when he got any pushback after claiming that the US torture was in “self defense” and the pusher-backer would mention the fact that the torture went on for days, weeks, months, years – with the intent of having it go on for months and years to render the detainee mentally changed and “compliant” – he would hint around that the CIA had a definition of imminent that they were using that might not be like what any rational person or court would use.

  17. Mary says:

    This from Ashley Deeks precedes Brennan’s use, but she is coming from the “hot battlefield” of being a legal adviser in Baghdad (where things were handled so swimmingly well) and then in the State Dept – so I do think this is the “kewl kidz” from the Obama admin “discussions” between Pentagon, State & OLC, making up things as they go along. fwiw, and I could well be wrong – I just am not finding a lot of “cold, non-battlefield, but hey, bomb the snot out of them anyway and maybe some of them will even be bad guys” law of war support, although I am not the laws of war expert that oh, say a Marty Lederman or Ashley Deeks would be – once you support aassainations, you’d like to claim expertise, however much it involved making things up on the fly.

  18. fun with impunity says:

    The threat of force is illegal under the UN Charter. Interesting how that problem gets overshadowed by US crime of aggression n+1. Bush got away with it already, but with Obama crippled, Pakistan ought to ask a temporary UNSC member to draft a referral of charges to the ICC.

  19. Don Bacon says:

    This all runs counter to the US National Security Strategy.

    Legal Aspects of Countering Terrorism: The increased risk of terrorism necessitates a capacity to detain and interrogate suspected violent extremists, but that framework must align with our laws to be effective and sustainable. When we are able, we will prosecute terrorists in Federal courts or in reformed military commissions that are fair, legitimate, and effective. For detainees who cannot be prosecuted—but pose a danger to the American people—we must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards. We must have fair procedures and a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified. And keeping with our Constitutional system, it will be subject to checks and balances.

    There is nothing about assassination of suspected violent extremists and their families, which has turned Pakistan citizens even more against the US and has invited counter-assassination.

  20. Mary says:

    @Garrett: You had it – they are saying that they beieve it was the Haqqani network. The details of what happened seem to be very sketchy, though. One report is that Rabbani was meeting with two “senior Taliban” (not Haqqani) and that it was one of the Taliban commanders who detonated the bomb during greetings on what was supposed to be a meeting to discuss reconciliation.

    If the WH needs a reconciliation with the Taliban, though, you can’t lay the assassination directly at Taliban feet – even if there were some reports that a Taliban commander was in touch with Reuters early on and claimed responsiblity. And now the Taliban is walking that claim back and even saying that the commander didn’t talk to Reuters or that he never said what the agency says that he said – and Reuters has a weird statement about their info coming from someone with the commander’s phone number and his voice. Not sure if they are being a bit snarky or if they have reason to phrase it that way now.

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