May 25, 2010

Petraeus and Obama’s World Surge

Looks like President Barack Obama’s real military strategy - the Pentagon’s - has finally hit the fan. The New York Times reports:
“The top American commander in the Middle East has ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity in an effort to disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other countries in the region, according to defense officials and military documents. The secret directive, signed in September by Gen. David H Petraeus, authorizes 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.

While the Bush administration had approved some clandestine military activities far from designated war zones, the new order is intended to make such efforts more systematic and long term, officials said. Its goals are to build networks that could “penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy” al-Qaeda and other militant groups, as well as to “prepare the environment” for future attacks by American or local military forces, the document said. The order, however, does not appear to authorize offensive strikes in any specific countries.

In broadening its secret activities, the United States military has also sought in recent years to break its dependence on the Central Intelligence Agency and other spy agencies for information in countries without a significant American troop presence.

General Petraeus’s order is meant for use of small teams of American troops to fill intelligence gaps about terror organizations and other threats in the Middle East and beyond, especially emerging groups plotting attacks against the United States...”
Too many places to start. We noticed many commentators took offense to the NYT leaking the report, but we should be thankful. The directive itself, not its leak, is a detriment to US foreign policy, and the NYT may even be doing the Pentagon’s bidding.

Revealing many details considering its secrecy, the NYT observes, “Special Operations troops have already been sent into a small number of countries to carry out limited surveillance and reconnaissance missions, including operations to gather intelligence about airstrips, bridges and beaches that might be needed for an offensive.

Meaning we can expect US military activity and potentially new hot spots to flare in places we may not expect. The remaining years of Obama’s first term will lay the foundation and experiment while his second term, if he’s lucky enough, would see the policy carried out to the extreme.

The seven-page directive also authorizes specific operations in Iran, “most likely to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive.”

At a time when Iran is crying foul of US spies, this report will only increase the fervor of Iran’s hunt. Washington will surely claim otherwise, but a military outcome appears to have taken center stage.

Widening the circle, “Officials said that many top commanders, General Petraeus among them, have advocated an expansive interpretation of the military’s role around the world, arguing that troops need to operate beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to better fight militant groups.”

While the order is focused on intelligence gathering - by American troops, foreign businesspeople, academics or others - to identify militants and provide “persistent situational awareness,” it also provides the protective shell of the real objective.

“There’s more than enough work to go around,” said CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano. “The real key is coordination. That typically works well, and if problems arise, they get settled.”

The plan calls for Special Forces to locate targets and the CIA to pull the trigger, while also attempting to capture important figures. Mixed with the remnants of George Bush, the new policy is partly a reaction to criticism that Obama is killing too many targets. Fed up, he must have eagerly jumped aboard Petraeus’ world tour.

Though marketed as preventative, Special Forces are ultimately expected to prepare the battleground for future wars. It would seem Petraeus, the self-proclaimed COIN master, has finally cracked; mere counter-terrorism is no substitute proactive counterinsurgency. Without changing the living conditions in every country US Special Forces are sent to, the root problems will remain unresolved and generate new actors and conflict.

The order, drafted in close coordination with Special Forces commander Adm. Eric T. Olson, calls for clandestine activities that “cannot or will not be accomplished” by conventional military operations or “interagency activities,” referring to US spy agencies.

Or political and economic means for that matter.

The Pentagon may think it’s hit on counterinsurgency, but militarism is eating further into politics and diplomacy. Secret talks will occur behind the scenes, but will the political situations in these counties improve? Will their economies blossom?

The NYT gives no indication that the directive focuses on these problems

But Washington should not expect the body to heal if it cuts out a tumor because al-Qaeda infects deteriorating patients. al-Qaeda doesn’t create the conditions of an insurgency, it leeches onto them. If America cannot improve the environments its entering and soften anti-American sentiment, Petraeus’s strategy may amount to no more than a world-wide counter-terrorism offensive.

If the strategy barely works in Pakistan, little chances does it have in even deeper conflicts. Another Blackhawk Down event could be a matter of time - uncertainties cast doubt over the entire operation.

The NYT reports,
“Some Pentagon officials worry that the expanded role carries risks. The authorized activities could strain relationships with friendly governments like Saudi Arabia or Yemen, or incite the anger of hostile nations like Iran and Syria. Many in the military are also concerned that as American troops assume roles far from traditional combat, they would be at risk of being treated as spies if captured and denied the Geneva Convention protections afforded military detainees.

Unlike covert actions undertaken by the C.I.A., such clandestine activity does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress, The precise operations that the directive authorizes are unclear, and what the military has done to follow through on the order is uncertain. The document, a copy of which was viewed by The New York Times, provides few details about continuing missions or intelligence-gathering operations.”
With so many shadows lurking, much like Blackwater and private military contractors, the conditions are ripe for unaccountability in Washington and the field. Also unsaid is the degree US forces will coordinate with Congress: how much will they be told? They weren’t exactly informed of the drone program, and this directive is far darker.

The same goes for foreign governments. Certainly joint operations will be undertaken, but it’s hard to believe America will tell anyone - friend or foe - everything.

Obama must be trying to conjure the specter of empire because this does the job. Petraeus’s new order mirrors US strategy in Afghanistan: when faced with an unstable situation, throw more fuel on the fire. Rather than adjust to entirely new thinking, double down on a losing bet.

Most concerning, “The directive, the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order, signed Sept. 30, may also have helped lay a foundation for the surge of American military activity in Yemen that began three months later.”

The outcome: civilian casualties, falsely reported hits on al-Qaeda leadership, a scramble to downplay US “boots on the ground” (which in fact are on the ground). An al-Qaeda cleric raising havoc as a weak and unpopular government defends itself, fear split between Yemenis and Washington.

Now expand to a dozen states, add a new insurgency, and drop a few bombs on Iran - while still bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq. Welcome to Obama’s “War on Terror.”

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