Belmont Club

What They Did Last Summer

Back in 2013 Jonathan Hafetz noticed that new military capabilities were evolving to cope with the Western distaste for war. Covert battlefields were being created to feed the public demand for invisible conflict.  The antiwar constituencies of Western had reached the stage where even Left-wing governments found themselves hampered in the use of force.  To circumvent this restriction, they created a whole system of secret war.

But covert capabilities came at a high price.  The fact of their political invisibility simultaneously removed the urgency of victory and made it possible for the first time in the history of elected governments to decouple war from strategy.  Hafetz wrote that it now seemed possible to manage threats, not to defeat them.  In fact the words “defeat” and “victory” vanished from lexicon.

Drone strikes and other covert “kill or capture” operations have come to define President Obama’s approach to national security, much as the military detention of terrorism suspects at Guantánamo did his predecessor’s. …

These secret operations are the subject of Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth and Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. The books, both by investigative journalists, provide fresh insights into the ways in which drones are altering the United States’ approach to war and the institutions that wage it. But their biggest contribution is to highlight how drones help to mask the absence of an effective long-term strategy for dealing with terrorism, an absence that President Obama acknowledged in his May 23 speech at the National Defense University even as he defended the drone program’s continued vitality.

The new methods meant that war, which was once a supreme crisis governed by constitutional limitations, was converted almost at stroke into something routine.  Converted into intelligence operations in fact, accountable only to the president and expandable at will.  Hafetz continued:

The U.S. military, meanwhile, has become more like the CIA. Mazzetti describes how JSOC forces are “sheep-dipped” into the CIA’s command, thus bringing JSOC under the CIA’s authority. This is a legal fiction that transforms a traditional military activity into a covert action, allowing JSOC to operate in secret beyond recognized war zones and to bypass opposition from other countries to U.S. military forces acting on their territory.

Nor was this mere literary hyperbole. Leon Panetta who was Obama’s Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009 to 2011 and Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013 told an event sponsored by Fortune Magazine that the administration hadn’t a strategic plan in years.

“We’re operating on a crisis basis,” Leon Panetta, who was America’s top spy for most of President Obama’s first term, said on Wednesday at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco. “When a crisis occurs, we respond to the crisis. But we don’t have any kind of larger strategy to try to deal with what’s happening in the Middle East, what’s happening with ISIS.” …

Panetta suggested that failure to develop a broader strategy imperils the work the administration is doing — including the nuclear deal with Iran — to contain the chaos erupting in the region. “Every arms agreement is a gamble,” Panetta said, but this one was struck “in a vacuum, without an overarching strategy as to how are we going to deal with ISIS and with the threat from Iran.”

The lack of an “overarching strategy” did nothing to limit war.  In fact, its absence abetted the spread, for there was no principle to govern deployment. Untethered by public debate, unaccountable to Congress, the use of lethal force and intrusive intelligence gathering operations spread far and wide; growing through a thicket of memorandums with foreign governments, authorized by secret “findings” and empowered by a burgeoning technology, expanding to the point where it now threatens to blow back upon the surprised streets of the West, like a bolt descending suddenly out of the blue.

[Panetta was] confident in the ability of America’s counter-terrorism agencies to disrupt larger-scale September 11-style attacks. But that threat has been replaced by another that’s much tougher to contain — that of a lone-wolf operator returning from an ISIS campaign bent on wreaking havoc at home, or, potentially more dangerous, one radicalized here without ever landing on the radar of U.S. intelligence. “How do you protect against that?” he asked.

The infrastructure to support the secret wars has been growing over the years.  The rise of foreign and domestic surveillance deserves an essay all to itself.  But today, a network of secret bases, landing strips, agents in place, spotters and communications networks has been laid over the length and breadth of the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Fleets of unmarked planes, swarms low visibility drones and and secret warriors make up a ghostly army that is endlessly engaged.

When the Pentagon announced plans to send a team of commandos to Syria, no one seemed to stop and ask the most basic question – how are they going to get into an active war zone in the first place? Official documents show that the U.S. Air Force likely set the stage for this secretive mission years ago. …

In 2013, so-called Assault Zone Reconnaissance Teams — a.k.a. AZRTs — scouted out nearly 300 landing zones, drop zones, refueling points and other sites “throughout the Middle East,” according to an official Air Force history War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. …

“There’s a lot of work going on at SOC FWD locations — SOC FWD Yemen, Lebanon, Oman, all the GCC — the Gulf Cooperation Council,” a member of the 720th Special Tactics Group wrote in a February 2014 email reproduced in the historical review. …

All important allies for Washington, GCC members host American troops and planes at a constellation of air bases and other major facilities in the Arabian Peninsula. By 2010, the Pentagon had a commando task force dedicated to training with soldiers from all six countries.

An awareness of this infrastructure may explain why high ranking Democrats panicked when president Obama announced the deployment of “50 commandos” to the fight against ISIS.   They weren’t so much worried about the periscope but the submarine connected to it which might broach at any minute.  Bringing the “commandos” out the shadows threatned to blow the lid off a secret war that had been on for years.

Mr. Obama’s allies on Capitol Hill voiced deepening worry this week over the decision to send up to 50 U.S. special-operations troops to northeastern Syria, a departure from Mr. Obama’s efforts to keep U.S. ground forces out of the country. While Republicans viewed the deployment’s size as paltry, many Democrats worried that even 50 commandos would be too many.

“It’s hard not to be concerned when the president very clearly ruled out putting troops on the ground in Syria and now they’re on their way into the battle,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), who said he expected the deployments would be followed by others. “We’ve crossed a line here that’s hard to understand.”

Democrats’ distancing from Mr. Obama’s Syria strategy leaves the president more isolated in defending an approach he had been reluctant to take. After years spent trying to draw down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Obama has tried to avoid a deeper entanglement in Syria.

Everybody wants to act surprised. Nobody wants to admit what they knew all along. The current situation evolved from the administration’s belief that it could have its cake and eat it too.  Special Forces advocates argued that small, secret and lethal forces could replace the politically risky deployments of the past.  Politicians grasped at the chance of having a secret army,  the ground force’s equivalent of the Air Force’s Stealth Bomber.

What could go wrong? By teaming up with counterpart SOF forces in the region, the administration built up an empire of man-hunters of which the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC) in Jordan is perhaps the most public face. The facility, “set against a dramatic pocketed plateau on the northern outskirts of Amman” has been called a “Disneyland for elite forces”.

KASOTC looks more like an elaborate movie studio back-lot than a military training range, with over 6,000 acres of kill houses, firearms ranges, MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) villages, its own Airbus A300 and a mini-airport (it also has a smaller jet), driving track, along with many other full-sized obstacles and a towering sheer rock-face for which operators can test and refine their skills.

Compared to many other MOUT-like special forces training ranges, KASOTC’s technology for simulating intense combat scenarios, and debriefing those scenarios after the fact, is considered the best in the world. Akin to the Nellis Range Complex for combat pilots back in the US (another place where nations come together from all over the world to train under varying near-combat conditions during exercises like RED FLAG), KASOTC puts special forces into a chaotic warfare environment, with fog, machine gun sounds, blast effects, and opposition forces, as well as incredibly detailed recording or the whole simulation from an individual level on up.

Not that there’s anything wrong with secret island bases for SEALs and surveillance to hunt down the enemy.  Their general existence and support for their overall mission should have been disclosed publicly for years.  What is wrong is it was kept under wraps, which will come as rude shock to the legions of liberal true believers who thought they had banished war from the world only to discover it has moved overnight in an unmarked van into the neighborhood.

This unpleasant possibility began to dawn on Daniel Byman of Slate who warned that “A New, Scarier Phase in the War Against ISIS” was in the works. He added that “if the group really did put a bomb on that Russian plane, we’re in big trouble.” The possibility that ISIS may control the security personnel at international airports has caused the false confidence to evaporate.  The first shoe to drop is the threat has been real all along.  The second shoe to drop is that Obama has been fighting against it under the table all along, feebly, so it wouldn’t be noticed.

Knowing that yet another band of bloodthirsty thugs might attack it is not likely to worsen the misery of flying beyond its present levels, though it may mean you might want to cancel your spring break trip to eastern Libya.

Even more importantly, a new civil-airliner attack would mean the battlefield is expanding. It would mean that rather than striking Russian bases and personnel in Syria, the Islamic State is hitting them wherever they might be found—in this case leaving an Egyptian tourist resort. Here the Islamic State’s affiliates become important, for they greatly expand the range of where ISIS could conceivably launch an attack.

The public is waking up to the sad fact that the promised peace was mostly smoke and mirrors.   If the Russian airliner disaster was the most recent tocsin, Rene Marsh and Steve Almasy noted some time ago on CNN that there are now many places in the world where airliners must fly at over 30,000 feet to remain reasonably safe.  The Daily Mail has a handy map of countries which it is now perilous for airliners to cross.  If their names — Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Congo and the Sinai — sound familiar it is only because they are more or less the places of the wars that never were, but actually are.

Unfortunately the radar absorbing paint has fallen off Obama’s conflicts.   The Washington Post writes “After vowing to end two wars, Obama may leave three behind”.  Make that seven. The millions refugees now flooding Europe, the entry of Russia into the Syrian whatever and now the open use of “commandos” have exposed what the administration tried so long to hide.

The shame is not that it has waged war when necessary but did so in secret, without accountability and without a clue.  Because they never had to explain it to others, they never even explained it to themselves.

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