History repeats itself with 'war on terror'
More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, we are finally getting a clearer picture of the ways in which the United States is waging what it calls its "war on terrorism."
At the center of the government's strategy has been the decision to shift the focus away from capturing and interrogating alleged terrorist suspects to killing them, with a series of covert wars prosecuted mostly by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command frequently relying on so-called kinetic operations: night raids, "find, fix and finish" operations, cruise missile strikes, and the increasing use of drones.
Yet these approaches raise not only fundamental legal and moral questions, but also doubts about their long-term strategic effectiveness. And, to a historian, they also carry disturbing echoes of the past.
Decades ago, Latin American regimes allied with the U.S., and then the U.S. government itself, insisted that they were fighting a war on terrorism. In the process, they resorted to methods and tactics that themselves fit any reasonable definition of terrorism. Indeed, America's "targeted killings" and the 2004 decision to fund and train Iraqi special commandos echo very specific practices of the 1970s and 1980s. Considered in such a historical context, they highlight some of the fundamental contradictions and inconsistencies that lie at the heart of the discourse on terrorism.
Take the case of Orlando Letelier, who was one of the most vocal opponents of the Pinochet regime in Chile. In 1976, he was killed by a car bomb in the streets of Washington, DC. Planned by the Chilean secret services, this action was reportedly carried out by members of the U.S.-based Cuban Nationalist Movement. Fast forward to today, during recent Senate hearings on "targeted killings and the drone wars," and Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks has expressed concerns that U.S. practices may weaken the rule of law and set dangerous precedents. Were the Letelier assassination to have taken place today, she explained, the Chilean government would likely use arguments similar to those of the Obama administration when justifying strikes in Yemen or Somalia.
In the 1970s, the leaders of Chile and several other Latin American military regimes repeatedly referred to the threat to national security posed by "subversives" and "terrorists." In fact, they often insisted that they were waging a war against terrorism."
Faced with a supposed coordinated terrorist threat, these states implemented a coordinated response: a secret program called Operation Condor, under which they shared intelligence and sent hit teams across international borders to find, capture, torture and kill hundreds of so-called terrorists. Letelier was simply Condor's most famous victim.
How did the U.S. react? The government's refusal to declassify countless documents makes it hard for us to assess just how much the United States knew about Operation Condor. But documents that have been declassified suggest that U.S. officials did little to stop such practices and that in their private communications with their allies, they agreed that the threat of "terrorism" required drastic measures.
Regardless, in public, the Letelier assassination was condemned as an act of international terrorism, and led to the U.S. ending all aid to Chile. But this surely begs the question of whether current targeted killing practices resembling the Letelier case should themselves be condemned as acts of terrorism?
The implementation of the "Salvador Option for Iraq" raises similarly awkward questions.
Faced with a growing insurgency, in 2004 the Bush administration initiated an important shift in strategy and started funding and training Special Police Commandos. Their methods were brutal, and are alleged to have included the widespread use of torture.
The program was reportedly advised by retired Colonel Jim Steele, a highly decorated soldier during the Reagan years who led a group of U.S. advisers training and funding El Salvador's security forces. El Salvador was central to Reagan's discourse on "terrorism" and he repeatedly insisted that the Salvadoran security forces needed U.S. military aid to defeat the threat.
Yet it would be impossible to define terrorism in a way that would include the Salvadoran leftwing forces, which the Reagan administration repeatedly labeled as terrorists, without also including the rightwing forces funded and trained by the United States, and which were responsible for the overwhelming majority (as much as 90 percent) of civilian deaths during that conflict.
That the U.S. government decided to implement similar policies in Iraq in 2004, a country supposedly at the heart of the war on terrorism at the time, underscores how murky and ideological the discussion of terrorism has become, especially in the post-9/11 years.
Sadly, implemented in secrecy and outside any system of accountability, policies in the so-called war on terror are often immoral, of dubious legality, and of less than obvious long-term strategic value. At home, meanwhile, they have led to the troubling erosion of civil liberties.
America would be better served if the whole narrative of the war on terror were retired and the "war" itself -- both at home and way -- with it.
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