Obama’s “Ghost Wars” in the Middle East and Central Asia

by Webster Brooks

Those who think President Obama’s combat troop withdrawal in Iraq and the 2011 drawdown of forces in Afghanistan signal America’s retreat from the region should think again. Quite the opposite President Obama’s escalation of secret Special Operations in the Middle East and Central Asia mark a shift in America’s military doctrine to pacify the region; it is an aggressive and long-term strategy. The emerging “Ghost Wars” foreshadow the transformation of America’s military from a conventional force to a counterinsurgency (COIN) centered leviathan. Since taking office President Obama has approved an unprecedented number of assassinations of al-Queda and jihadist leaders. Special Operations missions across the region have been scaled up and the new “Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order” allowing U.S. military commanders to launch intelligence gathering operations are well underway. As the vector of a new counterinsurgency strategy President Obama’s “Ghost Wars” are being buttressed by more U.S. military bases in Central Asia, advanced weapons sales to U.S. allies and NATO enlargement in Southern Eurasia. In short, President Obama is reconfiguring American hard power to prevail in the “Long War” in the Middle East and Central Asia’s epic “Great Game.”  

Under the veil of waging a war to disrupt, dismantle and destroy al-Queda President Obama’s secret wars constitute a far reaching project. Its three central objectives are: the pacification of anti-American Islamists and militant forces; containing Iran, China and Russia’s regional influence and securing a share of the area’s abundant energy resources. As evidenced by recent events in Kyrgyzstan, Somalia and Yemen the region and its authoritarian regimes are increasingly vulnerable to popular upsurges, succession movements, non-state militia challenges, inter-ethnic and religious conflicts and proxy armies sponsored by foreign governments. These flashpoints of instability call for a new American military response–one that is ubiquitous, mobile, stealth and capable of striking quickly with deadly force. Thus President Obama has already approved Special Operations in Georgia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Yemen. Obama’s “Ghost Wars” are forward-leaning and preemptive as America attempts to shape the outcome of events rather than continuing to react to them.    

How to move forward with the “Shadow Wars” has become an intense point of debate with the Obama administration. Since coming to office Obama has tripled the number of predator drone attacks in Pakistan compared to President Bush; launching 87 attacks from January 2009 to June 2010 and claiming over 700 lives. Faulty intelligence rather than inaccurate laser-guided strikes inevitably have resulted in the death of innocent civilians and created sympathy for the very jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan that America seeks to kill and isolate.

Yemen is another case in point where four drone attacks have been launched against al-Queda targets since the failed Christmas day bomber’s attempt to detonate a explosive on a flight from London to Detroit. In May, U.S. drone attacks in Marib Province killed the provincial deputy governor–a personal friend of President Saleh—who was negotiating with AQP members to put down their weapons. The Yemen strikes were conducted under the U.S. military’s Special Access Program, which unlike C.I.A. operations required no presidential authorization or notification to the Congressional intelligence committees. White House officials are now debating whether the Yemen campaign should be taken over by the C.I.A. as a “covert operation” which would allow secret operations to be conducted without the central government of Yemen’s approval. In Somalia, after months of official U.S. denials, it was also confirmed that drone attacks against al-Queda and al Shaabab forces have been launched from neighboring Kenya; expanding Obama’s Ghost Wars to continental Africa and the birthplace of his Muslim father.     

The success of Obama’s new counterinsurgency strategy will be heavily dependent on America retooling its intelligence operations. The CIA’s failure to anticipate the Taliban’s comeback, the explosive Shi’a-Sunni divide in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program and al-Queda’s rapid expansion in Yemen are just a few examples of the agency’s inability to grasp the region’s changing dynamics; they underscore the level of ignorance informing America’s foreign policy blunders in Southern Eurasia’s “Islamic Ark of Instability.” Under the new “Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order” signed in September 2009 by General David Petraeus (then CENTCOM Commander) intelligence Special Operations are now being conducted by the U.S. military, private contractors, foreign businesspeople, academics and other “non-traditional” assets. These Execute Orders for reconnaissance missions, the identification of militants, creating “situational awareness” reports and intelligence gathering on strategic targets reflect the military’s desire to lessen its dependency on the C.I.A. General Petraeus’s message to Washington’s was clear; America can no longer prosecute wars like Iraq and Afghanistan or quell insurgencies in nations whose history, culture religions, movements and leaders we know nothing about.

Indeed President Obama’s adoption of the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy has been largely influenced by General Petraeus, now serving as Commander in Afghanistan. Lionized as the “American Caesar,” Petraeus authored the new U.S. Army/Marine Corp Counterinsurgency Manuel in 2007 and spearheaded the 2008 troop surge in Iraq. He is the chief architect of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in the region. Following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq it was Petraeus who led his own rear-guard insurgency of Army generals against President Bush and President Obama to transform CENTCOM from a conventional to a counterinsurgency (COIN) centered force. Former Afghanistan Commander Stanley McChrystal, Former Iraq Commander Ray Ordierno, Iraq’s new Commander Lloyd Austin and Australian military specialist David Kilcullen whose book “The Accidental Guerrilla” articulated counterinsurgency warfare principles are all apostles of Petraeus’s (COIN) school. His disciples held press conferences, published books, engaged in media leaks and went behind the backs of their superiors in Iraq to implement their counterinsurgency strategies. McChrystal’s interview in Rolling Stone magazine which blasted President Obama and the State Department reflected the frustration driving the “General’s Revolt” and their push to re-order military priorities to pursue their counterinsurgency doctrine. Despite McChrystal’s firing for his insubordinate remarks the general’s public relations campaign succeeded in pressuring President Obama to surge an additional 50,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. 

The politics of the “General’s Revolt” also has profound implications for the future. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars demonstrated that effective counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy require significant military involvement in political assessments, negotiations with insurgent forces, reconstruction projects and other nation building components. Thus far the extension of the military’s power into the President and the State Department’s political domain has created confusion, infighting and the lack of a coherency in both wars. Whether General Petreaus can craft a couunterinsurgency strategy that degrades the Taliban’s forces enough to negotiate a political settlement in Afghanistan remains to be seen. Irrespective of the outcome in Afghanistan the strategic shift to a long-term regional counterinsurgency strategy is moving forward.   

In many ways Pax Americana is confronting its “British Moment.” As England learned after World War I the burden of maintaining empire is a costly and bloody enterprise. Great Britain took control of most of the Middle East following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Wracked by economic crisis and public weariness with Great Britain’s  overseas ventures Winston Churchill withdrew most of England’s troops from Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in 1922; cutting the cost of maintaining England’s overseas deployed forces by 75 percent. Instead, Churchill  expanded England’s intelligence operations, destabilized countries, assassinated Arab leaders, organized coups in Iran and Iraq, installed pliant regimes, sponsored proxy forces and conjured up oil pipeline routes.  President Obama’s Ghost Wars bear all the markings of Britain’s failed global project that ended after World War II. Ironically, the same Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations that Britain literally created by drawing lines on maps to dismember the Ottoman Empire irrespective of ethnicity, culture, language and religion are erupting anew. Fully cognizant of England’s failed fifty year struggle to subdue Afghanistan in order to secure its imperial writ in India, Obama is maneuvering to avoid meeting his Waterloo in Kabul on the Central Asian steppes. With the unleashing of President Obama’s Ghost Wars the U.S. is now fully immersed in the three-dimensional geo-political chess match known as the “Great Game.” However, if history serves as a guide, the next decisive moves may not come from Iran, Russia, China or the United States but the people of Central Asia and the Middle East whose stake in the game makes them far more than sacrificial pawns.  

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