'The Way of the Knife'

Shadow Wars and Killer Robots

by Chris Barsanti

26 June 2013

In Mark Mazzetti’s essential book, the entire dark alchemy of America’s post-9/11 campaign of worldwide assassinations and dirty tricks, where soldiers started acting like spies and spies turned into soldiers, is revealed in gripping and sobering detail.

Death From Above

cover art

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth

Mark Mazzetti

US: Apr 2013

“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

When people of the future look back on America’s first wars of the 21st century, they will study the flash-bang invasions and slow-death occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq in the decade-and-a-half following 9/11. Lessons to be learned are many and complex, though occasionally quite simple. Don’t invade countries without an exit strategy, for example. Avoid using vengeful locals or untrained and unsupervised National Guardsmen to run prisons; that would be another. Train at least a few guys to speak something besides English—preferably the langue of the country they’re occupying.

It’s less clear what lessons will be gleaned from America’s third undeclared and so-far nameless war; since we’re still right in the middle of it. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife makes for an incisive guide to what he terms the “shadow war” being waged in multiple countries around the world, away from prying eyes.

With crisp, precision reporting, Mazzetti lays out a chronology of how one thing led to another after al-Qaeda’s asymmetric attacks in 2001 and the ruinously bloody and inconclusive invasions that followed exposed glaring weaknesses in both the American military and its intelligence services. The former could still wage the big-division land warfare last fought a half-century earlier in Korea, but not flexible enough to hunt down pockets of insurgents in the Yemeni desert. The latter had terabytes of data at their fingertips but little ability to turn it into actionable intelligence that somebody could act on.

What followed was a years-long shift in national defense structures and priorities as revolutionary as anything since the Vietnam War. Starting in the George W. Bush administration, figures like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Central Intelligence Agency director Porter Goss used their bureaucratic knife-fighting skills to bend their clanking bureaucracies into sleeker, faster operations. At the same time, these post-9/11 strategists fought to sever the cords that bound the military and spy hives like the CIA and the National Security Agency to any oversight or limitations.

Just after 9/11, the bloody-fang intensity of people like Dick Cheney and Counterterrorist Center Director Cofer Black—famous around Washington for telling Bush that the CIA would leave Osama bin Laden and his cohorts with “flies walking across their eyeballs”—meant that rules against assassinations enacted after the ‘70s Church investigations of the CIA were not so much discarded as evaded. (Cheney had always resented Congress telling the executive branch how to do, well, anything, even when he was serving in Congress.) While Rumsfeld, jealous of the attention an energized CIA received for sweeping into Afghanistan just weeks after 9/11, ramped up the military’s secret commando capabilities under the Joint Operations Special Command (JSOC), the CIA started creating their own paramilitary force. In a short matter of time, the spies were acting like soldiers and the soldiers were acting like spies. And all of them were given licenses to kill, around the world.

All of this made for a dramatic change in how the wars would be waged. Mazzetti describes America’s years-long pursuit of fleeting cells of terrorists by “using killer robots and special-operations troops… [paying] privateers to set up clandestine spying networks and [relying] on mercurial dictators, unreliable foreign intelligence services, and ragtag, proxy armies.” Both JSOC and the CIA fielded their own teams of helicopter-borne commandos and remote-controlled, missile-equipped drones. These long-distance strikes were regularly claimed to be more of a “scalpel” than the regular army’s “hammer.” Unsurprisingly, Mazzetti’s book is littered with instances where that scalpel went horribly wrong, killing dozens of civilians at a time with little record left behind of why a particular strike was ordered or who could be held responsible.

The shadow war has ripped for years across poor, hardscrabble lands from Afghanistan to Yemen and Somalia, and places that will probably remain secret for some time. The occupation of Iraq was more of a brute force affair, dealing as it did with urban terrain and thousands of unemployed soldiers with easy access to Saddam’s old armories. There wasn’t as much room there for the efficiencies of drones and SEAL Team raids, both of which lend themselves to depopulated areas. 

In the Afghanistan war, where the enemy was spread across wide, empty spaces and American forces were thin on the ground, the new dirty-war capabilities were seen as a force multiplier. They could also be used to occasionally stab at Taliban redoubts across the border in Pakistan, without technically invading a sovereign nation. A good part of Mazzetti’s book analyzes the perpetually fraught relationship between the American spy and military services and their Pakistani counterparts, some of whose affinity for the Taliban (as a counterweight to Indian influence in Afghanistan) was barely hidden. In both Pakistan and later in Yemen, America launched attacks on insurgents or those it thought were insurgents with seeming impunity, while the local governments denied that the Americans had anything to do with the missiles raining down out of the clear blue sky.

Just like Jeremy Scahill’s recent Dirty Wars, a similar in scope but less vividly reported work, The Way of the Knife shows the frequent black comedy that resulted when America’s new-style warriors tried to circumvent any limits put on their actions by either the Bush or Obama administrations. One particularly Kafka-esque trick termed “sheep-dipping” had JSOC’s SEALs temporarily turned over to the CIA so they could operate under the agency’s Title 50 covert-action authority. This would then allow SEALs—who as soldiers are constrained under Title 10 of the United States Code from operating outside of declared war zones—to, say, jump out of a helicopter in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and gun down whoever they were ordered to without it being treated as invading a supposedly allied country. Neat, but not necessarily legal or wise in the long run.

One of the most surprising facets of Mazzetti’s book is just how little substantive debate there seemed to be about the strange new world that the American establishment was rushing into. Much has been made, for instance, about the Obama team’s operating a cleaner kind of foreign intervention than the supposedly more lead-footed Bushies. This may not be as simple as all that. For instance, Mazzetti notes that the torture of detainees outlawed by Obama in 2009 had already been mostly done away with years earlier, for one very good reason:

“Each hit the CIA took for its detention-and-interrogation program pushed CIA leaders further to one side of a morbid calculation: that the agency would be far better off killing, rather than jailing, terror suspects.”

Killing, for instance, an American citizen like radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (executed by remote-controlled missile in Yemen in 2011), no doubt appeared much simpler than capturing and trying him back in America for treason. This was the new way. No more the widely-televised and -protested shock and awe of a lightning-fast armor and air assault into Iraq with tens of thousands of soldiers. Now, JSOC and the CIA could just move down the ever-widening target lists, deleting them one by one with nobody the wiser (except for the family members or friends or bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the Hellfire missile tore them to shreds). Not for nothing does Mazzetti term the armed Predator drone “the ultimate weapon for a secret war.”

Mazzetti also writes about when things got messier, and not just when the shadow war claimed innocent lives, whose identities and numbers would remain unknown or deeply classified. There was also the decision by Washington to pay warlords in Somalia and later support an entire invading Ethiopian army to fight proxy battles against extremist groups like al Shabaab. That seemed a neat way to avoid sending troops back to the land of Black Hawk Down. No matter that the “lead-footed” and brutal Ethiopian invasion turned into a “recruiting bonanza” for al Shabaab. Not long after, Somalis from Minnesota started arriving to join the fight against the Ethiopians. Their number included Shirwa Ahmed, who in 2008 became the first American suicide bomber.

But very little of these complexities have ever registered on the home front. The Obama administration seemed content with the cool calculus of distant executions, and their lawyers who had “given America’s secret agencies latitude to carry out extensive killing operations” just as their counterparts in the Bush years “had redefined torture” to fit the demands of the White House. 

Mazzetti notes that:

“A nation fatigued by the long, bloody, and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed, by the end of President Obama’s first term, little concerned about the government’s escalation of clandestine warfare…. 69 percent of respondents said they supported the American government secretly assassinating terrorists.”

The question unanswered here is this: What happens after Pandora’s box has been left open long enough? How long before another nation takes the lessons of America’s borderless, limitless, and potentially endless shadow war, and decides to use them for itself?

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth


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