The other day, Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-supported Afghan president who was once sardonically nicknamed “the mayor of Kabul,” had a few curious things to say about American policy in the Muslim world. Karzai, of course, is a man whose opinions -- whether on U.S. special operations forces and their (out of control) militias, U.S. night raids on Afghan homes, or U.S. air strikes on Afghan villages -- Washington loves to ignore. He is considered “volatile.” Sometimes, however, it’s worth listening to what our subordinate allies, uncomfortable nationalists-cum-puppets, think and say about us.
As Josh Rogin reported at the Daily Beast, Karzai recently suggested that, starting in the early 1980s when the Reagan administration and the CIA buddied up with the Saudis and Pakistani intelligence and backed a set of extreme fundamentalist Afghan rebels against the Soviets, the U.S. has been, advertently or not, promoting Islamic radicalism in the Greater Middle East. As Karzai said of that long-forgotten moment, “The more radical we looked and talked, the more we were called mujahedin. The consequence of that was a massive effort toward uprooting traditional Afghan values and culture and tolerance.” In his speech at the 2013 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, he made a case for the ways in which Washington’s destabilization of the region has never ended, provoking ever more extreme blowback as it goes.
Without a doubt, the central event in the multi-decade fiasco that for a few years was known as the Global War on Terror was the invasion of Iraq, Washington’s preeminent act of folly so far in the twenty-first century. Its disastrous effects have yet to be fully absorbed or assessed. Yet without that invasion, it is hard to imagine a whole series of developments, including the present killing fields in Syria, the potential disintegration of Iraq itself, the Arab Spring, or the spread of extreme Islamic factions ever more widely in a vast region. The irony, of course, is that the Bush administration and the neocon types who set so much of this in motion used to refer to the Greater Middle East from North Africa to the Chinese border disparagingly as “the arc of instability.” Today, it increasingly looks like an arc of chaos and, as Nick Turse indicates, the process, far from ending, seems to be spreading -- in this case, deep into Africa.
Turse, author of the recent bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, has been following the latest U.S. global command, AFRICOM, as it embeds American military power ever more fully on the African continent. (In the process, he has engaged in full-scale public debate with that command over the nature of what it is doing.) Today, he offers a magisterial overview of what can be known about the increasing American military presence in Africa and how it is continuing a now more than three-decade-old process of spurring destabilization, the growth of radical Islamic movements, and blowback in a new region of the planet. Tom
The Terror Diaspora
The U.S. Military and the Unraveling of Africa
By Nick Turse
The Gulf of Guinea. He said it without a hint of irony or embarrassment. This was one of U.S. Africa Command’s big success stories. The Gulf... of Guinea.
Never mind that most Americans couldn’t find it on a map and haven’t heard of the nations on its shores like Gabon, Benin, and Togo. Never mind that just five days before I talked with AFRICOM’s chief spokesman, the Economist had asked if the Gulf of Guinea was on the verge of becoming “another Somalia,” because piracy there had jumped 41% from 2011 to 2012 and was on track to be even worse in 2013.
The Gulf of Guinea was one of the primary areas in Africa where “stability,” the command spokesman assured me, had “improved significantly,” and the U.S. military had played a major role in bringing it about. But what did that say about so many other areas of the continent that, since AFRICOM was set up, had been wracked by coups, insurgencies, violence, and volatility?
A careful examination of the security situation in Africa suggests that it is in the process of becoming Ground Zero for a veritable terror diaspora set in motion in the wake of 9/11 that has only accelerated in the Obama years. Recent history indicates that as U.S. “stability” operations in Africa have increased, militancy has spread, insurgent groups have proliferated, allies have faltered or committed abuses, terrorism has increased, the number of failed states has risen, and the continent has become more unsettled.
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Thank you for the donations that have already come in for signed copies of Rebecca Solnit’s spectacular new “memoir” -- it’s actually so much more! -- The Faraway Nearby. For the many Solnit fans among you, don’t miss the chance to have a personalized copy of her new book in return for a $100 (or more) donation to this site. Your help really does keep TomDispatch above the waves and is unbelievably appreciated. Check out the Solnit (and other book offers) at our donation page by clicking here.]
The Making of a Global Security State
The Five Uncontrollable Urges of a Secrecy-Surveillance World
By Tom Engelhardt
As happens with so much news these days, the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying and just how far we’ve come in the building of a surveillance state have swept over us 24/7 -- waves of leaks, videos, charges, claims, counterclaims, skullduggery, and government threats. When a flood sweeps you away, it’s always hard to find a little dry land to survey the extent and nature of the damage. Here’s my attempt to look beyond the daily drumbeat of this developing story (which, it is promised, will go on for weeks, if not months) and identify five urges essential to understanding the world Edward Snowden has helped us glimpse.
1. The Urge to be Global
Corporately speaking, globalization has been ballyhooed since at least the 1990s, but in governmental terms only in the twenty-first century has that globalizing urge fully infected the workings of the American state itself. It’s become common since 9/11 to speak of a “national security state.” But if a week of ongoing revelations about NSA surveillance practices has revealed anything, it’s that the term is already grossly outdated. Based on what we now know, we should be talking about an American global security state.
Much attention has, understandably enough, been lavished on the phone and other metadata about American citizens that the NSA is now sweeping up and about the ways in which such activities may be abrogating the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Far less attention has been paid to the ways in which the NSA (and other U.S. intelligence outfits) are sweeping up global data in part via the just-revealed Prism and other surveillance programs.
Sometimes, naming practices are revealing in themselves, and the National Security Agency’s key data mining tool, capable in March 2013 of gathering “97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide,” has been named “boundless informant.” If you want a sense of where the U.S. Intelligence Community imagines itself going, you couldn’t ask for a better hint than that word “boundless.” It seems that for our spooks, there are, conceptually speaking, no limits left on this planet.
Today, that "community" seeks to put not just the U.S., but the world fully under its penetrating gaze. By now, the first “heat map” has been published showing where such information is being sucked up from monthly: Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion). Whether you realize this or not, even for a superpower that has unprecedented numbers of military bases scattered across the planet and has divided the world into six military commands, this represents something new under the sun. The only question is what?
The twentieth century was the century of “totalitarianisms.” We don’t yet have a name, a term, for the surveillance structures Washington is building in this century, but there can be no question that, whatever the present constraints on the system, “total” has something to do with it and that we are being ushered into a new world. Despite the recent leaks, we still undoubtedly have a very limited picture of just what the present American surveillance world really looks like and what it plans for our future. One thing is clear, however: the ambitions behind it are staggering and global.
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Here’s a rare offer for all Rebecca Solnit fans: Her new book, The Faraway Nearby, is officially published this very day. It’s an absolute gem. As a gesture of support to TomDispatch, for which she’s written so regularly these last 10 years, she will send a signed, personalized copy of the new book to any reader who offers a contribution of $100 (or more) to this site. To learn more about the book, check out Marina Warner’s splendid review in the British Guardian or simply click here and go to our donation page to check out this offer. One small warning: be patient. The books will have to be ordered, signed, and sent. It may take a couple of weeks! Tom]
Here are my three fleeting personal experiences of the far North. In 1982, on my only trip to Japan, I flew over the Aleutian Islands. Out the plane window was a spectacular sight, jagged, snowy mountaintops tearing through clouds -- spectacular, that is, until a stewardess came over and asked me to pull down the shade. The movie Fame was onscreen and the Aleutian light was bothering the passengers around me.
In another distant year, after a boondoggle of a summer trip to a “peace conference” in Stockholm and a night spent farther north in Sweden where the sun set late and slow, and I could go out “after dark” to gather wild mushrooms with an expert (and her two Egyptian wolfhounds), I flew home over Greenland. That place had loomed mysteriously large on my childhood globe and indeed, even from the heights, Greenland once again loomed large and mysterious. Finally, if memory is to be trusted, I once saw the Aurora Borealis faintly over Long Island (New York). Other than that my sole venture north of southern Canada was in an early, particularly degraded part of my work life. I first broke into publishing as a freelance editor of textbooks for professors whose idea of scholarly research was, in at least one case, to take a publisher's money meant for a research assistant and spend it on a snow blower. (Perhaps that, too, should qualify as an obscure connection to the snowy north.) In any case, it meant that I became a de facto researcher for the book, my entertainment at the time.
I ended up writing those little boxes, you know, the ones with curious tales and even more curious facts that are meant to enliven a dreary text, including one I wrote about the far north that has never left my mind. As it happened, in the Middle Ages, certain birds like the “barnacle goose” had breeding grounds so far north that no European had seen them. Conveniently, for those in Catholic Europe yearning to eat flesh on Fridays, that aptly named goose and other northern breeders could be imagined as generating from shells and so products of the sea ("neither flesh, nor born of flesh”). Once the actual breeding grounds were discovered and the lack of barnacles with geese in them became apparent, the French word for that goose (and more generally for “duck”), “canard,” also became the word for “hoax,” “false report,” “lie.” Fully accurate or not, it’s the memory of “the north” that I carry with me.
Today, in a lovely experiment, Rebecca Solnit has adapted a section of her new book, The Faraway Nearby, for this website. That book contains some of the most beautiful writing she’s ever done, sentences that will make you (or at least made me) gasp out loud. The book is officially a memoir about her difficult relationship with her mother, but honestly that’s a little like saying The Odyssey is a tale of a traveler's conflicted relationship with a one-eyed stranger. The Faraway Nearby is also a flight and an escape, literal and figurative, into the north of everything, into a place of total darkness -- which, TomDispatch readers will remember, was the confounding image of hope Solnit first brought to this site in May 2003 -- and of total light. It's about fleeing yourself and so finding yourself, often in others and in the most unexpected ways. It's about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Che Guevara’s visit to a leprosy colony. It's about... well, take a taste below and then make sure that you explore The Faraway Nearby at your leisure. Head north, young woman (or young man), into the healing darkness that links you to the rest of us. No recent book I’ve picked up has been more worth the read. Tom
The Far North of Experience
In Praise of Darkness (and Light)
By Rebecca Solnit
One summer some years ago, on a peninsula jutting off another peninsula off the west coast of Iceland, I lived among strangers and birds. The birds were mostly new species I got to know a little, the golden plovers plaintively dissembling in the grass to lead intruders away from their nests, the oystercatchers who flew overhead uttering unearthly oscillating cries, the coastal fulmars, skuas, and guillemots, and most particularly the arctic terns. The impeccable whiteness of their feathers, the sharpness of their scimitar wings, the fierceness of their cries, and the steepness of their dives were all enchanting.
Terns were once called sea swallows for their deeply forked tails and grace in the air, and in Latin, arctic terns were named sterna paradisaea by a pietist Danish cleric named Erik Pontoppidan, at the end of a turbulent career. It’s not clear why in 1763 he called the black-capped, white-feathered arctic terns sterna paradisaea: birds -- or terns -- of paradise. He could not have known about their extraordinary migration, back in the day when naturalists -- and Pontoppidan himself in his book on Norway -- thought swallows buried themselves in the mud in winter and hibernated, rather than imagining they and other birds flew far south to other climes.
Of all living things, arctic terns migrate farthest and live in the most light and least darkness. They fly tens of thousands of miles a year as they relocate from farthest north to farthest south. When they are not nesting, they rarely touch ground and live almost constantly in flight, like albatrosses, like their cousins the sooty terns who roam above the equatorial seas for years at a time without touching down. Theirs is a paradise of endless light and endless effort. The lives of angels must be like this.
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: This website received an honor last week. In the Utne Reader’s 2013 media awards, TomDispatch won for “best political coverage” of the year. Here’s the description that went with the category: “Emerging in the early days of the War on Terror, TomDispatch’s fierce devotion to truth has proven essential to navigating our Orwellian post-9/11 planet. Combining some of the most insightful and courageous voices on the web, the site strikes at the very foundations of power and propaganda. As we face down a new decade of drone warfare, counterinsurgency, and climate chaos, Tom Dispatch’s forceful analysis and sharp investigative authority could scarcely be more vital.” Tom]
Okay, give them this much: their bloodlust stops just short of the execution chamber door. The military prosecutors of the case against Bradley Manning, assumedly with the support of the Obama administration, have brought the virulent charge of “aiding the enemy” against the Army private who leaked state secrets. Yet they claim to have magnanimously taken the death penalty off the table. All they want to do is lock Manning up and throw away the key because, so they claim, he did nothing short of personally lend a hand to archfiend Osama bin Laden. This echoes the charge repeatedly made by top U.S. officials that he and WikiLeaks have “blood on their hands” for releasing a trove of military and State Department documents.
We’re talking about the very officials who planned and oversaw Washington’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the backlands of the planet and who have searched their own hands in vain for any signs of blood. (None at all, they don’t hesitate to assure us.) Among them are those, military and civilian, who set up our torture prisons at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan, are ultimately responsible for the perversions of Abu Ghraib, and oversaw kidnappings off the streets of global cities. These are the folks whose Air Force blew away at least six wedding parties in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose drones have killed hundreds, if not thousands of civilians, and whose special operations forces recently seem to have been involved in the torture, murder, and secret burial of Afghan civilians. I could go on, but why bother since it was all done “legally,” which means they can retire to corporate boards of their choice, rake in money from speeches, and write their memoirs, while Manning, whose motive (to judge by the online conversations he had) was to end the bloodletting, reveal information about American crimes, and to shut down our wars will have no memoir to write, no life to live. It can’t get worse than that, can it?
Given what we now know about the U.S. military’s unwillingness to pursue prosecutions of rape in its own ranks, its eagerness to pursue Manning to the edge of the grave should be considered striking. We’re talking about a national security state that -- as recent revelations have made clear -- can imagine just about no boundaries when it comes to surveilling its own population and none whatsoever when it comes to protecting its own actions from the eyes of the public. In that sense, Manning truly crossed a red line. Rape? A mere nothing compared to his crime. After all, he was aiding the most dangerous enemy of all: not Osama bin Laden, but Americans who want to breach the ever-expanding secrecy of the National Security Complex.
As TomDispatch regular Chase Madar (covering the Manning trial as a blogger for the Nation) suggests today, right now there seem to be few crimes more dangerous than shining a light on the secret workings of the U.S. government and its military. Admittedly, President Obama entered the Oval Office promising on Day One to let the “sunshine” in on government operations. Manning fulfilled the president’s promise in the only way a 22-year-old who had seen terrible things in Iraq could imagine doing. Maybe it wasn’t elegant by the president’s high standards, but it was effective. He deserves something better than the worst the U.S. military and Washington can throw at him. He deserves a life, and if that life in the end proves as valuable as it’s been so far, a memoir. Tom
How Dystopian Secrecy Contributes to Clueless Wars
Bradley Manning Has Done More for U.S. Security than SEAL Team 6
By Chase Madar
The prosecution of Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks’ source inside the U.S. Army, will be pulling out all the stops when it calls to the stand a member of Navy SEAL Team 6, the unit that assassinated Osama bin Laden. The SEAL (in partial disguise, as his identity is secret) is expected to tell the military judge that classified documents leaked by Manning to WikiLeaks were found on bin Laden’s laptop. That will, in turn, be offered as proof not that bin Laden had internet access like two billion other earthlings, but that Manning has “aided the enemy,” a capital offense.
Think of it as courtroom cartoon theater: the heroic slayer of the jihadi super-villain testifying against the ultimate bad soldier, a five-foot-two-inch gay man facing 22 charges in military court and accused of the biggest security breach in U.S. history.
But let’s be clear on one thing: Manning, the young Army intelligence analyst who leaked thousands of public documents and passed them on to WikiLeaks, has done far more for U.S. national security than SEAL Team 6.
Sometimes, when you watch the strange, repetitive political dance that swirls around the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- the president announcing yet again that he plans to “close” it and the Republicans in Congress swearing that they won’t let him -- it’s hard not to wonder what alternative universe we live in. The initial round of this began on the day Barack Obama entered the Oval Office and circulated an executive order meant to close that prison within a year. The latest presidential “closing” announcement came just over two weeks ago. In a major speech at National Defense University, Obama also claimed that he would soon lift restrictions he had imposed in 2009 on sending Guantanamo prisoners long cleared of any criminal activities back to Yemen. Just last week, Congressional Republicans offered the usual reply. They proposed to keep the prison open, whatever the president wanted, “by barring the administration from transferring its terror suspects to the United States or a foreign country such as Yemen.”
By now everyone knows that Guantanamo can’t be closed, not by this administration or any other one imaginable. At present, it is the scene of an extraordinary protest movement, now almost three months old, by 103 prisoners using potential death by starvation to bring attention to the nightmare that has been their lives behind bars in Cuba.
More than 11 years after its founding, Guantanamo looks to Americans ever more like an offshore aberration, the last of the walking dead that just won’t go down. As it happens, though, that institution is anything but an aberration. It’s exactly what it was meant to be. The Bush administration situated it just off the coast of Florida in the first place because it wanted to avoid legality, justice, and the reach of U.S. courts. It’s true that George W. Bush's top officials made a fetish out of giving illegality -- including global kidnapping operations, torture interrogations, and a global string of “black sites” -- a feel-good veneer of legalism. That was why, for instance, the Department of Justice produced those infamous “torture memos” that, among other remarkable things, managed to put the legal definition of torture in the hands and mind of the torturer. But the goal of the president, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other key officials -- some of whom reportedly had torture techniques demonstrated for them in the White House -- had everything to do with leaving legality behind.
In 2001, they were eager above all to “take the gloves off.” They wanted to be able to do anything they cared to do on their self-proclaimed “global battlefield.” They wanted to lay hands -- not theirs, admittedly, but delegated ones -- as violently as possible on the prisoners swept up there: the worst of the worst, minor footsoldiers of al-Qaeda or the Taliban, people who simply had enemies who betrayed them, and the innocent who wandered into or were trapped in this hell. It didn’t matter. They weren’t into making distinctions or charging prisoners with crimes or anything so banal. What they wanted was control, total control, over the bodies of their enemies. It wasn’t a nice thing. It wasn’t a pretty thing. It wasn’t the sort of thing you said in polite company or (most of the time) in the media, which, in one of the small linguistic scandals of the era took to replacing the simple, easy to define word “torture” with the administration’s euphemistic phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
They wanted to revel in their power and their glory in the Greater Middle East, but also in the dark corners of those black sites and in that jewel-in-the-crown of offshore injustice, Guantanamo. They were proud of their Cuban prison. They meant it to be a way of life and now, of course, no one can get rid of it. It’s not possible. The Obama method of “closing” it means transferring to a supermax prison on U.S. soil up to 50 prisoners that top American officials believe to be guilty of something, but can’t bring to trial, largely because “confessions” were taken from them by the dirtiest possible methods that won’t hold up in any court of law. Even this, however, wouldn’t close Guantanamo. It would simply embed its methodology in the heart of the U.S. prison and judicial system (which is why such a plan has sarcastically been dubbed “Gitmo North”).
In fact, in certain ways, like so many ugly things that wars bring home, aspects of what might be called the Guantanamo Syndrome have already crept deep into our American world, whether Congress approves or not. As Victoria Brittain, author of Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror, makes clear in her latest TomDispatch post, pre-punishment and pre-conviction, Guantanamo-style, are increasingly everyday by-products of the war on terror at home. Tom
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
How to Pre-Convict and Pre-Punish an American Muslim
By Victoria Brittain
A four-month hunger strike, mass force-feedings, and widespread media coverage have at last brought Guantanamo, the notorious offshore prison set up by the Bush administration early in 2002, back into American consciousness. Prominent voices are finally calling on President Obama to close it down and send home scores of prisoners who, years ago, were cleared of wrongdoing.
Still unnoticed and out of the news, however, is a comparable situation in the U.S. itself, involving a pattern of controversial terrorism trials that result in devastating prison sentences involving the harshest forms of solitary confinement. This growing body of prisoners is made up of Muslim men, including some formerly well-known and respected American citizens.