The New Afghanistan Policy: Murder Inc.

Let me get this straight. Robert Gates, the Secretary-Of-Defense-For-Life, is touring the TV news shows and major newspapers pleading with great angst lines in his forehead that WikiLeaks is “guilty” and “morally culpable” for releasing 75,000 field reports from Afghanistan to the American public because they endanger Afghans allied with US forces.

But he and the US militarists who initiated the war in Iraq and who have continued the war in Afghanistan for nine years, the people who keep everything about these wars secret except what is useful to sustain them, the people who finance these wars on credit without raising taxes, dumping the costs on future generations – these people are not “morally culpable,” “guilty” or endangering anyone?

Do I have that right?

In other words, to reveal information about the war makes one morally guilty of endangering people, while being responsible for the war itself does not.

You have to give a man like Gates credit. He has a pleasant, nice guy manner and earns his salary by being able to lie like a dog with a straight face – and if it’s necessary, even show a modicum of passion on cue.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates being "mortified" and "appalled"Defense Secretary Robert Gates being "mortified" and "appalled"

The playwright Arthur Miller wrote a great little book called On Politics and the Art of Acting, in which he shows that Ronald Reagan was not the only actor in Washington, that in fact acting is an indispensable talent for modern US political leadership — especially in this moment in our history when the ability to deny reality is so critical.

“Perhaps it needs to be said,” Miller writes, “that as a general rule, an axiom if you will, the closer one approaches any kind of power the more acting is required.”

When he was interviewed by ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, Gates was in full thespian mode. He said this:

“I’m not sure anger is the right word. I just — I think, mortified, appalled!

Amanpour lobbed him a softball: “Is WikiLeaks criminally liable?”

“That’s not my arena,” he said. “But there’s a moral culpability. And that’s where I think the verdict is guilty on WikiLeaks.”

Julian Assange, the Australian founder and director of WikiLeaks, says they held back thousands of the field reports they felt might endanger someone. “We’ve worked hard,” he told reporters in London, “to make sure there’s not a significant chance of anybody coming to harm.”

The WikiLeaks revelations seem to be resonating much farther than their actual news value, which may explain Gates’ passion. As Frank Rich pointed out in the Sunday New York Times, the WikiLeaks revelations, like the Pentagon Papers 39 years ago, aren’t new information; what they are is “a herald of the end of American engagement in Afghanistan.”

If Rich is right, the war in Afghanistan is over — and everybody in Washington is now going into a huddle to get their stories straight.

A front page story in the Sunday New York Times supports this view. It suggests a consensus has been reached that the counterinsurgency campaign is a failure, leaving the default decision that the US military will be relying more exclusively on its Delta Force and Seal assassination teams used to thin out Taliban leaders and intimidate anyone thinking of applying for those leadership openings. The few al Qaeda leaders remaining in Afghanistan are also targets of these teams.

Labeled “counter-terrorism,” this approach has been pushed for some time by Vice President Joe Biden. What it amounts to is jettisoning the more costly counter-insurgency “long-war” of development and “nation building” and focusing more on the secret hunter/killer teams that General Stanley McChrystal was famous for managing under the radar. (One of McChrystal’s claims to fame in Anbar Province in Iraq was preventing the Red Cross from visiting the major hunter/killer task force interrogation center in Baghdad.)

In conjunction with a greater focus on secret killings, this means we will see an easing of the US reluctance to negotiate with Taliban and insurgent elements. We’ll be hearing less and less about Hamid Karzai’s corruption and more what a sterling leader he is as he works with Pakistan General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, both of whom want to negotiate with Taliban and insurgent forces.

The reality is, the Taliban are Pashtuns, and Karzai is a Pashtun. Plus the Pakistanis have long been allied with Afghan Pashtuns as a check against their bitter enemy India, who is allied with the Afghan Northern Alliance of ethnic groups, our original ally in the war. The WikiLeaks reports made this Pakistani link very evident.

This will allow President Obama to keep to his July 2011 troop removal date, which of course will not satisfy anyone in the peace movement, since, this being Washington-speak, the July 2011 troop removal will not be a total removal of troops — just a reduction down to the bare bones secret assassin teams and their support elements.

What military thinkers have done since the notorious Phoenix Program in Vietnam is deconstruct and analyze the assassination process and juice it up with all sorts of high-technology intelligence interfaces. We are assured this has been done to better identify and locate the correct high-profile target – the real “bad guys.” At that point, the team focuses a quick, highly-lethal assault on the target.

Of course, mistakes are made and innocent civilians die. When this happens, General David Petraeus puts his acting chops into operation and apologizes. That is, after he denies it first.

This all means, as we approach July 2011, our military presence in Afghanistan is going to be effectively reduced to murdering people on secret death lists.

From one political vantage point, this is like something out of a slick Steven Coonts assassin thriller off the grocery store shelf; while from another, it’s like the more crude death squads in a place like El Salvador. Choose your narrative metaphor.

History shows that focused killing and brutality like this works in the short term. Watch The Battle Of Algiers where the French break the FLN in the city of Algiers by this kind of ruthless elimination tactic. But, then, two years later, watch France sent packing by a larger, more democratic upheaval of opposition.

How these death lists are created and who gets on them is the natural question. For instance, is opposition to US military occupation cause for being on a death list? The answers to questions like this are, of course, secret, and what has motivated the creation of WikiLeaks.

US agents are currently investigating and, in several cases, intentionally harassing friends and associates of WikiLeaks. So far, the White House and Department of Defense have not formed a group called The Plumbers.

Two days ago, I spoke with an Iraq veteran who was an Army intelligence analyst like PFC Bradley Manning, the young soldier now being held in Kuwait and charged with leaking to WikiLeaks the video known as “Collateral Murder.”

As someone who worked in radio intelligence in Vietnam, I asked this young veteran about secrecy in Iraq and Afghanistan. He laughed and told of vast internet networks of intelligence reports and other encoded content. This whole web world and everything in it is declared secret.

“The whole war is secret!” he said.

When you add it all up, even if you are a flag-waving American, you have to admit our military, including smooth leaders like Robert Gates, could be getting away with murder.

And we would never even know it.