Dirty Wars is an unprecedented behind-the-scenes history of the global “war on terror,” a narrative of the shadow wars conceived by George W. Bush and expanded by Barack Obama. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill chronicles how, over the course of the decade following 9/11, a network of lethal covert and clandestine operations evolved into institutionalized structures and activities authorized by the highest levels of government, yet operating at the margins of the law.
A key element of this history is its re-envisioning of covert operations as a critical counterterrorism strategy in the post-9/11 era. Detailing the interagency turf war—from the CIA to the Department of Defense and the State Department—Scahill outlines the emergence of a special-operations monster, funded to the teeth and given a long leash to roam the globe with impunity. Beyond the spotlight of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, US political and military leaders have been waging a new kind of war, driven by the view that “the world is a battlefield.” From Pakistan’s Waziristan Province to Yemen and the Horn of Africa, Dirty Wars is a frightening portrait of militarized policy aimed at imprinting US dominance at all costs.
The United States is no stranger to extrajudicial warfare, with its long and sordid history of covert operations abroad. The Cold War and superpower competition with the USSR drove a policy of “containment” and the creation of a new arsenal of special operations and intelligence activities trained on winning the so-called “hot wars” at the fringes of the Cold War world. The perceived threats of Communism, nationalism, and anticolonial movements birthed the CIA and small-scale tactical forces, which aimed to create a network of compliant nations to maintain US global preeminence. Proxy warfare and assassinations were part of their toolbox from its earliest days, most prominently the CIA-led coup against Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 in the wake of his nationalizing the oil industry. Just months later, the CIA removed Guatemala’s Jacobo Árbenz in response to plans for land redistribution and nationalization.
Over the following decades, the United States sponsored an array of dictatorial regimes through large military aid packages as well as a shadow network of assassination teams and fighting forces. The fingerprints of the United States could be found on civil wars and regional conflicts—from the Congo in the 1960s to death squads and counterinsurgency in Central America under Ronald Reagan—that resulted in millions of deaths worldwide.
Scahill’s book details a critical new chapter in the US war to impose its will across the globe. In the post-9/11 era, the stakes for counterterror grew higher, moving to the center of US foreign-policy strategy. As Scahill describes, many of the innovators of this era had long ties to US imperial efforts, stretching as far back as the Nixon and Reagan regimes. Neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld bided their time after the fall of the Soviet Union, eventually pushing forward their “blueprint for maintaining US preeminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American security and interests.”
As Scahill writes,
Even before 9/11, the neoconservatives—restored to power by the Bush administration—pulled those plans out of the dustbin of history and set about implementing them. Expanding US force projection would be central, as would building up streamlined, elite ops units. . . . The neocons also envisioned further asserting US dominance over natural resources globally and directly confronting nation-states that stood in the way. Regime change in multiple countries would be actively contemplated, particularly in oil-rich Iraq.
After 9/11, George W. Bush rolled out and institutionalized this policy of shadow warfare at a new order of magnitude.
As conventional warfare unfolded in Afghanistan and Iraq, the drive to expand US power through parallel means began to take shape. Many of the strategies most identified with the rollback of civil liberties were born: warrantless wiretapping, detentions, renditions, secret torture chambers, and later, under Obama, targeted assassinations (“High Value Targeting”) and drone warfare. Oversight and restrictions on covert activities were largely swept away in new directives permitting unprecedented latitude for special operations. To accomplish these ends, Bush’s team streamlined agencies such as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), remaking them into more agile forces most responsive to the highest levels of political power and unencumbered by bureaucracy and “checks and balances” from other branches of government.
The “war on terror” provided its own justification, as Scahill shows by citing an assertion from National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice: “I can assure you that no constitutional questions are raised here. . . . We’re in a new kind of war, and we’ve made very clear that it is important that this new kind of war be fought on different battlefields.” Scahill outlines the development of this new military and intelligence infrastructure and the concomitant debates over strategic focus for the new war on terror. Figures such as JSOC commander Stanley McChrystal represented a wing of the debate that saw al-Qaeda and global terrorism as the chief targets and the invasion and occupation of Iraq as at best secondary to that project. A central concern for Scahill is the blowback from such policies, which reverberated across the globe and turned fledgling terror groups into stronger entrenched forces.
Somalia, with its geostrategic importance on the Horn of Africa, is a case in point. In its bid to prop up the weak Somali regime of Sheikh Sharif, the United States relied on local warlords and proxies such as Ethiopia to roll out an antiterror agenda, fueling a regional war in the process. In so doing, they created a military and political a vacuum that allowed the insurgent al-Shabab to strengthen its own base. Civil war created a refugee crisis and instability, pushed to the breaking point by the 2011 famine. US operations, Dirty Wars argues, spawned an ever-escalating, perpetual war that reached beyond Somalia and Yemen into Iraq.
Another invaluable contribution of Scahill’s book is his account of the continuity of the “war on terror” between the Bush and Obama presidencies. With the return of a Democrat to the White House, a new era seemed to be ushered in with Obama’s pledge to scale down troops in Iraq, end Bush’s torture programs, and close the prisons in Guantanamo. But, as Scahill notes, “while dispensing with the Bush-era labels and cowboy rhetoric that marked the previous eight years of US foreign policy, Obama simultaneously moved swiftly to expand the covert wars that had marked his predecessor’s time in office.” Bush’s programs were enhanced and sharpened under the Democratic regime: “Obama and his advisors endeavored to re-frame US counter-terrorism policy as a more comprehensive, full-spectrum effort to reduce extremism, largely based on regional security.” The troop surge in Afghanistan in 2010 and the expansion of AFRICOM were two high-profile examples. Behind the scenes, the former constitutional law professor rewrote the rules on extrajudicial covert operations—what Scahill terms a “global kill list doctrine”—and ramped up the budget to back it up.
Dirty Wars is a fascinating book, all the more so for its unique structure of interlinked accounts from the shifting battle zones and nexus of players at home and abroad. A significant portion is derived from firsthand interviews and eyewitness reporting: Scahill is a fearless journalist and has broken new ground from far beyond where most of the embedded media is willing to go. Woven throughout is the narrative of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Islamist based in Yemen who was targeted and killed by the Obama administration. His assassination exemplifies the willingness of the most powerful nation on earth to turn the lives of millions into a nightmare and to kill its own citizens in the process. Above all, Scahill’s story of al-Awlaki and his family puts a face to the US’s many victims, victims too often dehumanized to justify the “war on terror.”
More than a powerful indictment of the workings of power and military might, Dirty Wars explodes the myth of a “clean war”—and in so doing drives home the long-term implications of a US foreign policy that prioritizes national security and interests over civil liberties and the lives of those in these war zones. As Scahill puts it, “The policies implemented by the Obama administration will have far-reaching consequences. Future US presidents—Republican and Democratic—will inherit a streamlined process for assassinating enemies of America, perceived or real. They will inherit an executive branch with sweeping powers, rationalized under the banner of national security.”
Scahill has dragged Washington’s shadow wars into the light of day and shown us in no uncertain terms that America’s wars are as dirty as they’ve ever been.