Plausible Deniability

May 16, 2011 § 5 Comments

Being somewhat confused about the precise meaning of “capture/kill” in reference to military operations, I checked out the latest professional commentary for clues. But they seemed just as confused as me — here a congressional aide calling Operation Neptune Spear a “kill” mission, there a White House media liaison discussing the priority (when possible of course, and who are we to second-guess) of “capture.” When both terms were used together, the order seemed to depend on the writer’s intentions. “Capture/kill” to preserve objectivity; to express (rare) skepticism, “kill/capture.” I started to see the Schrödinger’s Cat logic behind this ambiguous nomenclature. Aufgehebt by the ersatz clarity with which the word is used is the question of whether the target was ‘intentionally’ assassinated or merely dispatched in the line of duty.

Or perhaps he was never killed at all!

It’s such a neat little box, this codified non-question, that it’s more poetic, and certainly more politic, not to try to answer it. Still, I kept looking. And found that it was easier to get clear answers if I checked before its recent smashing success. Nine months was about enough:

“Capture/kill” is a key part of a new military “doctrine” developed by the Special Forces Command established after the failure of Operation Eagle Claw. Under the leadership of General Bryan D. Brown, who took over the Special Forces Command in September 2003, the doctrine came to be known as F4, which stood for “find, fix, finish, and follow-up” — a slightly euphemistic but not hard to understand message about how alleged terrorists and insurgents were to be dealt with.

Under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the Bush years, Brown began setting up “joint Special Forces” teams to conduct F4 missions outside war zones.  These were given the anodyne name “Military Liaison Elements.” At least one killing by such a team in Paraguay (of an armed robber not on any targeting list) was written up by New York Times reporters Scott Shane and Thom Shanker. The team, whose presence had not been made known to the U.S. ambassador there, was ordered to leave the country.

“The number-one requirement is to defend the homeland. And so sometimes that requires that you find and capture or kill terrorist targets around the world that are trying to do harm to this nation,” Brown told the House Committee on Armed Services in March 2006. “Our foreign partners… are willing but incapable nations that want help in building their own capability to defend their borders and eliminate terrorism in their countries or in their regions.” In April 2007, President Bush rewarded Brown’s planning by creating a special high-level office at the Pentagon for an assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities.

Michael G. Vickers, made famous in the book and film Charlie Wilson’s War as the architect of the covert arms-and-money supply chain to the mujaheedin in the CIA’s anti-Soviet Afghan campaign of the 1980s, was nominated to fill the position. Under his leadership, a new directive was issued in December 2008 to “develop capabilities for extending U.S. reach into denied areas and uncertain environments by operating with and through indigenous foreign forces or by conducting low visibility operations.”  In this way, the “capture/kill” program was institutionalized in Washington.

“The war on terror is fundamentally an indirect war… It’s a war of partners… but it also is a bit of the war in the shadows, either because of political sensitivity or the problem of finding terrorists,” Vickerstold the Washington Post as 2007 ended. “That’s why the Central Intelligence Agency is so important… and our Special Operations forces play a large role.”

George W. Bush’s departure from the White House did not dampen the enthusiasm for F4.  Quite the contrary: even though the F4 formula has recently been tinkered with, in typical military fashion, and has now become “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze,” or F3EA, President Obama has, by all accounts, expanded military intelligence gathering and “capture/kill” programs globally in tandem with an escalation of drone-strike operations by the CIA.

There are quite a few outspoken supporters of the “capture/kill” doctrine. Columbia University Professor Austin Long is one academic who has jumped on the F3EA bandwagon. Noting its similarity to the Phoenix assassination program, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during the U.S. war in Vietnam (which he defends), he has called for a shrinking of the U.S. military “footprint” in Afghanistan to 13,000 Special Forces troops who would focus exclusively on counter-terrorism, particularly assassination operations. “Phoenix suggests that intelligence coordination and the integration of intelligence with an action arm can have a powerful effect on even extremely large and capable armed groups,” he and his co-author William Rosenau wrote in a July 2009 Rand Institute monograph entitled” “The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency.”

Others are even more aggressively inclined. Lieutenant George Crawford, who retired from the position of “lead strategist” for the Special Forces Command to go work for Archimedes Global, Inc., a Washington consulting firm, has suggested that F3EA be replaced by one term: “Manhunting.” In a monograph published by the Joint Special Operations University in September 2009, “Manhunting: Counter-Network Organization for Irregular Warfare,” Crawford spells out “how to best address the responsibility to develop manhunting as a capability for American national security.”

One sees the compromise — “Manhunting” is thrilling but a tad direct; “F3EA” is appropriately neutral, but undermines lingering conversational norms of the English language. The point is that at a certain level of abstraction inhabited by military bureaucrats, there’s really not much difference between “capture” and “kill.”

Anyway, it seems the U.S. is moving further toward fulfilling its role as global enforcer through a network of secret military police, the ‘police’ function serving largely as an alibi. Like the original and more conventional invasion force, there is a clear division of labor between Americans (and their NATO allies) and the locals, who have yet to demonstrate their capacity for self-government. For example, ambiguity is for white people — the straight-up “kill” teams are conveniently composed of Afghans:

Woodward’s…Obama’s Wars, excerpted today in the Washington Post and the New York Times, unveils a CIA initiative called the Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams, a posse of anti-Taliban and al-Qaeda locals who don’t respect the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The teams are practically brigade-sized: a “paramilitary army” of 3000 Afghans, said to be “elite, well-trained” and capable of quietly crossing over in the Pakistani extremist safe havens where U.S. troops aren’t allowed to operate. The CIA directs and funds the teams.

Administration officials didn’t just confirm the existence of the teams — they bragged about them. “This is one of the best Afghan fighting forces and it’s made major contributions to stability and security,” says one U.S. official who would only talk on condition of anonymity — and who wouldn’t elaborate.

Yes, a minority of Americans also participate in unambiguous slaughter. But they’re crazy.

In this war that is also supposed to be a rebuilding, we call our soldiers police to legitimate them, and military to absolve them. It’s a neat trick: when one word can’t do everything that needs to be done, bring two.


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