Obama’s stealth wars
By Dr Maleeha Lodhi
Books based on official leaks published in an American election year often aim to shape a narrative that helps an incumbent’s prospects. But they also make disclosures that may otherwise not come to light.
A new book of this genre is David Sanger’s ‘Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power’. This details how President Obama dramatically escalated America’s drone wars and secretly intensified cyberwarfare against Iran. Obama did not pioneer this. But he went much beyond what began in the Bush era, personally authorising and engaging in planning for these secret attacks. The book portrays Obama as a man who cemented his national security credentials by his “bold” use of hard, covert power in a world, where occupying other countries was neither affordable nor politically feasible.
In choosing to fight nonstop wars stealthily by deploying remote control technology, Sanger is surprised by Obama’s “aggressiveness” as his earlier career offered no clue of this. But those looking for a thorough evaluation of the legal, moral and longer-term strategic implications of this approach won’t find it in the book. Sanger is sceptical of aspects of US policy and has a chapter on the ‘dark side of the light foot print’ approach. But he does not offer a critique of Obama’s muscular ‘confront and conceal’ unilateralism that has evolved into the Obama doctrine. He objects to the administration not publicly explaining this approach rather than relying on it.
At times the book asks the right questions – were ten years of war in Afghanistan, which “produced only losers”, worth it? But few answers are offered by the author. On occasion he accurately describes the consequence of US actions – the covert raid to kill Osama bin Laden was the moment America “lost Pakistan” – but he stops short of analysing its broader ramifications.
He characterises Pakistan especially the military as ‘paranoid’. But then himself says this is “hardly paranoia” because “America had an elaborate well-rehearsed plan” to seize or disable Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, which has been “ramped up and revised” under Obama. Elsewhere he contends, “There is no good plan for sweeping up Pakistan’s nuclear weapons because on any given day it is not clear where they are”.
In the chapter ‘Bomb Scare’, Sanger describes how, early in Obama’s Presidency, “ambiguous” American intelligence suggested that elements of the Pakistani Taliban had got their hands on the ultimate “terror weapon” or the less dangerous, high-impact ‘dirty bomb’. The administration scrambled in panic, dispatching a mission and covert agents to the region. But the crisis dissipated when it became evident that the eavesdropping National Security Agency made a mistake in not understanding the dialect in which Baitullah Mahsood’s associates spoke to each other!
It was hardly the first time that American intelligence went completely off the mark. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction after all were never ‘found’. Rather than learn from these blunders, the episode, according to Sanger, left “a lasting impression” on the administration. It reinforced its plan to maintain a limited post-2014 presence in Afghanistan not just to conduct counterterrorism operations but also “strike into Pakistan if...a nuclear weapon gets loose”.
While Pakistani readers will mostly be interested in any revelation about their country, the book has attracted publicity for a different reason – for detailing the US-Israeli cyberplan to sabotage Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. Dubbed as the Stuxnet affair, this has been known for some time but never confirmed. Sanger’s book, and an excerpt published in the New York Times, for the first time cited American officials confirming that the US and Israel had been waging cyberwarfare against Iran.
In the chapter ‘Secret War’, Sanger describes in detail how a covert plan aimed at disabling Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges went terribly wrong. A careless mistake released a cyber “worm” or computer virus onto the Internet. This got replicated with hackers calling this ‘Stuxnet’. But the “spectacular screw-up” did not stop ‘Olympic Games’, codename for the operation, from continuing.
America’s cyberwar against Iran, Sanger claims, was meant as much to retard Iran’s nuclear quest as to prevent Israel from launching airstrikes and provoking a new war. In leading their country into a new era of cyberwar, Obama and his team seemed unconcerned about its blowback.
The controversy this evoked in America has been more about why sensitive information was divulged for partisan advantage than over the serious implications of waging cyberwarfare. As the Financial Times put it in a recent editorial: “the Stuxnet story provides the only example of a nation bragging about its cyberwarfare operations”. Describing “cyberactivity” as “one of the world’s biggest security threats”, it also called for international cyberlaws to stop this new arms race spinning out of control.
Where Sanger’s book doesn’t break any new ground is in chapters on the shifts in Obama’s Afghan policy. Much is already known about “rookie mistakes” in the early Obama’s presidency – the initial rushed Afghan review process, botched 2009 Afghan presidential election, bureaucratic warfare and divisions in his national security team.
Sanger echoes what Bob Woodward and others had earlier written – that Obama’s heart was never in the war, two years into his presidency he realised he could not “remake Afghanistan”, there was no strategy even after eight years of war and that he was deeply sceptical about the surge. By late 2010 Obama began to look for a path to the exits, scale back America’s Afghan goals, and shift to targeting Al-Qaeda and degrading rather than militarily defeating the Taliban or the Haqqani network. Meanwhile his national security team was asked to explore political accommodation with Mullah Omar’s Taliban.
From a “war of necessity” which is how Obama earlier saw the Afghan enterprise, it became ‘Afghan good enough’ – a concept that reflected more minimal objectives and abandonment of large-scale counterinsurgency.
In a revealing passage Sanger recounts Holbrooke’s last conversation with him before he died. Holbrooke questioned whether Obama really believed in and had the will and persistence for a peace deal or just wanted to get out of Afghanistan. From this Sanger concludes: “the only certainty is that America will leave Afghanistan – save for a small force behind high walls – with Al-Qaeda mostly crippled, but the grand experiment of remaking Afghanistan largely in tatters.”
Pakistani readers will particularly be interested in the chapter describing the planning and conduct of the May 2, 2011 raid into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. They won’t however find much that is new. Sanger echoes earlier leaked accounts by US officials of how tracking the “couriers” led to Abbottabad as well as the intense internal debate on whether Washington should opt for bombing or conduct a much riskier helicopter assault. He reiterates the oft-repeated fact that “not one person on Obama’s team wanted Pakistan to be in the loop”. The Raymond Davis crisis delayed the get Bin Laden plan but this went into overdrive soon after he was released.
What is relatively new is the description of how, once Bin Laden was suspected of hiding in Abbottabad, the CIA “rolled out the RQ-170 Sentinel, a sophisticated surveillance drone that had been outfitted with stealth technology”. This evaded Pakistan’s defensive radar and flew stealthily over the compound to send images of life inside the walls, all the while that CIA operatives on the ground homed in on bin Laden.
Where Sanger does go beyond description is in his terse perspective on the breakdown of the Pak-US relationship. He acknowledges America’s contribution to this as also the fact that Pakistan has been “a major loser in the region’s wars”. Referring to arguments still raging in Washington about how to deal with Pakistan, he rightly suggests that for now, US thinking represents an attitude not a policy. And he concludes that abandonment or isolation of Pakistan – now fashionable groupthink in America – is not a policy, but an act of desperation.
Source: Obama's Stealth Wars