While the U.S. has long justified its presence in Syria with the need to fight off Daesh (ISIS) and other militant extremist groups, some neo-conservatives – notably Tom Friedman of the New York Times – have called on Trump to “back off fighting” Daesh in Syria in order to ramp up “pressure on Assad, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah.”
Though Friedman’s policy suggestions may leave some Americans scratching their heads over the call to ignore the terror group that has ostensibly been the foundation of recent U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, it is not altogether surprising, as the U.S. establishment has often used counterterrorism as a cover for not-so-covert regime change efforts.
As journalist Gareth Porter noted for Middle East Eye, the very idea that U.S. counterterrorism efforts abroad can make the U.S. safer essentially amounts to a bait-and-switch operation. Since 2001, the Pentagon and the CIA, as well as other security and intelligence bureaucracies, have deliberately sacrificed sensible counterterrorism policy in the name of pursuing their own institutional interests.
One of the clearest examples of this methodology was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as counterterrorism specialists in the U.S. knew that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would not only strengthen al-Qaeda but also massively boost anti-American sentiment in the region. A potential uptick in Islamic extremism did not dissuade top Pentagon officials from the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz, who some describe as the architect of the Iraq war, invented the justification that Iraq would become a “flytrap” for extremists, preventing them from spreading their influence elsewhere.
Wolfowitz was wrong, as a 2005 intelligence assessment from the CIA later showed. The assessment, in contrast to the “flytrap” argument, found that the Iraq war had resulted in a massive increase in extremism – not just in Iraq, but throughout the Middle East. Another assessment released the following year found that those identifying as “jihadists” had become widely distributed geographically. This report predicted the growing terrorist threat of “self-radicalized cells” on a global scale.
The Pentagon, the CIA, and other agencies have a vested interest in the continuation and perpetuation of war, as continuous military conflict allows their budgets to not only to stay as they are but continue to grow. Between 2001 and 2011, the U.S. spent $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security. The Pentagon’s base budget alone ballooned from $290.5 billion in 2001 to $526.1 billion in 2011. In 2013, $16.6 billion was requested by the intelligence community specifically for counterterrorism efforts.
Following the Bush years and confronted with the “anti-war” Obama administration, national security bureaucracies were forced to settle for a series of covert wars instead of large public wars like the invasion of Iraq. Former President Barack Obama soon proved to be the master of the covert war, giving the CIA’s burgeoning counterterrorism center (CTC) free reign to bomb any groups in Pakistan – and later Yemen – that were suspected of being linked to terrorism.
While the CIA’s focus on covert airstrikes benefited its bureaucracy, critics argued that the agency’s actual ability to stop terrorism became limited as a result. As the Washington Post noted in 2011: “Critics, including some in the U.S. intelligence community, contend that the CIA’s embrace of “kinetic” operations, as they are known, has diverted the agency from its traditional espionage mission and undermined its ability to make sense of global developments such as the Arab Spring. Human rights groups go further, saying the CIA now functions as a military force beyond the accountability that the United States has historically demanded of its armed services.”
The CIA’s CTC has benefited handsomely since the start of the “War on Terror,” despite criticism of the center. With only 300 employees on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, it now employs thousands.
However, like the invasion of Iraq, the CTC’s bombing of so-called “militants” in Yemen did nothing to make the U.S. safer. The CTC, despite former CIA director Michael Hayden’s assertions to the contrary, clearly lacked the intelligence for the campaign, given that one-third of all strikes in Yemen killed innocent civilians.
However, 20 percent of the CTC’s employees are said to work as “targeters” who scan for individuals to recruit, arrest or place in the crosshairs of a drone. The debacle has fed anti-American sentiment in Yemen and strengthened the Yemeni terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
In light of these facts, it could be asserted that the CIA, as well as other military and intelligence agencies, have waged conflict not to maintain national security, but to line their pockets and retain their power. In Porter’s words: “it is because they had to sacrifice the priority of countering al-Qaeda to maintain the alliances, the facilities and the operations on which their continued power and resources depend.”
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