While President Barack Obama often speaks about the end of the highly publicized wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are other, lesser-known operations still taking place outside of declared war zones, according to The New York Times’ National Security Correspondent Mark Mazzetti.
Mazzetti spoke on Wednesday night in an event sponsored by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy, and focused on the characteristics and impacts of these fringe, or “shadow” wars conducted by both the U.S. military and the CIA.
“The shadow war is a war that is ongoing and doesn’t show any outward signs of ending anytime soon,” Mazzetti said.
Mazzetti said that he wanted to center his writing-both for the Times and his latest book-around the shadow wars because the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has been discussed thoroughly in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The contours of these conflicts have been fairly well drawn,” Mazzetti said. “But so much of the history, in my mind, of what has happened since Sept. 11 has happened far outside of declared war zones: in Pakistan, Yemen, and parts of Africa. In many ways, this is the more interesting war to look at because this has set the terms and the rules for what is going to happen in the future.”
A unique facet of this type of war, Mazzetti said, is the multitude of legal implications surrounding the interrogations, targeting killings, and CIA movements that make up the bulk of these operations. “This is a war that is run, more than ever, by lawyers,” he said. “The issues that have been hashed out in this conflict have been more at the center of the legal parameters for how the U.S. carries out operations.”
Mazzetti briefly discussed the history of the CIA in terms of its mission and primary activities. The CIA’s focus has fluctuated between its original purpose-pure espionage and intelligence gathering-and the role it has often served as a paramilitary organization. In its early years, the CIA undertook operations ranging from assassination plots to coup attempts. The agency did not revert to more espionage-focused work until after 1976, when President Gerald Ford signed an executive order banning foreign assassinations by government employees.
Right before Sept. 11, the debate about the nature of the CIA resurfaced with the rising threat of terrorist organizations.
“The rise of Al-Qaeda raised concerns in the CIA about a large-scale terrorist attack,” Mazzetti said. “The question was, ‘How can the U.S., or the CIA specifically, go kill Osama bin Laden, or other Al-Qaeda leaders?’ They didn’t have the weapons to do it, and they didn’t have the authority to do it.”
Since Sept. 11, the CIA has been given more authority to carry out covert actions to capture and kill terrorists, taking the shape of a more paramilitary or man-hunting organization by using weapons such as armed predator drones, Mazzetti said. The actual military has sought to expand the battlefield further through more special operations, a larger budget, and greater authority to send troops around the world.
The CIA and U.S. military, Mazzetti said, have come to mirror each other and create a new model of war, which manifested in the CIA-directed, Navy SEAL-implemented killing of bin Laden in 2011.
Mazzetti explained that he wanted to show what the shadow wars looked like on the ground, doing so through anecdotes in his book, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. He wrote about several characters who have taken part in the shadow wars outside of formal military operations, from a retired CIA officer who returned to join a private spying ring in Pakistan, to a Virginia woman who was obsessed with Somalian militant groups and was paid by the Pentagon to gather intelligence on them.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Mazzetti said, is crucial since Pakistan is “the foremost laboratory for the shadow war,” and he focused specifically on relations between the CIA and the Pakistani spy service ISI. The two sides fundamentally do not trust one another, he said.
“The U.S. suspected that the ISI was working with militants, and the ISI suspected that the U.S. had deployed a whole secret army of CIA officers in Pakistan,” Mazzetti said. “Things really went downhill from there.”
Taking questions from the audience, Mazzetti said that the shadow wars would likely not be different under a Republican president, yet Obama embracing what the CIA has offered in terms of these operations is indicative of how he hopes to carry out foreign policy with more clandestine actions and fewer boots on the ground.
Mazzetti also discussed how it is difficult to assess the success of CIA operations in Pakistan beyond crude body counts of Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets killed in drone strikes, and how, although the drone program is supposedly covert, it is “the most overt covert action in history.”
As defense budgets are reduced, Mazetti said that the CIA and military are gravitating toward methods such as drone strikes and paramilitary operations because their impact is more tangible. Traditional spying and intelligence gathering, he said, is murkier.
While the Israelis were the first to develop and use armed drones, the U.S. has developed them on an industrial scale since Sept. 11. Mazzetti predicted that other countries, such as Russia and China, are bound to carry out drone strikes in the near future, using the same justification that the U.S. uses.
“The rules of the game have largely been set by the U.S., but there are a lot more players about to enter the game,” he said.