The Imperial Unconscious

American Special Operations units are now regularly making forays inside Pakistan “primarily to gather intelligence”; that a unit of 70 American Special Forces advisors, a “secret task force, overseen by the United States Central Command and Special Operations Command,” is now aiding and training Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps paramilitary troops, again inside Pakistan; and that, despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) these American efforts, the influence of the Pakistani Taliban is actually expanding, even as Pakistan threatens to melt down. 

Mystifyingly enough, however, this Pakistani part of the American war in Afghanistan is still referred to in major U.S. papers as a “covert war.” As news about it pours out, who it’s being hidden from is one of those questions no one bothers to ask. 

On February 20th, the New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger typically wrote:

“With two missile strikes over the past week, the Obama administration has expanded the covert war run by the Central Intelligence Agency inside Pakistan, attacking a militant network seeking to topple the Pakistani government… Under standard policy for covert operations, the C.I.A. strikes inside Pakistan have not been publicly acknowledged either by the Obama administration or the Bush administration.”

On February 25th, Mazzetti and Helene Cooper reported that new CIA head Leon Panetta essentially bragged to reporters that “the agency’s campaign against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas was the ‘most effective weapon’ the Obama administration had to combat Al Qaeda’s top leadership… Mr. Panetta stopped short of directly acknowledging the missile strikes, but he said that ‘operational efforts’ focusing on Qaeda leaders had been successful.” Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal reported the next day that Panetta said the attacks are “probably the most effective weapon we have to try to disrupt al Qaeda right now.” She added, “Mr. Obama and National Security Adviser James Jones have strongly endorsed their use, [Panetta] said.” 

Uh, covert war? These “covert” “operational efforts” have been front-page news in the Pakistani press for months, they were part of the U.S. presidential campaign debates, and they certainly can’t be a secret for the Pashtuns in those border areas who must see drone aircraft overhead relatively regularly, or experience the missiles arriving in their neighborhoods. 

In the U.S., “covert war” has long been a term for wars like the U.S.-backed Contra War against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s, which were openly discussed, debated, and often lauded in this country. To a large extent, when aspects of these wars have actually been “covert” — that is, purposely hidden from anyone — it has been from the American public, not the enemies being warred upon. At the very least, however, such language, however threadbare, offers official Washington a kind of “plausible deniability” when it comes to thinking about what kind of an “American face” we present to the world. read article

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