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At War in Five Countries

JINSA Report #: 

June 21, 2011

The United States is involved in hostilities in five countries across the Middle East and Southwest Asia - Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya. It is not too much to ask that the Administration explain where, why and what we plan to accomplish. Thus far, there are more questions than answers.

President Obama declined to meet the provisions of the War Powers Act as regards NATO's war in Libya because, he said, Libya was not the sort of war envisioned by the Act's framers. The President's report to Congress noted, "U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops." Furthermore, the report says, troops are not in danger and the United States is acting according to a UN resolution, so there is no need for Congressional approval.

While the War Powers Act carves out no such exemptions, the Administration appears to believe it isn't a war if Americans are not being killed. On the other hand, American troops in and around Libya, including a portion of the Mediterranean, are eligible for "imminent danger" pay retroactive to the beginning of the Libyan operation. "Imminent danger" pay applies to "foreign areas where U.S. military personnel are subject to the threat of physical harm or imminent danger on the basis of civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism or wartime conditions." That sounds as if someone thinks our troops are in a war zone.

Is it war if Americans are killing other people, including other people's civilians? What if the killing is done by troops of our alliance, but not in our uniform?

Over the weekend, NATO announced, "It appears that one weapon did not strike the intended target and that there may have been a weapons system failure which may have caused a number of civilian casualties... NATO regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives and takes great care in conducting strikes against a regime determined to use violence against its own citizens." Make no mistake, American pilots didn't do it, but the United States is arming, supplying, assisting and providing intelligence to NATO - our alliance, our allies - which gives us a measure of responsibility for Libyan civilian casualties.

But does that make it war?

It is too easy to point out here the enormous care Israel takes not to kill Palestinian civilians when it goes after Hamas and Hezbollah operatives - and we believe NATO exercises control the best it can. We will, however, note that Israeli air strikes are aimed at an enemy firing at Israeli civilian population centers - which now includes all of the country; there is no place a combination of Hamas and Hezbollah missiles can't reach. Is it more or less a war when your people are not attacked, and you go halfway around the world to attack someone else's enemy? And if it is an unavoidable tragedy to kill Libyan civilians when you were aiming for their lousy government - in a "kinetic military action" not a war - why is the United States so reluctant to do something about the lousy Syrian government when it moves tanks and artillery through Syrian towns, cuts refugees off from safe refuge and kills and "disappears" thousands of its people?

What if the killing apparatus is located in some other country, not in the one where people are actually killed? Or if the killing is done by the CIA and not troops? War by intelligence agents wasn't what the War Powers Act framers had in mind, but what is it when the CIA sends armed drones to kill people that intelligence agents says should be killed?

The CIA has been using drones to kill people in Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan because we can't wage war in Pakistan from Pakistan, so we have to wage our Pakistan war from Afghanistan which, to some, means we aren't waging war in Pakistan at all. Or on Pakistan. When Pakistan complained about the strikes, a U.S. official told ABC News, "[CIA Director Leon] Panetta has an obligation to protect this country and he's not going to halt any operations that accomplish that objective." Funny, we thought the obligation of the CIA Director was to provide intelligence to the government so the civilian authorities could determine policy based on sound understanding.

With that in mind, The Boston Globe reported last week that the CIA is expected to begin operating armed drones over Yemen, "expanding the hunt for Al Qaeda operatives in a country where counter-terrorism efforts have been disrupted by political chaos, U.S. officials said. The plan to use CIA-operated Predator and other unmanned aircraft reflects a decision by President Obama that the Al Qaeda threat in Yemen has grown so serious that patrols by U.S. military drones are not enough."

Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya. But not Syria, not Iran, not Sudan where the North has again attacked the South - including direct attacks on civilian towns and villages. Our government has an obligation to tell us the strategy and the goal.

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