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Shadow Wars

Conn Hallinan | May 26, 2009

Editor: John Feffer

connSudan: The two F-16s caught the trucks deep in the northern desert. Within minutes, the column of vehicles was a string of shattered wrecks burning fiercely in the January sun. Surveillance drones spotted a few vehicles that had survived the storm of bombs and cannon shells, and the fighter-bombers returned to finish the job.

Syria: Four Blackhawk helicopters skimmed across the Iraqi border, landing at a small farmhouse near the town of al-Sukkariyeh. Black-clad soldiers poured from the choppers, laying down a withering hail of automatic weapons fire. When the shooting stopped, eight Syrians lay dead on the ground. Four others, cuffed and blindfolded, were dragged to the helicopters, which vanished back into Iraq.

Pakistan: a group of villagers were sipping tea in a courtyard when the world exploded. The Hellfire missiles seemed to come out of nowhere, scattering pieces of their victims across the village and demolishing several houses. Between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009, 60 such attacks took place. They killed 14 wanted al-Qaeda members along with 687 civilians.

In each of the above incidents, no country took responsibility or claimed credit. There were no sharp exchanges of diplomatic notes before the attacks, just sudden death and mayhem.

War without Declaration

The F-16s were Israeli, their target an alleged shipment of arms headed for the Gaza Strip. The Blackhawk soldiers were likely from Task Force 88, an ultra-secret U.S. Special Forces group. The Pakistanis were victims of a Predator drone directed from an airbase in southern Nevada.

Each attack was an act of war and drew angry responses from the country whose sovereignty was violated. But since no one admitted carrying them out, the diplomatic protests had no place to go.

The "privatization" of war, with its use of armed mercenaries, has come under heavy scrutiny, especially since a 2007 incident in Baghdad in which guards from Blackwater USA (now Xe) went on a shooting spree, killing 17 Iraqis and wounding scores of others. But the "covertization" of war has remained largely in the shadows. The attackers in the Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan were not private contractors, but U.S. and Israeli soldiers.

Assassination Teams

In his book The War Within, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward disclosed that the U.S. military has developed "secret operational capabilities" to "locate, target, and kill key individuals in extremist groups."

In a recent interview during a Great Conversations event at the University of Minnesota, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh revealed a U.S. military "executive assassination ring," part of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Hersh says that "Congress has no oversight" over the program.

According to a 2004 classified document, the United States has the right to attack "terrorists" in some 15 to 20 nations, including Pakistan, Syria, and Iran. The Israeli military has long used "targeted assassinations" to eliminate Tel Aviv's enemies. U.S. and NATO "assassination teams" have emerged in Iraq and Afghanistan, where, according to the UN, they have killed scores of people. Philip Alston of the UN Human Rights Council charges that secret "international intelligence services" allied with local militias are killing Afghan civilians and then hiding behind an "impenetrable" wall of bureaucracy.

When Alston protested the killing of two brothers in Kandahar, "not only was I unable to get any international military commander to provide their version of what took place, but I was unable to get any military commander to even admit that their soldiers were involved," he told the Financial Times.

In Iraq, such special operations forces have carried out a number of killings, including a raid that killed the son and a nephew of the governor of Salahuddin Province north of Baghdad. The Special Operations Forces (SOF) stormed the house at 3AM and shot the governor's 17-year-old son dead in his bed. When a cousin tried to enter the room, he was also gunned down.

Such "night raids" by SOFs have drawn widespread protests in Afghanistan. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, night raids involve "abusive behavior and violent breaking and entry," and only serve to turn Afghans against the occupation.

Iraqi Prime Minster Nuri Kamal al-Maliki charged that a March 26 raid in Kut that killed two men violated the new security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq.

The Predator strikes have deeply angered most Pakistanis. Owais Ahmed Ghani, governor of the Northwest Frontier Province, calls the drone strikes "counterproductive," a sentiment that David Kilcullen, the top advisor to the U.S. military in Afghanistan, agreed with in recent congressional testimony. The U.S. government doesn't officially take credit for the attacks.

Budgets and Strategy

If Congress agrees to the Defense Department budget proposed by Pentagon chief Robert Gates, attacks by SOF and armed robots will likely increase. While most the media focused on the parts of the budget that step back from the big ticket weapons systems of the Cold War, the proposal actually resurrects a key Cold War priority of the 1960s.

"The similarities between Gates' proposals and the strategy adopted by the Kennedy administration are too great to ignore," notes Nation defense correspondent Michael Klare. These similarities include "a shift in focus toward unconventional conflict in the Third World."

Gates' budget would increase the number of SOFs by 2,800, build more drones like the Predator and its bigger, more lethal cousin, the Reaper, and enhance the rapid movement of troops and equipment. All of this is part of General David Petraeus's counterinsurgency doctrine.

The concept is hardly new. The units are different than they were 50 years ago — Navy SEALS and Delta Force have replaced Green Berets — but the philosophy is the same. And while the public face of counterinsurgency is winning "hearts and minds" by building schools and digging wells, its core is 3AM raids and Hellfire missiles.

The "decapitations" of insurgent leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is little different — albeit at a lower level — than Operation Phoenix, which killed upwards of 40,000 "insurgent" leaders in South Vietnam during the war in Southeast Asia.

Hidden Wars

In the past, war was an extension of a nation's politics "too important," as World War I French Premier Georges Clemenceau commented, "to be left to the generals."

But increasingly, the control of war is slipping away from the civilians in whose name and interests it is supposedly waged. While the "privatization" of war has frustrated the process of congressional oversight, its "covertization" has hidden war behind a wall of silence or denial.

"Congress has been very passive in relation to its own authority with regard to warmaking," says Princeton international law scholar Richard Falk. "Congress hasn't been willing to insist that the government adhere to international law and the U.S. Constitution."

The SFOs may be hidden, but there are eight dead people in Syria, four of them reportedly children. There are at least 39 dead in northern Sudan, and more dead in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of civilian dead in Pakistan runs into the hundreds.

The new defense budget goes a long ways toward retooling the U.S. military to become a quick reaction/intervention force with an emphasis on counterinsurgency and covert war. The question is: Where will the shadow warriors strike next?

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.

Hallinan is a foreign policy analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at and a lecturer in journalism at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Conn Hallinan is provost at the University of California at Santa Cruz

more articles by the author:

Stories by Conn Hallinan

Who Are the Shadow Warriors? Countries Are Getting Hit by Major Military Attacks, and No One Is Taking Credit
In Syria, Sudan and elsewhere there have been violent attacks that no country has claimed responsibility for. A dark new trend in warfare.
Posted on May 28, 2009

Disturbing Idea of Expelling Arabs from Israeli Territory Gains Ground
There is a growing consensus among Israelis that it would acceptable to expel its Arab citizens to either a Palestinian state or to Jordan and Egypt.
Posted on Mar 4, 2009

Israel Treated Gaza Like Its Own Private Death Laboratory
Israel tested out a "focused lethality" weapon that minimizes explosive damage to structures while inflicting catastrophic wounds on its victims.
Posted on Feb 13, 2009

Fighting the Greedy Defense Lobbyists: Our Schools vs. Their Worthless Weaponry
With less money to go around, why burn it on stupid projects for the defense industry?
Posted on Dec 22, 2008

Latin America's New Consensus and the end of the Monroe Doctrine
Beset by economic crisis and bogged down in two unwinnable wars, the Colossus of the North no longer wields the clout it once had.
Posted on Nov 6, 2008

Starting the Next Cold War
NATO is an organization without a mission -- will it create its own?
Posted on Jun 28, 2008

Rumors of War: Is Bush Gearing Up to Attack Iran?
Something is afoot. Just what is not clear, but recent moves by the White House strongly suggest that Bush will attack Iran in the near future.
Posted on Jun 5, 2008

Basra Battles Echo Vietnam's Tet Offensive -- Will We Ever Learn History's Lessons?
The Bush administration needs to be reminded that Iraq is not a war -- it's a country.
Posted on Apr 25, 2008

Afghanistan: A River Runs Backward
Last year was the deadliest for Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion
Posted on Mar 24, 2008

The End of the 'American Century' Is Here
The neocons' project to create a "benign" global empire is dead, a victim of their own hubris.
Posted on Jan 30, 2008

Iraq's Bloody Toll: History Repeats Itself
In 1258, the Mongols took Baghdad, murdered its inhabitants, burned its libraries, and ravished its lands. The Bush administration has done the same, but hidden it behind a smoke screen of lies.
Posted on Oct 19, 2007

U.S. Secret Air War Pulverizes Afghanistan and Iraq
The U.S. military is increasingly relying on deadly air strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan as the ground occupations fall apart, killing untold numbers of civilians.
Posted on Sep 14, 2007

Bush Admin. Gives Vets the Shaft
A growing number of ill-prepared and under-funded clinics are tasked with caring for our nation's vets, and Bush is turning a blind eye.
Posted on Nov 14, 2006

Time to Inspect Bush's Nuclear Program
The White House plan to develop nuclear "bunker-busters" is a violation of of at least three articles of the non-proliferation treaty.
Posted on Dec 6, 2002

Silence Is Betrayal
For the past 11 years, the U.S. government has coordinated a war of terror and destruction on Iraqi civilians and infrastructure. The time to join the legions already opposed is now, or else your silence will be taken as consent.
Posted on Oct 21, 2002

Conn Hallinan is provost at the University of California at Santa Cruz

can be reached at: ringoanne at sbcglobal .net

Conn M. Hallinan
Title: Emeritus
Email: connm -at-

Conn Hallinan received his Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1975 from Berkeley. He came to UC Santa Cruz in 1981 and has been teaching journalism here since that

Lecturer Conn Hallinan will become Kresge College Associate Provost.

Conn Hallinan received his Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1975 from Berkeley. He came to UC Santa Cruz in 1981 and has been teaching journalism here since that time. He also has been a working journalist and currently writes a column for the San Francisco Examiner. In addition to teaching, he oversees all of the UC Santa Cruz on-campus and off-campus news media internship programs. In 2000, one of his recent students,

Martha Mendoza received a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.

2003 info

Conn Hallinan, lecturer in journalism, has been reappointed as associate provost of Kresge College. He was originally appointed to a two-year term but, after consultation with the Kresge faculty, Goff appointed him for one more year of service to Kresge.

"I am delighted to have the opportunity to continue working with Andy Szasz and Conn Hallinan, and am very pleased to welcome Stanley Williamson as UCSC’s newest provost," Goff said.

June 19, 2000

Alumna and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist honored at University House

Martha Mendoza, a 1988 graduate of UCSC (Kresge College) who received a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism this spring, was honored at a June 6 reception at University House. Mendoza was part of an Associated Press team that documented the killing of hundreds of civilians by U.S. troops during the early weeks of the Korean War. (See earlier story.)

Martha Mendoza has acquired numerous awards, including the Pulitzer (center award), for her work on the No Gun Ri story. (Shmuel Thaler)

Chancellor Greenwood presents the UCSC graduate with an award from the campus. (Shmuel Thaler)

Mendoza, who returned to campus to teach in UCSC's Writing Program this past quarter, chats with her mentor Conn Hallinan. (Jim Burns)

Guests at the reception study the awards, articles, and other artifacts relating to the Associated Press story. A table at the reception displayed the items. (Jim Burns)
Chancellor Greenwood welcomes Mendoza. (Jim Burns)

Alumni Association selects winners of top awards

UCSC's Alumni Association has announced the winners of its highest awards for 2002-03. From left, Martha Mendoza, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, will receive the Alumni Achievement Award; Conn Hallinan, a Writing Program lecturer, will be honored with the Distinguished Teaching Award, and Joe Weiss, technical production director and operations manager for the Theater Arts Department, has been selected for the Outstanding Staff Award.
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