The Phoenix Rises Again

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"There must be someway outta here," said the joker to the thief. "There’s too much confusion, I get no relief.”

~ All Along the Watchtower

In August 2008, while supporting a special operations mission against a Taliban camp in Azizabad, a US air strike resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30 to 90 civilians — the actual number depending whether you accept the former US estimate or the latter claim by the Afghanistan government. In December of that same year, a botched special ops mission resulted in the deaths of six Afghan police officers and a civilian — "a tragic case of mistaken identity" as one US military spokesman put it. The objective of these raids is to conduct surgical assassinations against high-ranking Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. However, the mounting civilian casualties from US special ops raids and air strikes are straining US relations with President Karzi and his Afghan military officers. Some expressed the concern that the raids are counterproductive, and assist in recruiting more fighters for the militants from the angry survivors of the attacks. As a result of increasing "collateral damage" to Afghanistan civilians, a partial halt has been called on special ops raids conducted by the Army Delta Force and Navy Seals.

There is now evidence that the jurisdiction of these special operations were created to come under the direct authority of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. American Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh, speaking recently at University of Minnesota, mentioned the creation of a special operations branch within the special operations program answerable only to the executive office.

“It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently,” he explained. “They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. … Congress has no oversight of it.”

“It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on,” Hersh stated. “Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.”

Considering Dick Cheney always treated his position as VP as a fourth branch of the government, this personal hit squad is not surprising. Nor the fact that innocent bystanders are indiscriminately killed or maimed by Special Ops missions under the leadership of a man who himself shot one of his friends on a hunting trip.

Rewind to 1967, Vietnam. The CIA in conjunction with South Vietnam organizes the Phoenix program. The objective is to locate, capture, convert, or eliminate the leadership hierarchy of Communist National Liberation Front (NLF) running the insurgency among the villages in South Vietnam. From 1967 to 1972 the Phoenix operation neutralized, captured or "turned," 81,740 NLF members, with another alleged 26,369 NLF members killed. (I’m still trying to figure out what "neutralized" means if they were not killed, captured, or "turned"?) South Vietnamese military and security forces often used the Phoenix operation as a cover to settle personal scores with non-communist Vietnamese by labeling them as VC sympathizers. Since Vietnam was an unconventional war where military success was not measured in geographical gains, body count quotas became the order of the day. The pressure to fill quotas led to fabrication of body counts, or worse, indiscriminate killing by Special Forces’ units. Former intelligence-liaison officer for the Phoenix Program, Lt. Vincent Okamoto, remarked:

"The problem was, how do you find the people on the blacklist? It’s not like you had their address and telephone number. The normal procedure would be to go into a village and just grab someone and say, ‘Where’s Nguyen so-and-so?’ Half the time the people were so afraid they would say anything. Then a Phoenix team would take the informant, put a sandbag over his head, poke out two holes so he could see, put commo wire around his neck like a long leash, and walk him through the village and say, ‘When we go by Nguyen’s house scratch your head.’ Then that night Phoenix would come back, knock on the door, and say, u2018April Fool, motherf**ker.’ Whoever answered the door would get wasted. As far as they were concerned whoever answered was a Communist, including family members. Sometimes they’d come back to camp with ears to prove that they killed people."

One definition of insanity is doing something over and over again, and expecting different results. Afghanistan is too vast to deploy enough boots on the ground to secure real estate. The advances in military technology in the past 40 years still cannot achieve the desired surgical kills without collateral damage. The Phoenix program has been resurrected from the ashes of a failed war, and body counts again become the measure of success. Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan, confirms that nothing has changed in the status quo in the war.

"But there are other areas — large areas in the southern part of Afghanistan especially, but in parts of the east — where we are not winning," he said in an interview with the BBC. "More has to happen along multiple lines of operation in order for anybody by any metric to say that the Afghans are winning or the efforts of the coalition are winning," he said.

The question of how much "more" it will take to win in Afghanistan, and the decision whether to do so is in the balance. Body counts at the expense of innocent bystanders do not win conflicts nor hearts and minds. Unbridled executive power in the name of national security has resulted in a Presidential Praetorian hit squad without congressional oversight. This ongoing war on terrorism is costing too much in innocent lives and loss of constitutional checks and balances. The phrase "graveyard of empires" no longer refers to a geographical location such as Afghanistan, but a political mindset and policy that is self-destructive. In the words of Walt Kelly’s cartoon character, Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Ron Shirtz [send him mail] is a transplanted Californian teaching Graphic Communications in Northern (Not “Upstate”) New York. His hobbies include arranging deck chairs on sinking ships, tilting at windmills, and being fashionably late.

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