We review Jeremy Scahill’s latest film ‘Dirty Wars’.
“If the Americans do this again, we are ready to shed our blood fighting them.” The speaker is an Afghan whose village has fallen victim to a night raid by US military forces The backdrop is a graveyard newly filled with civilian dead. Interviewing him is Jeremy Scahill, an American journalist and activist who has previously investigated the actions of mercenaries in the “War on Terror”. In Dirty Wars, directed by Rick Rowley, Scahill turns his attention to the darkest corners of US military strategy.
As villagers and officials describe multiple raids, with a growing list of civilian victims, it becomes clear that the American special forces units responsible for these attacks are operating with greater impunity than ever before. Hearing of a devastating raid in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, Scahill heads out into the “denied areas” of Afghanistan, where the Taliban exert significant control, in an attempt to shed light on the covert units behind the night raids.
The Gardez raid, carried out against a residence filled with people celebrating a recent birth, claimed a number of lives, including a number of pregnant women. The first person shot as US troops burst the through the doors was Daoud, a US-trained police commander. “Was he Taliban?” asks Daoud’s father.
US troops removed evidence, arrested several men and claimed that the civilians were killed by Taliban fighters. One of the men later released by the soldiers says, “I wanted jihad against the Americans.” These are the recurring themes of the film – mysterious, murderous American forces attacking without warning, killing civilians, and retreating to the shadows, accountable to no one. And each death they inflict turns more Afghans against the invaders, with many vowing to take up armed struggle against them.
Despite obstruction by US officials and a lack of interest from members of Congress, Scahill eventually discovers that the killers are from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This is an organisation of a few thousand special forces personnel drawn from across the US military. Since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, JSOC have grown increasingly adept in launching small-scale, deadly attacks on targets designated by the US administration.
Afghan district police chiefs, and even commanders of conventional NATO units, deny foreknowledge of these attacks. For all intents and purposes, JSOC operates unilaterally, guided only by the White House and the capricious logic of its own unaccountable commanders.
After NATO finally admitted responsibility for the Gardez raid, compensation was personally delivered to the family by an American officer named William McRaven, who later commanded JSOC’s most famous mission, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. As Scahill notes, this operation transformed JSOC, and US special forces in general, into heroes, and saw McRaven promoted to the helm of the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), JSOC’s parent unit.
Through interviews with Afghan victims of raids, journalists, officials, former soldiers and even an anonymous special forces operator, Scahill uncovers the cancerous growth of JSOC’s influence on military strategy, and the disproportionate authority bestowed upon it by secret Presidential orders over the last decade.
Over the course of the film, we learn about the assassination of American citizens in undeclared warzones, the warlords propped up by US funds and training in Somalia, drone strikes, extraordinary rendition and kill lists. Many will be familiar with the idea that the American military seeks to operate with impunity around the world, but it is jarring to see its reach and ambition so vividly portrayed.
Yet even those who are against JSOC’s methods and killing of civilians often miss the point, believing that there are better ways to fight – and perhaps win – the war in Afghanistan. As the Afghans (and others) interviewed clearly show, there is no place in their country for military intervention by imperialist forces. As the “War on Terror” intensifies in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere, America creates new enemies for itself and its allies, and fresh misery for the people of the region. Through it all, Western corporate interests seek to profit, following the blunt trauma of invasion with the slow poison of neoliberalism.
In Yemen, Scahill interviews a man who simultaneously illuminates the US government’s view of foreign civilians (especially Muslim ones) and the manner in which America finds new adversaries. The man describes a US attack on “an al-Qaeda training camp”, in reality an area populated by of one of the poorest tribes in South Yemen. Over 40 civilians, including women and children, were slaughtered. The man says, “If they kill innocent children and call them al-Qaeda, then we are all al-Qaeda.”