TFR: In the British press at least, there seems to be a lot more coverage of drone strikes than night raids, which seem to have got swept under the carpet. Now night raids seem to be one of the major sticking points preventing an agreement at the Loya Jirga discussing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the US and Afghan governments, that will decide the future of the US presence in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai wants them stopped, the US government wants to allow its Special Forces to continue using the tactic in the country.
JS: First of all Hamid Karzai is primarily concerned with his own political future and legacy, so there is a bit of politicking there. But this is one of the premier issues for people throughout Afghanistan. There is almost nothing you could do that would be a more gross violation of cultural norms in Afghanistan than to have a bunch of commandos burst into a home and shoot people, or search them, or grab women and throw them into a room. So, the Afghan government for the past several years has basically been begging the United States to stop doing these night raids, saying ‘we want Afghans to take them over’. But the reality is that the US is going to continue to do it beyond a NATO withdrawal. There is going to be a strike force that maintains a presence in Afghanistan.
It’s not just Americans – British SAS and other British Special Forces have been involved with the night raid policy going back to the early stages of the Iraq war. The force that I write about, and that you see in our film, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), at the very beginning of its foundation in 1980, the SAS was deeply involved in training and creating the structure for this strike force that ultimately killed Bin Laden and conducts all of these night raids. In Iraq, SAS troops were an entire division of the JSOC-run killing operation and that relationship continues on to this day. You could make a documentary about the role of the SAS in America’s global assassination programme and it would be a stunning, because Britain has been doing this a lot longer than America and is deeply responsible for creating this massive hammer that the United States is now using to hit nails around the world.
TFR: The obvious precedent for this is Vietnam and the Phoenix program in particular; one could see these targeted killings and assassinations as a continuation of that. [The Phoenix Program was the US programme of targeting killings and assassinations in Vietnam. Apparently the term ‘terminate with extreme prejudice‘ in Apocalypse Now was used by the Phoenix program.]
JS: The Phoenix Program in Vietnam is, I would say, the godfather of these operations. You had mass killing, but it was confined to one nation, with a bleed over into Laos and Cambodia at times. Now you have these operations dispersed around the world. There are sort of mini-Phoenix Programs being run in a variety of countries across the globe.
TFR: Staying with Vietnam, you could say that the armed drones cause far fewer casualties than the USAF’s secret bombing campaign of Laos and Cambodia where B52s were responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. [The estimated number of deaths in Laos and Cambodia range between 150,000 to 500,000]
JS: I’m not as obsessed with drones as some people, drones are ultimately a weapon at the end of the day. It’s a platform. To me the broader issue is the policy that necessitates, or calls for, the use of drones. President Obama and his advisers have really tried to portray what they are doing as a cleaner war, which is why we called our film Dirty Wars. It is true on a technical level the blast radius from a Hellfire missile is much smaller than the devastation that a Tomahawk cruise missile could cause or a conventional air raid using a fighter bomber. They try to parse the words and say “Well, we’re killing less people here.” To me, it’s not about body counts, it’s the assertion that we can assassinate people in any nation we please. So, yes, that’s true, the drone is a more precise weapon than many in the US military arsenal, but to me it’s not about “did we kill 100 people or did we kill 70 people?” It’s about the policy that drones are a part of.