US has taken targeted killings to new high: Author Mark Mazzetti

Jaipur, Jan 19: Targeted killings of terrorists in badlands of the world have been taken to a new high by the US and in the foreseeable future this looks likely to be intensified amid indications that other major powers may also adopt the technique, says a chronicler of America’s shadow war on terror.

Mark Mazzetti, author of “The Way of the Knife”, said here it was an unprecedented power vested in the American president.

“There has been no point when the American president had the power to decide about the life or death of an individual in a foreign land,” Mazzetti, who is the national security correspondent with the New York Times, said in an interview to IANS at the Jaipur Literary Festival 2014 here.

“Targeted killings have seen before 9/11… but never on this scale and reach. 9/11 was a cataclysmic moment for the US and led it to embark on a new kind of war. Use of armed drones and special operation forces against terrorists came out of the lab in response and will only intensify,” he said.

“It has become a central part of the foreign and national security policy of the US,” he said.

Agreeing that targeted killings have been used by certain countries, notably Israel, Mazzetti said Israel also invented drones but never used both of these to the extent US has employed them.

“(US President Barack) Obama has ended the war in Iraq and looks to do the same in Afghanistan but is intensifying the strikes,” he said.

Mazzetti said he did not see the targeted strikes ending soon but noted there were indications that the US monopoly on it will soon end.

“Technology of this is proliferating… One day, Russia or China, or for that matter, India will decide to use drones for the same policy. When that happens, it will be difficult for the US to criticise them,” he said.

To a query if the technique was counter-productive in respect that it led to the rise of a new generation of terrorists, Mazzetti said that its effects on radicalisation were unclear.

“It has been successful in wiping out the Al Qaeda leadership as well as terror groups planning to attack America, but it was unclear that it had any effect of radicalisation. It is a tool for killing terrorists. Of course, with the terrorists, some others… innocent people have been killed. It’s hard to know if it has radicalised the people in the areas where it has been employed.”

“There is anecdotal evidence of radicalisation… even Faisal Shahzad (the Pakistan-born US citizen who made an abortive attempt to blow up the Times Square in 2010) cited the drone attacks as the trigger,” Mazzetti said.

“It is a tool for killing terrorists… This is war and nothing in it is without costs and consequences,” he said.

At a session earlier in the day, Mazzetti said the Obama administration sought to contrast its policy from the George W. Bush regime’s “hammer” method to that of the scalpel, thus implying a clean and surgical strike to take out terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, and Africa, but he has chosen to represent it by a knife since “knife-fights are bloodier and messier”.

“In the process, the CIA was transformed from an espionage and intelligence-gathering outfit to a paramilitary force for lethal targeting of terrorists,” Mazzetti said.

He added that the new role of the CIA in the war against terror came after the revelations of torture methods such as “waterboarding”, till “one point when the agency saw killing of terrorists better than interrogating them over the legal complications of torture”.

“There is far less legal controversy over killing terrorists than torturing them,” he said.

The phenomenon had also blurred the clearly demarcated lines between the soldiers and spies, with both taking on the roles normally performed by each other, he said.

On what prompted him to write this book, Mazzetti told IANS that he wanted to put together all these actions since 2001.

“The war has played out… I wanted to write a history of the shadow war. Also some classified information about 9/11 had become available,” he said.

“It was a story waiting to be told,” he added.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at