Dirty Wars, A Review, Part 4: The Phoenix Rises from the Ashes (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan)


The Iraqi occupation (2003-2011) was a mecca for the U.S. military’s Special Operations Forces and a new phase in counter-insurgency that resurrected the CIA’s gruesome tactics of the Vietnam-era of the 1960s. And was a dream come true for the neoconservative wing of the Bush administration. According to Scahill,

“Iraq would serve as a laboratory for creating a new kill/capture machine, centered on JSOC, run by McChrystal and accountable to no one but a small group of White House and Pentagon insiders. Within months, the targeted kill/capture campaign would begin to resemble the CIA’s Phoenix program from the Vietnam War…” (p.114)

Stanley McChrystal became head of JSOC in 2003. Although he was apparently sceptical of the Iraq war, the “warrior scholar” nonetheless viewed it as an ideal opportunity to strengthen the grip of JSOC. McChrystal’s Task Force 121 (a collective of “kill teams” that had authority in Iraq and Afghanistan) would spearhead the high-value-target (HVT) hunt, and would be commanded by William McRaven. Indeed, the HVT Task Force was largely McRaven’s doing—and he would later become the primary figure in the National Security Council (NSC) that built up the infrastructure for the creation of kill lists. His time at the NSC would cement assassination as a central pillar of US national security policy.

Rumsfeld-favourite Steven Cambone was the actor that coordinated black-ops intelligence. Indeed, his private intelligence shop was now on steroids. The “Special Support Branch” and “the Activity” were feeding all-access intelligence to the task force’s kill teams. There were now two was being fought in Iraq: one waged by the conventional army and one waged by JSOC.

The latter relied on the provision of human intelligence, or HUMINT, often from “enhanced interrogation”. This parallel rendition program to the CIA black sites would be variously known as Copper Green, Matchbox, and Footprint. For example, Camp NAMA (Nasty Ass Military Area – yes, really) was a JSOC “filtration site” (read: prison) composed of a small cluster of buildings in the corner of a Saddam-era military base near the Baghdad airport, authorized under “Greystone”. At the center was the Battlefield Interrogation Facility. Both the CIA and DIA would also interrogate prisoners there, although the CIA would later pull out after being “shocked” at the torture and abuse (p.151). By mid-2004 JSOC intelligence and operations had accelerated dramatically, creating a covert force within the main military machine. Camp NAMA was shut down in 2004, and JSOC’ operations then moved to a huge base at Balad, which some JSOC operatives referred to as the “Death Star”.

“Balad was a massive air base that Saddam had built up with modern facilities and infrastructure. The kill/capture center JSOC established there was a microcosm of how Rumsfeld and Cheney wanted the whole national security apparatus in the United States to function: all US intelligence agencies and assets should be subordinate to the kill teams staffed by the Special Ops warrior class and directed by the White House and defense secretary”. 162

At the top of JSOC’s “kill list” in Iraq was Jordanian terrorist al-Zarqawi, who had come to Iraq to fight the occupation. In 2004 his group pledged alliance to Osama bin Laden, and formed al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, or al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). But his ruthless attacks on Muslims would lose him favour with al-Qaeda, and played into the propaganda machine of Washington. In 2005, al-Zarqawi increased his merciless campaign targeting Iraq Shiites and Sunni Muslims he perceived as being weak or ineffectual. Zarqawi was not interested in compromise with AQI’s Zawahiri. By 2006, after waging war against the Sunni tribes in Anbar, al-Zarqawi had made a huge tactical mistake—pushing the once anti-US tribes into an alliance with the occupation. The US armed these tribes, and this period coincided with the much-feted “surge”. But the real success came from Iraqis themselves, not the “All In” General that oversaw the surge.

JSOC began using a system McChrystal’s intelligence deputy Mike Flynn referred to as “The Unblinking Eye”, in which drones and other aircraft would survey an urban landscape for a long time to achieve a greater understanding of an individual or group’s “pattern of life” or “network”, using what Flynn called “nodal analysis”. An individual’s entire network could then mapped, denying them an “asymmetric advantage” (p. 173). Special Operations Command also built a program called Continuous Clandestine Tagging Tracking and Locating, or CTTL, which used a range of sophisticated techniques for biometric recognition and surveillance. In short – Iraq was a mixture of conventional warfare, Special Operations warfare, and techno-warfare. All three ultimately failed.


As in Iraq, JSOC ran its own detainee operations in Afghanistan and would maintain a list of people to kill or capture—known as the Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL), which would eventually grow to more than 2,000 individuals. This meant that like Iraq, there were two wars waged in Afghanistan: the public, COIN-centric war, and the covert war conducted by SOF and centered upon notorious night raids, the most infamous of which was the ISAF “cover-up” raid of Gardez, in Paktia Province on February 12, 2010, in which an Afghan politician and his family were slaughtered. JSOC would also run its own version of “Camp NAMA” and Field Detention Sites – which were off-limits to the Red Cross. For example, there was a large prison in Bagram called the “Black Jail”.

In December 2009, Obama named McChrystal as head of ISAF and commander of US forces in Afghanistan. It cemented the importance Obama placed on SOF. McChrystal was also a figure viewed with the ability to harmonize the role of JSOC within the wider regular military mission. At this time, there were 5,000 SOF in Afghanistan, which were conducting around twenty raids a month. Yet there were only a modest number of al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan, and many JSOC teams were chasing mid-level Taliban leaders who were only fighting the US because foreign troops were present in their valley (p.333).


Although the CIA was the lead agency in Pakistan, JSOC forces did conduct sporadic ground operations. For example, under codename “Screen Hunter”, JSOC and the DIA shadowed ISI members suspected of being sympathetic to al-Qaeda. While Raymond Davis was widely reported as CIA contractor spying upon militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, this could also have been a cover within a cover – and he could actually have been working with JSOC (a process known as “layering”). There was an influx of CIA and SOF following Pakistan’s devastating floods in 2011, when many spies entered the country with diplomatic visas.

With funds drained by Iraq, the Bush administration began outsourcing parts of its war to Blackwater (which had the added bonus of avoiding oversight). In 2006 for example, under codename “Vibrant Fury”, Blackwater personnel were recruited for a secret JSOC raid inside of Pakistan, targeting an al-Qaeda facility. Additionally, an agreement by Musharraf and JSOC in 2002 meant that the U.S. had a “hot pursuit” arrangement that allowed U.S. troops to enter Pakistani territory when it was chasing AQ operatives across the border. Blackwater-JSOC operatives in Pakistan were referred to as “Qatar cubed”, in reference to the Qatar “lily pad” (or air base) used for the implementation of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Blackwater teams also helped plan missions for JSOC inside Uzbekistan against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The first ever drone strike carried out under the Obama administration in 2009 was a “signature strike”. This practice began at the close of the Bush administration in 2008: the CIA stated that “military aged males” who were part of a large gathering of people in a particular region or had contacts with other suspected militants or terrorists could be considered fair targets for drone strikes. A positive ID was not necessary to strike—only some of the “signatures” the Agency had developed to identify suspected terrorists. Indeed, Obama would preserve many of Bush’s policies, sustaining most of the ExOrds without revision. For example, in October 2009, Obama reportedly expanded the target boxes for drone strikes in Pakistan, and increased resources for the Agency’s secret paramilitary forces.

Although the CIA was the lead on the drone program in Pakistan, it was not the only player: JSOC had its own intelligence assets and at times conducted its own drone strikes. At the center of both was an elite division of Blackwater, who assisted in planning the assassinations of suspected Taliban and AQ operatives, as well as “snatch and grabs” and other sensitive actions. Some elite Blackwater “SELECT” personnel even worked for the CIA in Pakistan and Afghanistan, helping load Hellfire missiles and other logistical tasks.

Next: Yemen.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Book Reviews, CIA, History of Drones, Iraq, Jeremy Scahill, Pakistan, Special Forces and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Dirty Wars, A Review, Part 4: The Phoenix Rises from the Ashes (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan)

  1. Pingback: Creating Monsters (Dirty Wars, A Review, Part 6) | Understanding Empire

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