In the campaign for the 2008 presidential elections, Senator Barack Obama made a solemn declaration that under his watch there would be a major relook at American interventionism, be it in the name of the war on terrorism or any other.
Mark Mazzetti’s masterpiece The Way of the Knife exposes not only that hollow declaration of Candidate Obama but also goes on to narrate in great detail the story of a Democratic President in 2009 so obsessed with what was set in motion by his predecessor George W. Bush that he actually persisted with the grandiose schemes presented by the Central Intelligence Agency knowing full well that the soldiers of fortune recruited by this agency — even if in the name of so-called contractors — violate domestic laws and Congressional mandates and jeopardise American foreign policy.
To the extent that he even authorised the killing of an American national — Anwar al Awlaki — in Yemen who drifted into militancy and started spewing venom, especially through the internet. Even more atrociously, Awlaki’s son, a Denver-born 16-year-old, who had gone looking for his father was ripped apart by missiles in an open air restaurant because he was “at the wrong place at the wrong time”!
The Way of the Knife is not just about the goings on in the Bush and Obama administrations of the war on terror or how intelligence agencies of the United States went about their business. Nor is it solely focused on how the Central Intelligence Agency cooperated with other intelligence agencies, in this context Pakistan’s infamous Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), whose terror links and connections have long been known to the CIA and well documented by Mazzetti throughout his book.
In fact one could make the argument that Pakistan’s dubious contribution to the American war on terrorism was essentially pegged on getting reimbursed monetarily for the efforts, and on condition that the CIA and Washington looked the other way as its India-focused terror outfits were being supported and trained. On more than one occasion Pakistan had insisted that the flight path of the drones could not include certain sensitive areas that perhaps included ISI’s terrorist training camps.
If the United States has been getting so much flak from the international community for the way in which it has gone about the business in the Middle East, much of it had to do with how both the Bush and the Obama administrations went about presenting flawed intelligence as the gospel truth; in the current scenario in the Middle East, it has to do with Washington’s nodal spying agency unable to tell the difference between its head and a hole in the ground. Mazzetti quite accurately pins down what exactly has gone haywire.
“The CIA was founded in 1947 on the premise that presidents and policy makers needed advance warning about the dynamics shaping world events, but both President George W Bush and Barack Obama had decided that hunting and killing terrorists should be the agency’s top priority”, Mazzetti says, going on to talk about the advice Gen Michael Hayden gave Gen David Petraeus prior to the latter taking over the CIA. “The CIA is not the OSS. It is the nation’s global intelligence service. And you’ve got to discipline yourself to carve out time to do something else besides counterterrorism”. But the killing spree that started in 2001 continues till this day, be it in the boondocks of Waziristan in Pakistan or Yemen.
There are two other interesting facets of the book. First in all this raining of hellfire and other missiles from Predators and Reapers, Mazzetti takes the reader through the intra-agency plots of the CIA and the Pentagon to the point where one could legitimately ask if the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. In the killing grounds set up by these two agencies in Pakistan, Africa and Yemen, the CIA and the Pentagon have come to the point of exchanging their intended roles of operation. “Everything is backwards. You’ve got an intelligence agency fighting a war and a military organization trying to gather on-the-ground intelligence”, Mazzetti quotes George Jameson, a lawyer who spent more than three decades at the CIA.
Second, the role of Pakistan especially its pretence at being a partner in the war on terror while openly siding and supporting terror outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and its leader Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, and how it became clear to the CIA that LeT was trying to raise its profile by carrying out “spectacular attacks beyond South Asia.” Here was a direct clash between Pakistan’s interests and the U.S’s: it was one thing for Washington to be in tribal areas hunting down al Qaeda but quite something else if the CIA was involved tracking down a “valuable proxy” of the ISI.
But nothing comes closer to Pakistan’s association with terrorism, the al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, than the dilemma that Pakistan’s Army chief faced when Admiral Mike Mullen informed him about the Navy Seals’ raid at the compound in Abbottabad that killed bin Laden. “… Kayani faced an unsavory choice, writes Mazzetti. “He could either appear complicit in hiding Osama bin Laden or incompetent from being able to stop the world’s most hunted man from taking refuge in the middle of his country. He chose the latter”.
(Sridhar Krishnaswami heads the Schools of Media Studies and Government and International Affairs at SRM University in Chennai)