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Before the Middle East, it was Latin America
"Plan Colombia" became "Plan Afghanistan." The Bush administration brought the "Salvador Option" to Iraq.
I had been trying to branch out from coverage of the Middle East to U.S. policy all over the world. Yet the same cast of characters kept popping up: figures like Elliott Abrams, John Negroponte, Alberto Miguel Fernandez, Edward Luttwak, and James Steele. And it wasn’t just a product of U.S. policy shuffling people around the world, because these people were not showing up everywhere, just in places like El Salvador and Iraq.
Something started to click when I read the new edition Empire’s Workshop, a history of U.S. policy towards Latin America, last summer. Then it clicked further into place when I read Missionaries, a recent novel by Phil Klay about the camp-followers of U.S. counterinsurgency wars. It finally slid smoothly into place when the Colombia’s Truth Commission published its postwar report this summer. And so I pitched a piece to New/Lines about it:
U.S. officials used Cold War-era conflicts in the Caribbean basin as a laboratory for counterinsurgency. By the early 2000s, the U.S. military had developed a sophisticated combination of surveillance, airpower, covert operations and economic aid to control unruly frontier zones. When Islamist terror became the threat of the day, Washington deployed the Colombian method across the Muslim world.
But guns and cash alone cannot create a social order. Having destroyed its organized ideological competitors — communism and Islamism — the U.S. often left power vacuums in their wake. Violence continued in a more disorganized, chaotic fashion. U.S. forces charged in time and again to quell it. Americans were left with a “not-quite-empire which was always projecting military power across the globe and just shifting the rationale of why,” as Lisette, the fictional war correspondent in Missionaries, puts it.
Take out a hostile regime or smash a popular opposition party and a scattered insurgency fills the vacuum. Beat the insurgents into submission and they fragment into criminal gangs or extremist cults. Kill the gang leaders and more brutal ones take their place. Technically efficient but detached from a long-term political strategy, U.S. counterinsurgency warfare became a process of wiping out all but the most ruthless and paranoid actors.
You can read the rest at New/Lines. It’s my debut piece for a publication I’ve long followed with interest.
The magazine doesn’t use hyperlinks much, so I didn’t a chance to cite as much as I would have liked to. Here’s some recommended further reading:
The Guardian’s thorough investigation into how the “Salvador option” came to Iraq
Daniel Bessner on “imperialist realism”
Spencer Ackerman on “sustainable” counterterrorism
The New York Times on:
InSight Crime on the Venezuelan proxy war in Colombia
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