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The Long Third War

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
October 30, 2012
Foreign Policy

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Nov. 3 marks the tenth anniversary of America's Third War -- the campaign of targeted killings in non-battlefield settings that has been a defining feature of post-9/11 American military policy as much as the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unlike other wars, there won't be any ceremonies at the White House or Pentagon, parades down Main Streets, or town square rallies to acknowledge the sacrifices made by the countless civilian and military personnel involved. There won't even be a presidential statement since targeted killings cannot and will not be recognized by the U.S. government. The war is conducted by both the CIA -- covert and totally unacknowledged -- and by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) -- described without any specificity as "direct action" by the White House. Whether the CIA or JSOC is the lead executive agency, the Third War is marked by the limited transparency and accountability of U.S. officials.

The Third War, which began with a drone strike in Yemen, had two simple goals: preventing another attack on the U.S. homeland and capturing or killing those al Qaeda operatives responsible. Bush administration officials warned ominously that its forward-leaning counterterrorism approach mandated preventive attacks against terrorist safe havens. Five days after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney stated that the United States would have to work "the dark side," and an anonymous senior official declared: "The gloves are off. The president has given the [CIA] the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway."

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