On July 22 2006, Human Rights Watch issued a report titled “No blood, no foul” about American torture practices at three facilities in Iraq. One of them was Camp Nama, which was operated by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), under the direction of then Major General Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal was officially based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, but he was a frequent visitor to Camp Nama and other Special Forces bases in Iraq and Afghanistan where forces under his command were based.
An interrogator at Camp Nama described locking prisoners in shipping containers for 24 hours at a time in extreme heat; exposing them to extreme cold with periodic soaking in cold water; bombardment with bright lights and loud music; sleep deprivation; and severe beatings. When he and other interrogators went to the colonel in charge and expressed concern that this kind of treatment was not legal, and that they might be investigated by the military’s Criminal Investigation Division or the International Committee of the Red Cross, the colonel told them he had “this directly from General McChrystal and the Pentagon that there’s no way that the Red Cross could get in.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the international body charged under international law with monitoring compliance with the Geneva Conventions, and it, therefore, has the right to inspect all facilities where people are detained in a country that is at war or under military occupation. To hide prisoners or facilities from the ICRC or to deny access to them is a serious war crime. But many U.S. prisons in Iraq have held “ghost” prisoners whose imprisonment has not been reported to the ICRC, and these “ghosts” have usually been precisely the ones subjected to the worst torture. Camp Nama, run by McChrystal’s JSOC, was an entire “ghost” facility.
When the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq challenged U.S. authorities over military operations that were killing civilians in 2007, U.S. State Department officials informed them that “the U.S. government continues to regard the conflict in Iraq as an international armed conflict, with procedures currently in force consistent with provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” The U.S. government can’t have it both ways. If the U.S. is at war in Iraq, the Geneva Conventions apply. If the war is over and Iraq is a sovereign, independent country, then Iraqis have even greater legal protections under human rights laws like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iraq and the U.S. have both signed and ratified.
In fact, the Geneva Conventions are the minimum standards to which U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan must conform, and violations of the Geneva Conventions are war crimes punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the War Crimes Act in U.S. Federal Law. The War Crimes Act even provides for the death penalty if somebody dies as a result of a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Human Rights First’s Command’s Responsibility report documented 98 such deaths in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the most serious punishment meted out for any of these crimes was a five-month prison sentence, and no officer above the rank of major was charged in relation to any of them in spite of the documented role of more senior officers and civilian officials in authorizing and then covering up these crimes.
Unfortunately, the potential charges against Lieutenant General McChrystal do not begin and end with torture. Under his command, the Joint Special Operations Command has been at the leading edge of the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on Special Forces, which operate opportunistically somewhere between regular military operations and the “covert” operations that the CIA’s Clandestine Service has conducted since 1945. Many of JSOC’s operations, like those of the CIA, involve criminal acts, including murder.
Regular military forces are clearly governed and protected by the laws of war, while clandestine CIA officers understand that their actions violate the laws of the countries where they operate and that they will be treated as criminals if they are exposed and arrested unless American diplomats can come to their rescue. But now the United States has about 40,000 Special Forces, many of whom are being trained to conduct otherwise criminal operations against civilian targets, including assassinations, while enjoying the full support, equipment and training of the U.S. military.
An added attraction of “covert” operations to American policy-makers has always been that, by the very nature of these operations, the American press could be silenced with a quiet word to editors to prevent them betraying “national security” secrets. The media could then report only the official cover story, turning them into powerful coconspirators in the propaganda component of these operations. Moving large numbers of nominally military operations into this shadowy world that is not just beyond public scrutiny but is deliberately misrepresented to the public, raises serious and disturbing questions that deserve serious scrutiny.
Military support for these operations does not make it legal to go into other countries and sneak around and kill people who may or may not be a danger to U.S. interests. U.S. military intelligence officers told the ICRC in 2004 that “between 70 percent and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake,” but the secrecy surrounding “special operations” means that there is no similar estimate available on the proportion of innocent people killed in JSOC operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. This entire development in American strategy has no legal basis, and killing people under these conditions is simply murder under the laws of most countries. As with other war crimes, the heaviest criminal responsibility lies with those who design and order these operations rather than with their subordinates who carry them out.
Which brings us back to Lieutenant General McChrystal and Afghanistan, and also back to Iraq. Seymour Hersh described in December 2003 how JSOC’s teams in Iraq were trained in the arts of disguise and assassination by Israeli Mist’aravim assassins, who developed their expertise conducting similar operations in Palestine. President Bush publicly credited JSOC’s assassination teams in Iraq with an instrumental role in the success he claimed for his escalation of the war in 2007 and 2008.
But there were plenty of other unacknowledged reasons for the reduction in violence in Iraq in 2008, most notably that the United States and its Iraqi allies were the perpetrators or instigators of most of the violence to begin with. The land mines or “IED”s that caused so many U.S. casualties are by definition a defensive weapon. After an escalation of air strikes — 640 in three months in the summer of 2007, and 110 per month through the first half of 2008 — U.S. forces finally pulled back to their bases and left the Iraqis at peace in the ruins of their country.
Once they got their time line straight and figured out that the Iraqi resistance couldn’t have been responsible for September 11, many U.S. troops in Iraq quietly switched from “search and destroy” missions to “search and avoid,” parking their Humvees in a safe place and trying to stay out of trouble. As Phil Aliff, who was with the 10th Mountain Division in Anbar province, told Dahr Jamail of Inter Press Service, “We decided the only way we wouldn’t be blown up was to avoid driving around all the time.”
A bit higher in the chain of command, U.S. officers found bribery to be more effective than house raids and air strikes in persuading the Iraqis to leave them alone. And Iraqi politicians finally gained the first glimmer of legitimacy by standing up to their American occupiers over the Petroleum Law and the Status of Forces Agreement. Tragically, now that Obama is back loading troop withdrawals and wobbling on his commitment to end the occupation, the Iraqi resistance is renewing its operations.
The decision to put Lieutenant General McChrystal in charge of the war in Afghanistan must be seen as an endorsement of Special Forces tactics, like those that form part of the “surge” mythology on Iraq. You don’t hire a hitman to oversee a humanitarian relief project. But U.S. Special Forces have been conducting operations in Afghanistan for years, like the Specter gunship attack that killed 90 civilians in Azizabad last August, according to U.N. and local officials, and these operations have only fueled resistance. It isn’t difficult to imagine how the Afghans will respond to an expansion of JSOC raids killing local tribal leaders in Pashtun villages. They will unite as they did against the Russians to throw the invaders out of their country. The Northern Alliance, which the United States rescued from defeat in 2001, can’t run the country and most of them don’t even want to. They’re quite happy selling and taxing opium from their new mansions in Kabul, and their soldiers are no more eager to go and fight in the Hindukush than they are to try to govern it.
Pashtun territory also includes a big slice of modern Pakistan, and American policy has undermined the historically fragile accommodation between the Pashtuns and the Pakistani government and army. The international border through the heart of Pashtunistan is a line drawn on the map by an Englishman, Sir Mortimer Durand, in 1893, and it is worth remembering why he drew that line in the first place. After two failed Afghan Wars, the British understood that the key to the security of that part of British India (now Pakistan) was to leave the Pashtun in peace and to maintain live-and-let-live relations with them.
Those beyond the Durand Line and the Khyber Pass became part of officially independent Afghanistan, while those within the official borders of India, although nominally British, were still effectively independent in the absence of trouble, while tolerating the presence of British troops in garrison towns like Peshawar and Rawalpindi. Both sides had learned to fear and respect each others’ boundaries and understood that escalations of military force were in nobody’s interest and should be kept to a minimum. This was the status quo that the British transferred to Pakistan in 1947, and which the United States has now placed in jeopardy with nothing realistic to replace it.
So, an escalation by JSOC and other “special forces” in Afghanistan will only result in exacerbating this spiral of violence, especially with the political fortunes of Obama and the Democrats wedded to this strategy. The Democrats are habitually terrified of appearing weak, and the Republicans are habitually unscrupulous in exploiting the moral weakness that the Democrats’ fear of such accusations betrays. And the victims of all this weakness and unscrupulousness will be the oppressed women in their burqas; the Afghan children with their surprisingly Western features; these amazing people who have led their unique way of life in their mountain homes for hundreds of years; these people who respond to foreign invaders exactly the way that most Americans like to believe that we would if the roles were reversed.
Nicolas J S Davies is the author of “Blood on our hands – the American invasion and destruction of Iraq” (Nimble Books), to be published later this year.