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Guardian Lays Out Details of How Petraeus Organized Death Squads in Iraq

Petraeus salutes the death squads that advanced his career

Petraeus salutes the death squads that advanced his career

Yesterday, the Guardian published an article detailing how the US turned to the use of death squads in Iraq to quell the rise of Sunni militias. The article provides convincing evidence that this was an intentional policy and was in fact a central tenet of David Petraeus’ often-praised counterinsurgency, or COIN, strategy. The key person in the Guardian’s reporting is James Steele, who was a veteran in organizing Central American death squads on behalf of the US during the Reagan years.

In reading the material from the Guardian, however, it should be kept in mind that Petraeus did not institute his COIN strategy only in Iraq. He put it into place in Afghanistan as well, and the fact that it lead to widespread allegations of torture and murder there demonstrates that the atrocities committed by these militias is a feature of the funding and training provided to them and not an unfortunate outgrowth, because this practice has now produced death squads in Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan. Recall that less than two weeks ago, Hamid Karzai called for the expulsion of US Special Operations forces from Maidan Wardak province due to allegations of abuse by the Afghan Local Police there. The Afghan Local Police are in reality groups of local militias trained and funded by US Special Operations forces and operating separately from the Karzai government. The ALP became one of the primary features of Petraeus’ COIN strategy when he moved it to Afghanistan.

Here’s the opening of the Guardian article:

The Pentagon sent a US veteran of the “dirty wars” in Central America to oversee sectarian police commando units in Iraq that set up secret detention and torture centres to get information from insurgents. These units conducted some of the worst acts of torture during the US occupation and accelerated the country’s descent into full-scale civil war.

Colonel James Steele was a 58-year-old retired special forces veteran when he was nominated by Donald Rumsfeld to help organise the paramilitaries in an attempt to quell a Sunni insurgency, an investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic shows.

Via email, my friend Kirk pointed out this report from Newsweek back in early 2005 where the concept of the Salvador option was floated openly by the Bush administration:

What to do about the deepening quagmire of Iraq? The Pentagon’s latest approach is being called “the Salvador option”–and the fact that it is being discussed at all is a measure of just how worried Donald Rumsfeld really is. “What everyone agrees is that we can’t just go on as we are,” one senior military officer told NEWSWEEK. “We have to find a way to take the offensive against the insurgents. Right now, we are playing defense. And we are losing.” Last November’s operation in Fallujah, most analysts agree, succeeded less in breaking “the back” of the insurgency–as Marine Gen. John Sattler optimistically declared at the time–than in spreading it out.

Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported “nationalist” forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success–despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. (Among the current administration officials who dealt with Central America back then is John Negroponte, who is today the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Under Reagan, he was ambassador to Honduras. There is no evidence, however, that Negroponte knew anything about the Salvadoran death squads or the Iran-Contra scandal at the time. The Iraq ambassador, in a phone call to NEWSWEEK on Jan. 10, said he was not involved in military strategy in Iraq. He called the insertion of his name into this report “utterly gratuitous.”)

The most disgusting aspect of this apparent “trial balloon” floated by the Bush administration is that the program quite possibly was already underway when the Newsweek article came out. The Guardian article reminds us that Petraeus, the architect of this program,  was sent to Iraq in June of 2004 (this was his second deployment to Iraq) to begin training Iraqis, and the Newsweek article wasn’t published until January of 2005. Steele, who was reporting directly to Rumsfeld, first went to Iraq in 2003 (Rumsfeld delighted in running his own people separately from the chain of command; he did this at times with McChrystal as well).

More evidence that the program was entirely intentional comes from the role of torture in the program and the moves the US made to ignore torture just as the program was put into place. Read more

Nominated Defense Intelligence Chief Flynn Tied to Petraeus, McChrystal Night Raid Policy

On April 8, the US and Afghanistan finally signed an agreement handing over primary responsibility for night raids to Afghan forces. Although the Obama administration was hell-bent on inking that deal as part of the effort to have agreement with Afghanistan on overall status of forces thinking prior to the May NATO summit in Chicago, this agreement was a full month later than the agreement handing over responsibility for detention operations. Negotiations took so long because the US sees night raids as a central factor in success in both Iraq and Afghanistan while the Afghans are critically aware of the polarizing effect of night raids and how they fuel the insurgency.

As I pointed out in this post on an excerpt from Michael Hastings’ The Operators, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn was a key intelligence staffer for Stanley McChrystal during the Camp NAMA torture and torture cover-up in early 2004. His biography notes that “Major General Flynn commanded the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade from June 2002 to June 2004.”  Many of those who were victims of torture during that time in Iraq had been rounded up in night raids. Here is Michael Hirsh as quoted by Chris Suellentrop in the New York Times:

Reading “Fiasco,” Thomas Ricks’s devastating new book about the Iraq war, brought back memories for me. Memories of going on night raids in Samarra in January 2004, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, with the Fourth Infantry Division units that Ricks describes. During these raids, confused young Americans would burst into Iraqi homes, overturn beds, dump out drawers, and summarily arrest all military-age men — actions that made them unwitting recruits for the insurgency. For American soldiers battling the resistance throughout Iraq, the unspoken rule was that all Iraqis were guilty until proven innocent. Arrests, beatings and sometimes killings were arbitrary, often based on the flimsiest intelligence, and Iraqis had no recourse whatever to justice. Imagine the sense of helpless rage that emerges from this sort of treatment. Apply three years of it and you have one furious, traumatized population. And a country out of control.

The Hill adds this to Flynn’s background:

Flynn was also the top intelligence officer at International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan, working under former ISAF chiefs Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus.

Flynn often is credited with recognizing the poor state of intelligence on which the earliest night raids were conducted and working to improve the underlying intelligence. Despite claimed progress on this front, however, even as late as last year, a full 20% of night raids in Afghanistan were incorrectly targeted.

Flynn has now parlayed the success with which he is credited into a nomination to head the Defense Intelligence Agency: Read more

“Quiet Lobbying Campaign” For SOCOM: Hollywood Movie, President’s Campaign Slogan

Coming so quickly on the heels of Lt. Col. Daniel Davis documenting the depraved level of lying that characterizes the primary mode of action for many at the top levels in our military, it’s galling that Admiral William McRaven would take to the front page of today’s New York Times to advance his efforts–hilariously and tragically labeled by the Times as a “quiet lobbying campaign”–to gain an even freer hand for the Special Operations Command, which he heads.

Never forget that it was from within Special Operations that Stanley McChrystal shielded Camp NAMA, where torture occurred, from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Never forget that it was Special Operations who instituted the dark side of the COIN (counterinsurgency) campaign in Afghanistan that relied on poorly targeted night raids that imprisoned and tortured many innocent civilians. Never forget that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld bypassed the normal chain of command to work directly with Stanley McChrystal when he headed JSOC, sending McChrystal on missions not reported to area command. This relationship with Cheney and Rumsfeld had a strong effect on JSOC, as noted by Jeremy Scahill:

Wilkerson said that almost immediately after assuming his role at the State Department under Colin Powell, he saw JSOC being politicized and developing a close relationship with the executive branch.

Among the military commanders being bypassed by Cheney and Rumsfeld was the head of SOCOM, the position that McRaven (who was McChyrstal’s deputy when most of McChrystal’s war crimes were carried out) now occupies, but this same attitude of teaming with the executive branch to bypass the regular defense chain of command has survived intact.

Today’s article in the Times opens this way:

As the United States turns increasingly to Special Operations forces to confront developing threats scattered around the world, the nation’s top Special Operations officer, a member of the Navy Seals who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, is seeking new authority to move his forces faster and outside of normal Pentagon deployment channels.

The officer, Adm. William H. McRaven, who leads the Special Operations Command, is pushing for a larger role for his elite units who have traditionally operated in the dark corners of American foreign policy. The plan would give him more autonomy to position his forces and their war-fighting equipment where intelligence and global events indicate they are most needed.

At least the Times does pay a short homage to the quaint, old way of the chain of command as it currently exists:

While President Obama and his Pentagon’s leadership have increasingly made Special Operations forces their military tool of choice, similar plans in the past have foundered because of opposition from regional commanders and the State Department. Read more

Intelligence Aide Flynn re McChrystal: “Everyone Has a Dark Side”

As Marcy pointed out yesterday, Rolling Stone has published an excerpt from Michael Hastings’ new book The Operators. As she predicted, I am unable to refrain from commenting on it. The polarizing figure of Stanley McChrystal has always intrigued me. The way that McChrystal’s “Pope” persona was embraced by a large portion of the press never made sense to me, given how deeply McChrystal was involved as the primary agent behind the “success” of David Petraeus’ brutal night raids and massive detention program in Iraq. For those paying attention, it was known as early as 2006 that McChrystal’s JSOC was at the heart of the abuses at Camp Nama and even that he was responsible for preventing the ICRC from visiting the camp.

In preparing for the short passage from Hastings that I want to highlight, it is important to keep in mind that McChrystal’s mode of operation when heading JSOC was to bypass both the normal chain of command and Congressional oversight by working directly for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. From Jeremy Scahill:

While JSOC has long played a central role in US counterterrorism and covert operations, military and civilian officials who worked at the Defense and State Departments during the Bush administration described in interviews with The Nation an extremely cozy relationship that developed between the executive branch (primarily through Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) and JSOC. During the Bush era, Special Forces turned into a virtual stand-alone operation that acted outside the military chain of command and in direct coordination with the White House. Throughout the Bush years, it was largely General McChrystal who ran JSOC.

Next, we need to consider the figure of Michael Flynn, whom Hastings quotes. Flynn served under McChrystal in a number of positions related to intelligence gathering. From his biography:

Major General Michael T. Flynn assumed duties as the Chief, CJ2, International Security Assistance Force, with the additional appointment as the CJ2, US Forces – Afghanistan on 15 June 2009. Prior to serving in this capacity, he served as the Director of Intelligence, Joint Staff from 11 July 2008 to 14 June 2009. He also served as the Director of Intelligence, United States Central Command from June 2007 to July 2008 and the Director of Intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command from July 2004 to June 2007, with service in Operations ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) and IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF). Major General Flynn commanded the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade from June 2002 to June 2004. Major General Flynn served as the Assistant Chief of Staff, G2, XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina from June 2001 and the Director of Intelligence, Joint Task Force 180 in Afghanistan until July, 2002.

Both the New York Times and Esquire articles linked above on torture at Camp Nama discuss events primarily from early 2004. From Flynn’s biography, that coincides with his duty as heading the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade and being promoted to Director of Intelligence for all of JSOC. Given those roles, it seems impossible that Flynn could have been unaware of what took place at Camp Nama, as he would have been assessing the information gleaned from interrogations there at the very least. It’s likely he spent a lot of time there. From the Esquire article: Read more

JSOC Denial of Ignoring Torture in Afghan Prisons Not Credible–They Trained Afghan Military Police

Brig. Gen. Saffiullah, Afghan National Army Military Police Brigade commander, proudly displays his certificate from Robert Harward, left, on April 5, 2010. (Air Force photo)

Yesterday, the Washington Post finally caught up to where Marcy was over two weeks ago and discussed the UN report “Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees in Afghan Custody” (pdf).  I’d like to move beyond the primary findings of the report, that torture is widespread in Afghan detention facilities and that the US continued bringing prisoners to these facilities long after other nations discontinued the practice due to concerns over reports of torture, and to examine US denials of knowledge regarding the torture.

First, to set the stage from the Post article:

Department 124 was long sealed off from the outside world; the ICRC, the United Nations and other organizations concerned with human rights were barred by Afghan officials from monitoring conditions there.

But American officials frequently went inside, according to Afghan officials and others familiar with the site. U.S. Special Operations troops brought detainees there, and CIA officials met with Department 124’s leadership on a weekly basis, reviewed their interrogation reports and used the intelligence gleaned from interrogations to inform their operations, the officials said.

And now the denial I’m most interested in:

One U.S. official in Kabul said the CIA officers and Special Operations troops would not have ignored torture. “Not in the post-Abu Ghraib era,” the official said. “All American entities out there are hyper-aware of these allegations and would report them up the chain.”

We will dismiss the CIA denial out of hand: documentation of CIA torture practices and the CIA’s attempts to have DOJ provide legal cover for them now fills many books. However, JSOC involvement in torture is less well-documented despite the fact that JSOC torture played a central, but under-reported, role in David Petraeus’ COIN strategy as implemented in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Petraeus’ primary operative in implementing the torture strategy in both countries was Stanley McChrystal. Read more