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
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
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