Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Iraq's Dirty War

The past few days in Iraq has shown that the insurgency survives and is as committed as ever to derailing the formation of a stable government. I don't think it's too presumptuous to argue, however you feel about the Iraq war, that the Iraqi government and its U.S. overseers must win this fight. But as the NYTs Magazine cover story, "The Way of the Commandos," by Peter Maass, described this weekend, the U.S. has delved back into its dark past to fight Iraq's insurgents.

Echoing El Salvador during the 1980s, the U.S. is empowering a largely Sunni, ex-Baathist paramilitary force known as the "Special Police Commandos" to help hunt down insurgents throughout Iraq. Led by Adnan Thabit, a former general and death row inmate during Saddam's reign, the 5,000 strong commandos have done battle against the insurgents in Mosul, Ramadi, Baghdad, and Samarra. They are advised by James Steele who cut his teeth "leading a Special Forces mission in El Salvador during that country's brutal civil war in the 1980s." This is extremely disconcerting considering how El Salvador's military and paramilitaries acted under U.S. advisement. Maass writes:
According to an Amnesty International report in 2001, violations committed by the army and its associated paramilitaries included ''extrajudicial executions, other unlawful killings, 'disappearances' and torture. . . . Whole villages were targeted by the armed forces and their inhabitants massacred.'' As part of President Reagan's policy of supporting anti-Communist forces, hundreds of millions of dollars in United States aid was funneled to the Salvadoran Army, and a team of 55 Special Forces advisers, led for several years by Jim Steele, trained front-line battalions that were accused of significant human rights abuses.
There's indirect evidence to suggest Iraq's commandos might be heading in this direction. In one passage, Maass, on a night-time patrol with the commandos and U.S. soldiers, describes how an Iraqi captain threatened the life of a suspect.
The captain's methods were swift and extreme. He yelled at the son, who was wearing a loose tunic; in the tussle of the arrest the young man had lost one of his sandals. The captain pushed him against a mud wall and told everyone else to move away. Standing less than 10 feet from the young man, the captain aimed his AK-47 at him and clicked off the safety latch. He was threatening to kill him. I was close enough to catch some of the dialogue on my digital recorder.
Later, Maass asks a U.S. lieutenant along on the raid his feeling about what they witnessed.
''I'm about 99 percent sure it was intimidation to put fear into the guy,'' he told me. ''I know they use different means of interrogation, but I didn't expect them to raise a weapon at a detainee. I don't think they know the value of human life Americans have. If they shoot somebody, I don't think they would have remorse, even if they killed someone who was innocent.''
When Maass is invited to interview a captured Saudi youth behind the closed doors of a commando-run detention center, he comes into contact with more evidence of systematic abuse: bloodstains running down a desk's side, painful screams of "Allah" coming from the main hall, and one afternoon, gunshots ringing out from within or behind the detention center.

If the commandos are beginning to engage in Salvador-style atrocities, it would be wise for the U.S. and the Iraqi government to put an end to it now. First, as most Americans would agree, human rights are inviolable. Second, it's simply not pragmatic. In a 1997 article in World Affairs, Ernest Evans argued why the resort to brutal tactics hurts more than it helps.
Another reason that systematic human rights abuses are so counterproductive in a counterinsurgency campaign concerns the critical issue of intelligence. In unconventional war, as in all war, good intelligence is key to victory, and therefore, for all of the reasons so forcefully stated by retired British general Richard Clutterbuck in a 1995 article, the torture and killing of suspected or actual rebels is inimical to the collection of vitally needed intelligence:

Above all the British philosophy (of counter-insurgency)had been to secure the cooperation of the people in acquiring intelligence, the decisive ingredient for victory. This was achieved by identifying people who, willingly or unwillingly, were working for the terrorists,and they were offered incentives to cooperate in giving information. This information was a mixture of routine background intelligence(e.g., who lived where and who talked to whom) against which precise intelligence enabled terrorists or their supporters to be pinpointed. Torture, morality aside, would have been counter-productive; even if it had induced the victim to give information about the past or present, it would certainly not have secured future cooperation to enable the security forces to arrest or ambush the terrorists.

The experiences of U.S. military advisors in El Salvador document and confirm the wisdom of Clutterbuck's arguments. Observers of the course of the conflict in El Salvador generally agree that after 1984 the war began to go much better for the government side. In a 1987 interview, a U.S. advisor argued that the El Salvadoran military had recognized by 1984 that humanely treated prisoners were good sources of intelligence and that treating prisoners humanely encouraged defections; this recognition was a key reason for this military's improved performance after 1984. The issue of torturing and killing prisoners can perhaps best be summed up by recalling Talleyrand's famous remark to his master, Emperor Napoleon, with respect to one of Naoleon's actions: "Sire, it is worse than a crime, it is a mistake!"
Maass has another reason why we should be wary about these commandos: who are they loyal to? In a country where the Sunnis are the minority and are fearful of official discrimination by the ruling Shiite government, it's possible the U.S. and the government are arming future insurgents or creating the foundation of another militia beyond government control. As Maass notes:
Already, Iraq has a Kurdish militia, the 90,000-strong pesh merga, outside the control of the central government; there is also the Badr Brigade, the Iranian-trained wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is Shiite; and there is the Mahdi Army, loyal to the Shiite militant Moktada al-Sadr. The last thing the country needs is another militia.
One thing seems sure: If Iraq fails politically, we already know how the battle lines will break down in any future civil war. Let's hope the recent formation of Iraq's government and today's swearing in of Iraq's cabinet will be increasingly the norm, not an aberration.