Archive for April, 2009

Iraq: Surge, What Surge?

I happen to think Tom Ricks’s The Gamble is a fine history of the surge despite the obvious flaw of forgetting the Iraqi perspective and dismissing SOFA. One of the truly commendable things about the book is that while Ricks clearly admires his subjects, the men and women of the United States armed forces, he never shies away from the uncomfortable but necessary conclusion: the surge may have been a military success, yet politically it has failed miserably. And although he doesn’t quite put it that way, what I took away from the book’s bleak final chapter was a sense that in the larger scheme of things the surge may well end up but a fleeting blip of good luck before yet another round of  mass slaughter.

Ricks’s fellow CNASer Andrew Exum doesn’t quite see it that way, though. Defending the book’s omissions in Abu Muqawama, Exum lists other books on the surge yet to be written that will supposedly fill in the blanks:

  • The Surge from the perspective of tactical leaders — squad leaders, platoon leaders, platoon sergeants.
  • The Surge as seen by the residents of Baghdad.
  • The role played by special operations forces in Iraq in 2007.
  • The history of the Surge as seen from 20 years on, when everything is declassified.

Yeah, maybe, but here’s the thing: It’s quite possible none of these books will be written. If Ricks is right — and I think he is — the war has only reached its midway point, and the temporary reprieve the surge provided may soon be over. So, while it’s possible that 2007 will be remembered as the year of the great turnaround, it’s just as likely that instead of researching the dynamics of Petraeus’s command, future historians will ask, “Surge, what surge?”

The current emphasis on counterinsurgency in American military thinking rests almost solely on the assumption that COIN reversed the course in Iraq. But did it really? All we can say for sure is that the surge helped create conditions for a U.S. president to fulfil his campaign promise. Peace — that’s a different matter altogether.

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Now that y’all have digested that ICRC report I linked to yesterday, here are the excerpts from my Lynndie England interview I promised:

Q: In war, where do you draw the line on what one can do to one’s prisoners?

A: “I don’t know.”

Is there a line?

“It’s hard to say. It depends on… you have to be in that moment, it’d be your decision to make on how far to go. Killing the guys? No. How’re you gonna get information when they’re dead?”

Was there an element of thinking, these guys deserve it?

“At the time, they had killed some marines of ours, burned their bodies and cut off their heads and dragged them through the streets like they were trash. At that time, in my mind I was thinking, this is nothing compared to what they would do to us if the roles were reversed. Humiliation, some physical, you know, activities, like running. This is nothing. We go through that in basic training. Compared to what they would’ve done to us.”

Do you still think like that?

“Oh yeah.”

But does that make it right?

“Honestly, now, thinking back, I don’t think it was enough. People say to me sometimes, you should’ve just shot them, you wouldn’t have gotten in any trouble, but because you humiliated them and took some pictures of them, that’s ten times worse than killing them.”

What do you mean by “it wasn’t enough”?

“It’s just the way people describe it to me now.”

So you just played with them?

“What we did was to prep them, to get them physically and mentally exhausted so that the interrogation guys would get what information they needed out of them, and that’s what we did. We didn’t, like, cut their hands off, or cut their fingers off or something. There’s definitely so much worse that we could’ve done but we didn’t.”

Is humiliation torture?

“Yeah. It’s mental torture.”

“Obama would have negotiated”

Who did you vote for?

“I don’t vote. Obviously I don’t like Bush. He badmouthed me on TV and all that shit. I believe that after 9/11 we shoulda gone and pursued Bin Laden and stuff, but then going into Iraq to try and bring law and order between civilians… I can see the war on terrorism, but the war on Iraq… I didn’t agree with it.”

Do you think that would’ve happened on Obama’s watch?

“I dunno. Obviously we would’ve done something in retaliation, we would’ve gone and had Bin Laden. But I don’t think we would’ve spent five years in one country that had its own civil disturbances to be dealt with not by us. I think Obama probably would have negotiated with other countries, if, like, he knew other terrorists were in that country. He wouldn’t just go and push his way through like Bush would. He would negotiate, and if third guys in that country caught them, he could negotiate with them and they would turn them over or something. I could see that happening. But with Bush, he would probably try that approach but he wouldn’t be real persistent about it.”

So you think the whole chain of command knew what was going on in Abu Ghraib?

“Yeah. I mean, at the time I didn’t, I was like, okay, whatever. But now, looking back at all the facts and what not, it don’t seem possible for them not to. They were writing all the memos about what was allowed and what was not. Well, hello! What was all that for if they didn’t know what was going on?”

“Those that had information deserved it”

If you look back at Abu Ghraib now, whose fault was it?

“What do you mean?”

If you look at what happened, and if you try to put blame on somebody, who would it be? Would you blame yourself, or would you blame the system…?

“For the scandal?”

For the whole thing, yeah.

“I’d say the main thing I regret the most is the pictures being taken. And the only reason we were taking pictures was because Graner started that. I could lay the blame on Graner, I’d have no problem with that. But I know it’s not all his fault. Although he did, like Sabrina, have an obsession with taking pictures. And if you didn’t have your picture taken, it probably wouldn’t have been a big deal to anybody. Everyone knew what was going on in the prison, the officers, the NCOs, but when the pictures come out, they were like no, I’ve never seen that before, even though they had that same picture on their laptop an hour before. Of course they’d wiped it clean, but… Yeah.”

But do you ever think back and think that, not about the photos but about the stuff that was done to the guys, the humiliation, do you ever think back and think that this is definitely not something we should have done?

“Well, you know, yeah, I think about it. But like I said before… Remember when you asked me if I thought that torture was necessary, and I said yes, for certain detainees you needed the information from ’cause you know they know. Well, obviously, yeah, I think the ones that had the information we needed deserved it, it needed to be done. Because at the time, I’m thinking, we’re told to do this, we’re getting pats on the back, good job, keep up the good work and blah blah blah, so I’m thinking apparently nobody has a problem with this and it’s okay.”

So in other words you regret the photos but you don’t regret the stuff that was done to them?


“I killed a lot of people”

Former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora has said: “There are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq — as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat — are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.” What do you say to that?

“I can see why they might say that. I guess it fueled hatred towards Americans. I used to get a lot of hate mail saying I’m the one who caused a lot of deaths and beheadings and that I should just kill myself. I still think about that. When people ask me did you ever kill anybody, I say, yeah, I killed a lot of people, not directly but indirectly.”

[The story itself is more of a psychological portrait than a quote-based interview piece. It’s in worldwide syndication by the New York Times Syndicate, so I can’t reproduce it here. I’ll make sure to link to it, though, once it surfaces somewhere. In case you want to practise your Finnish, my magazine’s website is here.]

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Good thing that pesky Moqtada has been sidelined.

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This just in: Finnish ISAF soldiers slated to serve with the Norwegian troops in Mazar-e-Sharif are protesting against the Norwegian policy of zero tolerance on alcohol. The Finns, accustomed to their time-honoured “2 Can Rule”, have taken the matter up with their commander, but the Norwegians refuse to budge.

In other news: Over 600,000 Afghans lack basic healthcare services due to attacks on facilities and health workers, a figure that has doubled since 2007, according to the Ministry of Public Health.

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The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office has issued its quarterly data report. It’s a dismal read. During the unusually short winter, the number of monthly attacks never fell below the average 300, and now there’s a massive increase. Just SAF/RPG attacks on convoys and bases are up by more than 100 percent from 2008 Q1.

You can just imagine what this does to the ability of NGOs to help ordinary Afghanis. All we need now is a natural catastrophe, like, say, an earthquake… Oops.

[h/t Ghosts of Alexander / Barnett Rubin’s listserv.]

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Iraq: Falluja in Lockdown

A series of bombings in Falluja has forced the police to put the city in lockdown, with schools closed, shops shuttered and a curfew in place, Reuters reports. I gotta admit I’m at a loss here. So little information, not to mention analysis, is coming out of Iraq these days that it’s practically impossible to form a coherent picture of the situation. For example, what’s going on with the new provincial council in Anbar? The Sahwat sort of won the election after a rather suspiciously convenient recount, right? And then what? Who’s in charge there? And what’s happening in Diyala?

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For those just tuning in, the ICRC report on the treatment of fourteen “high value detainees” in U.S. custody is now online, thanks to the New York Review of Books.

Whether you choose to accept the report as an accurate account of what these guys went through, or to treat it as an expression of taqiyya (see here) is of course entirely up to you. Just keep in mind that most of the interrogation methods detailed in the report are already common knowledge and haven’t exactly been vehemently denied by U.S. authorities. And when the remaining classified Yoo-Bybee-Bradbury memos are released — as I’m sure they ultimately will be, despite resistance — we’ll know even more.

On a similar note, I’ll be posting excerpts from my interview with Lynndie England tomorrow.

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