Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Torturing, killing civilians and other war crimes

The UK's Stop the War Coalition recently held a press conference featuring a former British special forces soldier who blew the whistle on US-UK renditions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The former soldier says such acts are illegal:

Former SAS man condemns British role in torture tactics

Guardian
February 26 2008

Hundreds of Iraqis and Afghans captured by British and American special forces were rendered to prisons where they faced torture, a former SAS soldier said yesterday. ...

[Ben] Griffin, 29, left the British army last year after three months in Baghdad, saying he disagreed with the "illegal" tactics of US troops. ...

Referring to the government's admission last week that two US rendition flights containing terror suspects had landed at the British territory of Diego Garcia, Griffin said the use of British territory and airspace "pales into insignificance in light of the fact that it has been British soldiers detaining the victims of extraordinary rendition in the first place". ... (Link to Guardian piece.)
In a related matter, the New York Times Magazine recently ran a major article by Elizabeth Rubin detailing her stint embedded with US soldiers in Kunar province, Afghanistan. The soldiers were attempting to 'pacify' the Korangal Valley (see photo), a place where the targeting of civilians is old news, as I wrote last year:
According to ABC News, US military units there employed "a new tactic - sanctions" which are aimed at residents of the Korangal Valley, who are open supporters of the insurgency. These locals, mostly subsistence farmers, endured a blockade on essential items such as sugar, tea and cooking oil. But the blockade of the Korangal wasn't limited to staple goods. A Himalayan Times correspondent spoke to one local who explained their predicament: "[W]e cannot even go to the hospital as the forces have blocked the road to the south of the valley. We cannot move our lumber which is our main source of sustenance".

Captain Hansen, commander of the American unit involved, explained the brutal logic of the blockade: "They are going to need all those things that make their lives just a little bit better. We are providing them with the hard decision. Either you work with the government of Afghanistan or you have the effects of not working with them. It's in their court." ...

Article 33 of the Fourth [Geneva] Convention (1949) says, in part: "No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed." ... (link)
(See this Google Earth image of the region.)

Returning to Rubin's NYT piece, she reports that about half of the insurgents in the Korangal are not outside invaders but local men, while "the Korengal had no Afghan police or district leaders for the Americans to work with. The Afghan government, and Afghans down the valley, seemed to have washed their hands of the Korengalis." Keep this, and what follows below, in mind when you read American military pronouncements of "steady progress in Eastern Afghanistan throughout the year."
The New York Times
February 24, 2008 Sunday

Battle Company Is Out There
By ELIZABETH RUBIN

... As [US Captain] Kearney put it to me one day at the [Korangal Outpost], the Korengal is like a tough Los Angeles neighborhood, ''and we're the L.A.P.D. kicking in the door, arresting guys, demanding information about the gangs, and slowly the people say, 'No, we don't know anything, because that guy in the gang, he's with my sister, and that other guy, he's my uncle's cousin.' Now we've angered them for so many years that they've decided: 'I'm gonna stick with the A.C.M.' '' -- anticoalition militants -- '' 'who are my brothers and I'm not gonna rat them out.' ''
Rubin hints at group insubordination among the American troops:
Kearney's soldiers told me they'd been spooked by the weird behavior of their predecessors last May: near the end of their tour, many would sit alone on the fire base talking to themselves. Privates disobeyed their sergeants, and squad leaders refused to step outside the wire to show the new boys the terrain. No one wanted to be shot in the last days of his tour.
A shocking picture of the heat of battle after "the Korengalis ambushed" the Americans:
Kearney could see a woman and child in the house. ''We saw people moving weapons around,'' Kearney told me. ''I tried everything. I fired mortars to the back side to get the kids to run out the front. I shot to the left, to the right. The Apache'' -- an attack helicopter -- ''got shot at and left. I kept asking for a bomb drop, but no one wanted to sign off on the collateral damage of dropping a bomb on a house.'' Finally, he said, ''We shot a javelin and a tow'' -- both armor-piercing missiles. ''I didn't get shot at from there for two months,'' Kearney said. ''I ended up killing that woman and that kid.'' ...
On the self-defeating nature of this style of counterinsurgency:
As he put it, ''The only reason anyone's listening to me in this valley right now is 'cause I'm dropping bombs on them.'' Still, he wasn't going to let himself shoot at houses every time his unit took fire: ''I'd just create more people that hate me.'' ...

By now, seven years of air strikes and civilian casualties, humiliating house searches and arbitrary detentions have pushed many families and tribes to revenge. The Americans then see every Afghan in those pockets of recalcitrance as an enemy. ...
Rubin points out the frightening toll inflicted on the soldiers themselves:
One full-moon night I was sitting outside a sandbag-reinforced hut with Kearney when a young sergeant stepped out hauling the garbage. ... ''I hate this country!'' he shouted. Then he smiled and walked back into the hut. ''He's on medication,'' Kearney said quietly to me.

Then another soldier walked by and shouted, ''Hey, I'm with you, sir!'' and Kearney said to me, ''Prozac. Serious P.T.S.D. from last tour.'' Another one popped out of the HQ cursing and muttering. ''Medicated,'' Kearney said. ''Last tour, if you didn't give him information, he'd burn down your house. He killed so many people. He's checked out.''

As I went to get some hot chocolate in the dining tent, the peaceful night was shattered by mortars, rockets and machine-gun fire banging and bursting around us. It was a coordinated attack on all the fire bases. It didn't take long to understand why so many soldiers were taking antidepressants. The soldiers were on a 15-month tour that included just 18 days off. Many of them were ''stop-lossed,'' meaning their contracts were extended because the army is stretched so thin. You are not allowed to refuse these extensions. ...
The hi-tech science of close air support (CAS):
The soldiers back at [Korangal Outpost] were radioing in that the drone was tracking 10 men near the tree line. Yarnell was picking up insurgent radio traffic. ''They're talking about getting ready to hit us,'' someone said. The pilot could see five men, one entering a house, then, no, some were in the trees, some inside, and then, multiple houses. He wanted confirmation -- were all these targets hostile? Did Kearney have any collateral-damage concerns? Cursing, Kearney told them to engage the men outside but not to hit the house. The pilots radioed back that men had just run inside. No doubt there would be a family. Caroon reminded Kearney that Slasher had only enough fuel to stay in position for 10 more minutes.

''What do you want to do, sir?'' Caroon asked him.

Kearney radioed his soldiers back at the KOP to contact his boss, Lt. Col. Bill Ostlund. Ostlund, a Nebraska social scientist who could switch effortlessly from aggressive bomber to political negotiator talking family values with Afghan tribal elders, was in the crowded tactical-operations room at Camp Blessing [in Kunar; see photo here] watching the drone's video feed and getting the same intelligence. He signed off on collateral damage, and Kearney turned to Caroon: ''Take out the compound. And anyone that comes out.'' ...

Finally, around dawn, a weary Kearney, succumbing to gallows humor, adrenaline and exhaustion, said: ''O.K., I've done my killing for the week. I'm ready to go home.''

Kearney estimated that they killed about 20 people, adding: ''I'm not gonna lie. Some are probably civilians.'' ...

Within an hour or so, Lt. Matt Piosa, an earnest, 24-year-old West Point grad, and his patrol were in Yaka China. They radioed that the village elders were asking to bury their dead. They'd also collected wounded civilians. The tally was bad -- 5 killed and 11 wounded, all of them women, girls and boys.
It just gets worse:
[Sergeant] Sandifer was questioning why they were sticking it out in the Korengal when the people so clearly hated them. ... He worried that the Korengal was going to push them off the deep end. In his imagination it had already happened. One day an Afghan visited their fire base, Sandifer told me. ''I was staring at him, on the verge of picking up my weapon to shoot him,'' he said. ''I know right from wrong, but even if I did shoot him everyone at the fire base would have been O.K. We're all to the point of 'Lord of the Flies.' '' And they still had 10 months to go in the Korengal.

I wondered how Kearney was going to win back his own guys, let alone win over the Korengalis. Just before I left, Kearney told me his biggest struggle would be holding his guys in check. ''I've got too many geeking out, wanting to go off the deep end and kill people,'' he said. One of his lieutenants wanted to shoot every Afghan in the face. Kearney shook his head. He wished he could buy 20 goats and let the boys beat and burn them and let loose their rage. ...
Rubin ends with some remarks from the commander that remind us of one of the wellsprings of an imperialist mindset:
''I lost seven dudes here,''he told me. ''It's too much blood. I don't want to give this up. This is mine.'' (link)

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