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The Priest of Abu Ghraib

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The Smiethsonian has a long and thoughtful article that is very much worth reading. It’s by Jennifer Percy and it begins:

Joshua Casteel was 24 years old when he learned he would be sent to Iraq as an interrogator with the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion. This was his first deployment. It was June 2004, and the war in Iraq had been going on for a little more than a year. Casteel packed a copy of the Book of Common Prayer and didn’t stop reading until he saw the lights of Baghdad in the desert below. From Ali Al Salem Air Base, outside Kuwait City, he took a military bus overnight to Baghdad International Airport. Out his window he saw oil fires, roadside weddings, sand that went on forever.

The next day, he suited up in body armor, strapped on his M-16, and took a heavily armored three-vehicle convoy 20 miles outside Baghdad to Abu Ghraib prison. On the way, he was thinking about Pope John Paul II, who wrote about suffering, human dignity and the nature of personhood and its relationship to the divine. Then the commander asked about newcomers: “Who has never done this before?” Casteel raised his hand. The commander explained that they didn’t fire warning shots. “If you move your selector level from ‘safe’ to ‘semi’ automatic, you shoot to kill,” he said.

Casteel stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 240 pounds. He was a blond, blue-eyed evangelical Christian from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The deployment came six weeks after the revelation of prisoner torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib shocked the world. An Army intelligence officer and a patriot who’d long dreamed of serving his country in uniform, Casteel also had doubts about the morality of the so-called war on terror. Two weeks before he got his assignment letter from the Army, he was accepted to seminary school. He chose Iraq.

His mother, Kristi Casteel, could never picture her son as an interrogator. “He just wasn’t cruel to anyone,” she told me. She worried the job would change him. Casteel tried to rationalize. “Better that they have someone like me in the interrogation room,” he told her, “than someone who doesn’t care about the Geneva Conventions, or just wants to drop bombs.”

Abu Ghraib was already a prison before the Americans arrived, where Saddam Hussein incarcerated, tortured and executed Iraqi dissidents. When Saddam’s regime collapsed, the Americans took the place over and replaced Saddam’s portrait with a banner that read “America is the friend of all Iraqi people.” There was hardly any vegetation, just expanses of dirt and mud between buildings. “At the prison’s edge is a teetering skyline—minaret, palm trees, the mosaic dome of a mosque, rooftops,” Casteel wrote home to his parents. “At sunset I can hear the calls to prayer from the south and from the east. At times it may even appear as if in a round, like choirs of a cathedral, one folded atop the other. But always a few hours after the sun has fallen there is the intermittent echo of small-arms fire, the howling of dogs.” The complex, which now also housed a U.S. military base, had a chapel, a couple of cafeterias, an entertainment shed. When Casteel got to his sleeping quarters, everything was covered in ash. Outside, he saw a plume of smoke from a giant trash pile. The pit burned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes the smoke blew right through Casteel’s sleeping quarters.

Casteel was told that the military’s top priority, above even the search for Osama bin Laden, was to hunt down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and nicknamed the “Sheik of the Slaughterers.” Casteel’s job would be to interrogate prisoners to learn more about Zarqawi’s chief lieutenant, a man named Omar Hussein Hadid, whose army of insurgents had killed 95 Americans with rocket-propelled grenades and crude bombs during the Battle of Fallujah.

For the first week Casteel sat in on interrogations. There were six booths on each side of a long hallway; down the center was a two-way mirror that didn’t always work well, and when it didn’t, the prisoners watched you watch them. The rooms held little beyond plastic chairs, cheap tables, maybe zip ties on the chair legs. Sometimes a steel hook was attached to the floor. Every now and then prisoners were led to a more comfortable room, to confuse them, make them relax. The goal was to make them slip up. Sometimes Casteel saw men kept naked. Sometimes they were handcuffed to chairs.

During lessons, Casteel’s supervisors explained how to use fabricated stories and charges of homosexuality to shame the prisoners and manipulate them. The commanders were clear about who they were dealing with, Casteel remembered.

“These men,” they said, “are the agents of Satan, gentlemen.”

* * *

I met Casteel in 2009, when we were both graduate students in the writing program at the University of Iowa. We took a class together on the art of memoir, and on the side, Casteel told me, he took courses in philosophy and theology. I was surprised when I learned he had been an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison. He wasn’t like any soldier I had ever met. He loved to sing solos from Les Misérables and gave frequent sermons at local churches. I often saw him in a corduroy blazer, books piled under one arm.

A few years later, I contacted Casteel’s mother, Kristi, because I wished I had gotten to know him better. She invited me to her home in Cedar Rapids and gave me access to a Dropbox account containing Joshua’s many writings and files. The folders had titles like “Heidegger and the Mystery of Pain,” “Flesh and Finitude,” “Heidegger and Sartre on God and Bodies,” “Technologies of Humanness” and “The Rhetoric of Pain.”

Kristi said, “Joshua had a complexity about his life.”

There were folders for academic papers, diary entries, plays—Casteel got a dual master’s degree in playwriting and nonfiction writing—and many jotted-off musings. A small publisher, Essay Press, had put out a short book by Casteel in 2008 titled Letters from Abu Ghraib, composed of selected emails he wrote to friends and family during his six-month deployment. And there were a lot of unfinished projects, including a memoir called No Graven Images.

Peeking into Casteel’s files felt a little like having a conversation with him, even if it was one-sided. But there was so much I still wished to know. Casteel often made difficult and even contradictory choices, which to many people who knew him seemed incomprehensible. He was constantly trying to make sense of how his Christianity fit with the war and his time in Iraq. For him, questioning this paradox at the heart of his life was analogous to figuring out the mystery of Christ. “If Jesus is anything,” Casteel wrote in the introduction to his unfinished memoir, “he is incomprehensible. This is my story of wrestling with that incomprehensibility.”

* * *

Casteel was born into a family of evangelists and raised in Cedar Rapids. His father was an ordained minister with River of Life Ministries, and both of his parents worked as Christian marriage therapists. Joshua was the youngest child of three, and the only boy. For years Casteel soaked up the ecstasy of Pentecostalism, spoke in tongues, attended miracles. On Sundays, he listened to sermons, Scriptures, hymns, and learned about the fight between good and evil.

He was a kid driven by questions of meaning and significance. He lived with what people now like to call “intentionality.” He told his mother he wanted to give himself up to a higher cause—either his country, or God, or both. He even told his mother that his calling might include the ultimate sacrifice. He covered his bedroom walls with cutouts from Army brochures and Marine recruiters, the American flag and the U.S. Constitution, and a large wooden cross.

He attended his first presidential caucus events at age 7, and in high school became president of the local chapter of the Young Republicans. In his parents’ garage he would hold press conferences in a White House built from cardboard, wearing a suit and clip-on tie, his hair parted like Ronald Reagan’s. He got his first gun at 11, during the Gulf War—a 22-caliber rifle with a long-range scope. Rush Limbaugh was a constant presence. So was Billy Graham and Ralph Reed, then head of the Christian Coalition. “On the one hand,” Casteel wrote in his memoir, “the political banter of our ‘fundamentalist’ Christian household hovered around familiar conservative themes: family values, small government, private enterprise (Dad was an entrepreneur). But also always present was what Thomas Friedman refers to as the invisible fist behind the invisible hand in the economy: strong national defense.”

Casteel was consumed by feelings of loyalty to America and believed in America as a “Shining City on a Hill.” His father had been a captain in the Army, and his grandfather had fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. At his grandfather’s funeral, Joshua placed an old West Point badge in his casket.

One summer, at Bible camp, when Casteel was 14 years old, a man named Steve, a self-declared prophet, had a revelation that Casteel was destined to be a powerful and historically significant man. When Steve was kicked out of the ministry for false prophecy, Casteel asked the camp pastor whether the prophecy was still worth anything. “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t true,” the pastor said. “God can speak through a false prophet.”

* * *

Kristi Casteel describes her son as a happy and affectionate child, obedient as they come. The two forged a close and trusting relationship right from the beginning. One day when Casteel was 3 years old she found him sobbing uncontrollably. He brought her outside. “It’s really bad,” he said. “A little worm is dead.” The worm had dried out in the sun. Casteel dug a tiny grave and buried it. “Jesus loves the little wormies,” he told his mother. “All the little wormies of the world.” As a teenager he made small but symbolic acts in the name of God. He torched his collection of unholy CDs. He anointed the high school doorways and baseball dugouts with oil from the Christian bookstore. He blew a shofar from centerfield.

His mother said he could sometimes get lonely, staying home on weekends rather than partying or socializing with other teenagers. He didn’t drink or do drugs. Some of his friends took to calling him “Mama’s Boy.” Other classmates thought he was gay because many of his friends were girls, because he acted in school plays and musicals, because he had a hormone imbalance called gynecomastia that gave him breasts. For years, until he had surgery, he was teased in the locker room, and refused to take off his shirt to swim or change backstage during school plays.

He and his mother talked about everything—faith, friendships, girls, dreams, disappointments, fears, philosophy, theology, art, literature, music. “We were very much alike in many ways, and just naturally connected on a deep level,” Kristi told me. Joshua was never as close to his father, Everett, who didn’t share his son’s temperament or interests. (In 2010, Everett Casteel died from complications related to a brain tumor.) With his mother, Joshua was always sweet. He gave her a tiny crystal swan, a ragged cotton bunny (she collected bunnies), a pink chiffon blouse, a large print of an angel that he thought looked like her, and a framed poem he wrote about her and the meaning of her name. Casteel was always praying to Mary, the mother of God. For Kristi, it made sense. “We identified with Mary and Jesus—it just seemed to naturally evolve,” she says. “People mentioned his likeness to Christ again and again.”

Kristi had always worried that God would take her son. She had gone into his bedroom at night when he was a few weeks old and heard God talking: Give him back to me. You need to let him go. She tried to make sense of it. She later thought of the story of Isaac, when Abraham raised a knife above his son’s head to prove his faith in God.

“Whenever that fear entered my mind,” she told me, “I reminded myself that all of our children are on loan to us, and I shouldn’t live in fear of something I couldn’t know would happen.”

* * *

Casteel never forgot Steve’s prophecy, and a month after he turned 17 he enlisted as an Army reservist in Iowa City under the delayed entry program, in part to help his chances of getting accepted to West Point. That summer, between junior and senior year of high school, . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 January 2019 at 3:13 pm

Did CIA Director Gina Haspel run a black site at Guantánamo?

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I certainly would not be surprised. She seems totally comfortable with torturing suspects (aka extreme interrogation techniques). Carol Rosenberg reports for McClatchy:

An attorney for the accused architect of the Sept. 11 attacks told a judge in a secret session last year that CIA Director Gina Haspel ran a secret agency outpost at Guantánamo, an apparent reference to a post-9/11 black site, according to a recently declassified transcript.

The claim by Rita Radostitz, a lawyer for Khalid Sheik Mohammed, appears in one paragraph of a partially redacted transcript of a secret hearing held at Guantánamo on Nov. 16. Defense lawyers were arguing, in a motion that ultimately failed, that Haspel’s role at the prison precludes the possibility of a fair trial for the men accused of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks who were also held for years in covert CIA prisons.

Neither the public nor the accused was allowed to attend the hearing but, following an intelligence review, the Pentagon released portions of its transcript on a war court website.

Haspel reportedly ran a CIA black site in Thailand where two terror suspects were waterboarded, probably before her arrival there. The unverified statement that she had a similar assignment at the terror-detention center at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, would reveal a never-before disclosed chapter of the spy chief’s clandestine career.

The CIA declined to comment on the claim.

But in the transcript of a discussion about CIA torture and restrictions on the lawyers for the alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Radostitz notes that prosecutors claim they are “not trying to cover up the torture … But the one thing that they’re not willing to talk about is the names of the people involved in the torture.” Then, after a large censored section, she says, “it makes it impossible for people at Guantánamo, who may have seen her when she was here as chief of base, to identify her and talk about it.”

Chief of base is a CIA term for the officer in charge of a secret foreign outpost. A 2014 Senate study of the CIA’s network of secret overseas prisons, called black sites, said the CIA had two such secret prisons at Guantánamo in 2003 and 2004 — apart from the Pentagon’s Guantánamo prison known as Camp Delta. While the military prison commanders’ names were disclosed, those who served as CIA chief of base were not.

The CIA sent the alleged 9/11 conspirators and other “high-value detainees” to military detention at Guantánamo in September 2006 after the captives spent three or four years in secret spy agency custody. But at least one 9/11 defendant, Ramzi bin al Shibh, was earlier held at Guantánamo, according to the public portion of the 6,200-page Senate Intelligence Committee study of the CIA’s overseas prison program, known as the torture report.

It says the agency operated two black sites there — code named Maroon and Indigo — from September 2003 to April 2004 then spirited them away for fear their captives might be entitled to attorneys.

Former CIA counterterrorism officer John Kiriakou told McClatchy that he was offered theGuantánamo chief of base position in late 2002 or early 2003 — and declined. “Nobody wanted the job,” he said. So they resorted to sending people on temporary duty assignments ranging from six weeks to nine months, he said.

“If it was during one of those periods when they couldn’t find somebody to fill the billet it would’ve made sense that she would’ve been there a short period of time,” Kiriakou said, describing a Gitmo stint as essentially a ticket punch for some agents associated with the black site program. “So when I read it, although I was surprised by it, I kind of believed it.”

Former CIA analyst Gail Helt, now a professor of Security and Intelligence Studies at King University in Tennessee, said there’s been “a lot of shadiness” with the way the spy agency has spoken about Haspel’s agency career.

An official CIA timeline of Haspel’s 33-year career notes that the agency won’t disclose 30 short-term, temporary duty assignments she held over the course of her career, suggesting they were covert. “Was one of those at Guantánamo for a couple of months?,” said Helt. “I don’t have personal knowledge of that, and couldn’t discuss it if I did. But it doesn’t surprise me.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2019 at 6:54 pm

Lest we forget: “Vice” vs. the Real Dick Cheney

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Nicholas Lemann writes in the New Yorker:

Adam McKay, the director of “Vice,” has an exuberant and fantastic filmmaking style that inoculates him against the kind of indignant fact-checking to which Hollywood depictions of history are often subjected. Who wants to be an old grump and point out that, for example, there is no evidence that Dick Cheney, the movie’s antihero, suggested to the President that they head out to the White House lawn for a round of circle jerk, or that Dick and Lynne Cheney spoke to each other in bed in mock-Shakespearean pentameter? But “Vice” isn’t asking to be judged purely as a work of fiction, either; its implicit claim is that it plays around with the facts about Cheney in order to get closer to the truth.

By that standard, there’s no problem about the regular flights into speculation and satire, but there is one major false note in “Vice.” That’s when a young Cheney rather plaintively asks his mentor, the congressman turned White House aide Donald Rumsfeld, “What do we believe in?” Rumsfeld bursts into uncontrollable laughter, turns away, and disappears into his office. Through the closed door we can still hear him cackling. Actually, it’s clear that Cheney, even that early, was a deeply committed and ideological conservative—one whose phlegmatic demeanor and eagerness to master the details of government masked who he really was for a very long time.

In the early nineteen-sixties, Cheney dropped out of Yale twice, but one professor there made a deep impression on him. That was H. Bradford Westerfield, a diplomatic historian who believed that it was possible that the United States would fall victim to a Communist takeover. “Ominously, the infectious defeatism drifts across the Atlantic and begins to insinuate itself into the mind of America,” he warned in his book “The Instruments of America’s Foreign Policy.” Another crucial experience for the Cheneys—both of whom were children of career federal civil servants—was their brief tour of duty in Madison, Wisconsin, at the height of the sixties, when they were enrolled in graduate school, at the University of Wisconsin.

Many years later, Lynne Cheney told me, “I distinctly remember going to class, and having to walk through people in whiteface, conducting guerrilla theatre, often swinging animal entrails over their heads, as part of a protest against Dow Chemical. And then the shocking thing was that you would enter the classroom and here would be all these nice young people who honestly wanted to learn to write an essay.” Dick Cheney, during an internship in Washington, D.C., took a delegation from Capitol Hill to a Students for a Democratic Society meeting in Madison, so that they could see the unvarnished face of student radicalism, and also to a faculty meeting, where he was struck by the professors’ lack of alarm over the left’s activities. Cheney and Rumsfeld’s first jobs in a Presidential Administration were at the Office of Economic Opportunity, during Richard Nixon’s first term—Rumsfeld was the director and Cheney was his deputy. This is presented in “Vice” as an anodyne bureaucratic assignment, but, because the O.E.O. had been created to carry out Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, their jobs entailed dismantling the most sixties-infused agency of the federal government. From Cheney’s point of view, the work had the quality of removing the serpent from the breast of state.

The episode that best foreshadowed the Cheney we came to know in the years after the 9/11 attacks occurred at the end of his service as Secretary of Defense, under George H. W. Bush—another job that “Vice” understands in terms of power, not ideas. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Cheney, with the help of aides such as Lewis (Scooter) Libby and Paul Wolfowitz, who later joined him in the George W. Bush Administration, commissioned a study with the bland title “Defense Planning Guidance.” It envisioned a post-Cold War world in which there would only ever be one superpower, the United States: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival,” the document said. It was skeptical of power exercised by the United Nations and other multinational alliances, as opposed to that exercised by the United States unilaterally. Cheney’s circle did not support the first President Bush’s decision to conclude the Gulf War without toppling Saddam Hussein and installing a new government in Iraq. The 9/11 attacks provided Cheney and his allies with an unexpected opportunity to enact their long-standing views.

“Vice” treats conservatism as a combination of resistance to the civil-rights movement, the Koch brothers’ eagerness to reduce taxes and regulations, and pure opportunism. Cheney’s conservatism, at heart, is none of these. It is what might be called threatism. Powerful, determined, immensely destructive forces—the Soviet Union, radical Islam, the domestic left—want to destroy American freedom and democracy. Complacent politicians, especially liberal ones, are incapable either of understanding this or of summoning the will to combat it. For the small cadre who do understand, it is imperative to use power unusually quietly, expertly, and aggressively. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 January 2019 at 2:34 pm

‘But Mr. Trump had not read the letter’: Television is running the country

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Eric Wemple writes in the Washington Post:

The resignation letter of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis runs just shy of 600 words. For the average reader, digesting such a missive is an undertaking of about three minutes, maybe a bit less. Way too much, in other words, for the president of the United States.

If President Trump had wanted just the CliffsNotes version of the letter, he could have read merely these three sentences: “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances. Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

That’s about 100 words, or about a half-minute of investment for the average reader. Again, that’s asking a lot for this particular fellow. The New York Times reports:

But Mr. Trump had not read the letter. As became apparent to the president only after days of news coverage, a senior administration official said, Mr. Mattis had issued a stinging rebuke of Mr. Trump over his neglect of allies and tolerance of authoritarians. The president grew increasingly angry as he watched a parade of defense analysts go on television to extol Mr. Mattis’s bravery, another aide said, until he decided on Sunday that he had had enough.

Indeed: On Sunday, Trump declared that Mattis would be leaving his post on Jan. 1, not in February, as Mattis had intended.

The snap decision resulted from a policymaking “process” governed by television. Here was a letter addressed to the president himself. Instead of reading it and sorting out its tone and message, he outsourced that job to the people on whom he relies the most. Commentators on cable news and other media, that is.

The list of precedents highlighting this depraved dependency is getting unruly. Just think back to the shutdown drama, as Trump knuckled under to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and people on Fox News who knocked him for caving on wall funding. Or all the times that he derived governmental policies based on the programming of “Fox & Friends.” Or the time he vowed to get to the bottom of the land-reform situation in South Africa based on an error-laden presentation by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Or the fact that his communications director — Bill Shine — is a former Fox News guy and a buddy of host Sean Hannity. Or the fact that he adjudges former Fox News presenter Heather Nauert sufficiently qualified to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

On one level, Trump’s approach to the resignation of his defense secretary makes sense. Early in the presidential campaign, Trump was asked where he got his military advice: “Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have the generals,” he said. For such a dedicated liar, that was a moment of honesty, not to mention a campaign promise fulfilled: Instead of reading Mattis’s letter, he turned to television to figure out what this general had to say.

And then he became enraged. That makes a lot of sense, too: Cable news is designed to tweak you, to bait you, to titillate you and, sometimes, to anger you. It’s a dangerous formula even for folks who read a lot and who are not president of the United States. It’s a lethal formula for a guy who doesn’t read and who is president of the United States.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2018 at 3:24 pm

Mohammed bin Salman Is the Next Saddam Hussein

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The US has a bad habit of aligning itself with dictators and authoritarian rulers, quite a few of whom it has helped to power. Ryan Costello and Sina Toossi write in Foreign Policy:

In the 1980s, the United States embraced a brutal Middle Eastern tyrant simply because he opposed Iran. Washington should not repeat the same mistake today.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is reportedly shocked over the backlash to his government’s killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In a recent phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, according to the Wall Street Journal, his confusion over official Washington’s furor “turned into rage,” as he spoke of feeling “betrayed by the West” and threatened to “look elsewhere” for foreign partners.

Saudi Arabia’s indignation at the United States would not be the first time an autocratic U.S. ally in the Middle East has assumed it could act with virtual impunity due to its alignment with Washington in countering Iran. Indeed, the Saudi prince’s meteoric rise to power bears striking similarities to that of a past U.S. ally-turned-nemesis whose brutality was initially overlooked by his Washington patrons: former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Years before Saddam became Washington’s chief foe, he enjoyed significant support from the United States and other Western countries. This ended after he decided to invade Kuwait in 1990. However, the lead-up to that conflict and Washington’s earlier patronage of Saddam provide instructive lessons for U.S. regional policy today and the major risks of not responding forcefully to the assassination of Khashoggi.

Mohammed bin Salman’s gradual and brutal consolidation of power, marked by the detention and torture of his domestic rivals, evokes the “nation-changing assault on dissent within Iraq’s ruling party in 1979 by a young President Saddam Hussein,” Toby Dodge, a consulting senior fellow for the Middle East at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Bloomberg last year. “The concentration of power in one youthful, ambitious and unpredictable pair of hands is worrying now as it was then.” Washington’s steadfast support of Saddam during the 1980s not only enabled his rampage against his own people and neighboring countries, but also eventually threatened U.S. security interests.

The U.S. relationship with Saddam Hussein began in 1963, when, according to the former National Security Council official Roger Morris, the CIA under President John F. Kennedy “carried out in collaboration with Saddam Hussein” a coup to overthrow the government of Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem, who had five years earlier toppled Iraq’s pro-American monarchy.

However, U.S. ties with Saddam truly began to solidify in February 1982, when the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the State Department’s terrorism list, paving the way for providing military assistance to Iraq. This occurred roughly 17 months after Saddam’s invasion of Iran, while Iraqi forces were occupying the oil-rich southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that Iraq sought to annex. In December 1983, President Ronald Reagan dispatched Donald Rumsfeld as a presidential envoy to meet Saddam and set the stage for normalizing U.S.-Iraqi relations. U.S. support for Saddam during the war would grow to include, according to the Washington Post, “large-scale intelligence sharing, supply of cluster bombs through a Chilean front company, and facilitating Iraq’s acquisition of chemical and biological precursors.”

Saddam’s devastating use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, both against Iranian military and civilian targets and on his own people, did not deter U.S. support. Rumsfeld’s meeting with Saddam took place despite Washington possessing firm evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons use beginning in 1983. Prior to Rumsfeld’s trip, on Nov. 1, 1983, senior State Department official Jonathan Howe had toldSecretary of State George Shultz of intelligence reports showing that Iraq was resorting to “almost daily use of CW [chemical weapons]” against the Iranians.

While Iran received some weaponry from the United States through the Iran-Contra affair, Washington tipped the scales much further in favor of Saddam. When intelligence showed Iran mounting a major offensive in early 1988 that threatened to break through Iraqi lines, Reagan wrote to his secretary of defense: “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.” Toward the end of the war, “U.S. intelligence was flowing freely to Hussein’s military,” according to a 2013 article in Foreign Policy, despite U.S. officials being “fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons.”

According to declassified CIA documents, two-thirds of all Iraqi chemical weapons deployed during the war were used in the last 18 months of the conflict, when U.S.-Iraqi cooperation peaked. This included the March 1988 genocidal chemical weapons attackon the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja, which led to the deaths of as many as 5,000 civilians. Ironically, this attack would later be used by the George W. Bush administration in 2003 as part of its pretext for invading Iraq to eliminate the country’s by then nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

A few months after the Halabja attack, in September 1988, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy wrotein a memo on the chemical weapons question that “the U.S.-Iraqi relationship is … important to our long-term political and economic objectives.” Today, the Trump administration is echoing this language when discussing the U.S.-Saudi relationship, despite Saudi Arabia’s killing of Khashoggi and its devastating assault on Yemen, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently proclaiming that Saudi Arabia is “an important strategic alliance of the United States” and that “the Saudis have been great partners in working alongside us.”

It was no surprise, then, that on the eve of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Saddam felt he had unconditional backing from the United States. This impression was reinforced by Saddam’s meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie on July 25, 1990, a week before his invasion of Kuwait. During their fateful encounter, according to a diplomatic cable summarizing the meeting, Glaspie stressed “President [George H.W.] Bush’s desire for friendship” and that “the president had instructed her to broaden and deepen our relations with Iraq.” When Saddam raised the issue of Kuwait, which he had been relentlessly threatening, Glaspie stated that the United States took “no position on these Arab affairs.”

To this day, academic experts such as the Harvard University professor and FPcolumnist Stephen M. Walt contend that “the United States did unwittinglygive a green light to Saddam” to invade Kuwait—much as he invaded Iran—without a strong response from the United States. Walt adds that, contrary to some perceptions, Glaspie was “following the instructions she had been given” and that “she was doing what the Bush administration wanted at this crucial meeting.” U.S. diplomatic cables from Glaspie’s era also reveal, according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, that “Glaspie and her predecessor painted the regime in an extremely favorable light from the very outset, overlooked Saddam’s widely-known crimes, and were so influenced by mutual enmity for Iran as to be negligently uncritical.”

The United States was wrong to back Saddam simply because he opposed Iran, a mistake that has haunted it for decades. Not only were more than 500,000 U.S. troops required to dislodge Saddam from Kuwait, resultingin 382 U.S. military casualties, but it also placed the U.S. government on a warpath that resulted in the 2003 toppling of Saddam, an event that beyond its humanitarian and financial costs for the Iraqi and American people led to the rise of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and inextricably altered the regional balance of power in favor of Iran—whose largely Shiite allies have assumed power in Baghdad by way of democratic elections.

Today, the Trump administration’s reflexive support of Mohammed bin Salman is heading in the same direction as Washington’s ill-fated support of Saddam Hussein. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s important.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 November 2018 at 7:23 am

War Without End: The Pentagon’s failed campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan left a generation of soldiers with little to fight for but one another.

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C.J. Chivers paints a grim but realistic picture:

Second Platoon did not hide its dark mood as its soldiers waded across the Korengal River in the bright light of afternoon. It was early in April 2009 and early in the Pentagon’s resumption in earnest of the Afghan war. The platoon’s mission was to ascend a mountain slope and try to ambush the Taliban at night. They were about 30 men in all, riflemen and machine-gunners reinforced with scouts, a mix of original platoon members and replacements who filled gaps left by the wounded and the dead. Many of them considered their plan foolish, a draining and dangerous waste of time, another example of a frustrated Army unit’s trying to show activity for the brass in a war low on focus and hope. They muttered foul words as they moved.

Specialist Robert Soto had been haunted by dread as the soldiers left their base, the Korengal Outpost. His platoon was part of an infantry unit that called itself Viper, the radio call sign for Bravo Company, First Battalion of the 26th Infantry. Viper had occupied the outpost for nine months, a period in which its soldiers were confined to a small stretch of lower valley and impoverished villages clinging to hillsides beneath towering peaks. Second Platoon had started its deployment with three squads but suffered so many casualties that on this day even with replacements it mustered at about two-thirds strength. With attrition came knowledge. Soto knew firsthand that the war did not resemble the carefully considered national project the generals discussed in the news. He had enlisted in the Army from the Bronx less than two years before, motivated by a desire to protect the United States from another terrorist attack. But his idealism had turned swiftly into realism, and the war had become a matter of him and his friends surviving each day as days cohered into a tour. He was doubtful about the rest, from the competence of the war’s organizers down to the merits of this ambush patrol. There’s no way this works, he thought. The valley felt like a network of watchers who set up American platoons, relaying word to those laying traps.

Soto sensed eyes following the patrol. Everybody can see us.

He was 19, but at 160 pounds and barely needing to shave, he could pass for two years younger. He was nobody’s archetype of a fighter. A high school drama student, he joined the Army at 17 and planned to become an actor if he survived the war. Often he went about his duties with an enormous smile, singing no matter what anyone else thought — R. & B., rap, rock, hip-hop, the blues. All of this made him popular in the platoon, even as he had become tenser than his former self and older than his years; even as his friends and sergeants he admired were killed, leaving him a burden of ghosts.

He faced the steep uphill climb, physically ready, emotionally spent. We’re just trying to get out of here in two months, he thought. He and his fellow soldiers had been in the valley long enough that they moved in the sinewy, late-deployment fitness of infantry squads seasoned by war. Sweat soaked his back. His quadriceps and calves drove him on, pushing him like a pack animal for the soldier beside him, Specialist Arturo Molano, who carried an M240 machine gun. The two fell into a rhythm. One soldier would get over a hard patch, turn around and extend a hand to the other. “Hey, man, you good?” Soto would ask. Molano would say he was fine. “You want me to carry the gun?” Soto would offer. Molano declined every time. Soto considered Molano to be selfless and tough, someone who routinely carried more than men of much larger size. He liked being partnered with someone like this.

After a few hours, Second Platoon reached the crest, high above the valley. The soldiers inhaled deeply, taking in the thin air. Away from the outpost’s burning trash, the air tasted clean.

A few soldiers went forward to check the trail before the rest of the platoon moved to the ambush site. With little more than whispers, the soldiers arranged themselves in a triangle astride a mountain footpath. Second Lt. Justin Smith, their platoon leader, put Molano at one corner and a second man with an M240 at another, with their machine guns angled back toward each other so their fire could create an interlocking zone of flying lead. Other soldiers set claymore mines on small stands.

Everything was ready before dark. The air was chilly and the ridge raked by gusts. Soto was shivering. He pulled a dry undershirt and socks from his pack, changed clothes, ate a protein bar and washed it down with water. He saw his company’s outpost below, across the open space, and realized this must be what it looked like to militants when they attacked. A distant call to prayer floated on the mountain air.

In early October, the Afghan war will be 17 years old, a milestone that has loomed with grim inevitability as the fighting has continued without a clear exit strategy across three presidential administrations. With this anniversary, prospective recruits born after the terrorist attacks of 2001 will be old enough to enlist. And Afghanistan is not the sole enduring American campaign. The war in Iraq, which started in 2003, has resumed and continues in a different form over the border in Syria, where the American military also has settled into a string of ground outposts without articulating a plan or schedule for a way out. The United States has at various times declared success in its many campaigns — in late 2001; in the spring of 2003; in 2008; in the short-lived withdrawal from Iraq late in 2011; and in its allies’ recapture more recently of the ruins of Ramadi, Falluja, Mosul and Raqqa from the Islamic State, a terrorist organization, formed in the crucible of occupied Iraq, that did not even exist when the wars to defeat terrorism started. And still the wars grind on, with the conflict in Afghanistan on track to be a destination for American soldiers born after it began.

More than three million Americans have served in uniform in these wars. Nearly 7,000 of them have died. Tens of thousands more have been wounded. More are killed or wounded each year, in smaller numbers but often in dreary circumstances, including the fatal attack in July on Cpl. Joseph Maciel by an Afghan soldier — a member of the very forces that the United States has underwritten, trained and equipped, and yet as a matter of necessity and practice now guards itself against.

On one matter there can be no argument: The policies that sent these men and women abroad, with their emphasis on military action and their visions of reordering nations and cultures, have not succeeded. It is beyond honest dispute that the wars did not achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the generals in command. Astonishingly expensive, strategically incoherent, sold by a shifting slate of senior officers and politicians and editorial-page hawks, the wars have continued in varied forms and under different rationales each and every year since passenger jets struck the World Trade Center in 2001. They continue today without an end in sight, reauthorized in Pentagon budgets almost as if distant war is a presumed government action.

As the costs have grown — whether measured by dollars spent, stature lost or blood shed — the wars’ architects and the commentators supporting them have often been ready with optimistic or airbrushed predictions, each pitched to the latest project or newly appointed general’s plan. According to the bullhorns and depending on the year, America’s military campaigns abroad would satisfy justice, displace tyrants, keep violence away from Western soil, spread democracy, foster development, prevent sectarian war, protect populations, reduce corruption, bolster women’s rights, decrease the international heroin trade, check the influence of extreme religious ideology, create Iraqi and Afghan security forces that would be law-abiding and competent and finally build nations that might peacefully stand on their own in a global world, all while discouraging other would-be despots and terrorists.

Aside from displacing tyrants and leading to the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden, none of this turned out as pitched. Prominent successes were short-lived. New thugs rose where old thugs fell. Corruption and lawlessness remain endemic. An uncountable tally of civilians — many times the number of those who perished in the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 — were killed. Others were wounded or driven from their homes, first by American action and then by violent social forces American action helped unleash.

The governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, each of which the United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build and support, are fragile, brutal and uncertain. The nations they struggle to rule harbor large contingents of irregular fighters and terrorists who have been hardened and made savvy, trained by the experience of fighting the American military machine. Much of the infrastructure the United States built with its citizens’ treasure and its troops’ labor lies abandoned. Briefly schools or outposts, many are husks, looted and desolate monuments to forgotten plans. Hundreds of thousands of weapons provided to would-be allies have vanished; an innumerable quantity are on markets or in the hands of Washington’s enemies. Billions of dollars spent creating security partners also deputized pedophiles, torturers and thieves. National police or army units that the Pentagon proclaimed essential to their countries’ futures have disbanded. The Islamic State has sponsored or encouraged terrorist attacks across much of the world — exactly the species of crime the global “war on terror” was supposed to prevent.

Almost two decades after the White House cast American troops as liberators to be welcomed, large swaths of territory where the Pentagon deployed combat forces are under stubborn insurgent influence. Areas once touted as markers of counterinsurgency progress have become no-go zones, regions in which almost no Americans dare tread, save a few journalists and aid workers, or private military contractors or American military and C.I.A. teams.

Across these years, hundreds of thousands of young men and women signed on in good faith and served in the lower and middle ranks. They did not make policy. They lived within it. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. The US cannot afford this.

Denying reality is ultimately a losing strategy.

Nick Turse on a Grim Inheritance: The Legacy of Infinite War

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Tom Englehardt introduces a column by Nick Turse at TomDispatch.com:

It looks like TomDispatch may have a few less readers from now on. Perhaps it will surprise you, but judging by the mail I get, some members of the U.S. military do read TomDispatch — partially to check out the range of military and ex-military critics of America’s wars that this site publishes. Or rather they did read TomDispatch. No longer, it seems, if their computers are operating via Department of Defense (DoD) networks. The DoD, I’ve heard, has blocked the site. You now get this message, I’m told, when you try to go to it: “You have attempted to access a blocked website. Access to this website has been blocked for operational reasons by the DOD Enterprise-Level Protection System.” Oh, and the category that accounts for it being blocked? “Hate and racism.” Mind you, you can evidently still read both Breitbart and Infowars in a beautifully unblocked state via the same networks.

On consideration, however, I’ve concluded that the Department of Defense might have a point. Since this site was launched as a no-name listserv in October 2001 soon after the Afghan War started — you know, the war that the DoD is still pursuing so successfully almost 17 years later with its 17th commander now in the field, 15,000 American troops still fighting and advising there (and still dying there as well), and the enemy, the Taliban in particular, in control of yet more territory in that country — TomDispatch has always hated America’s never-ending, ever-spreading, refugee- and terror-producing wars that now extend from South Asia across the Middle East and deep into Africa. So perhaps this site is, after all, a must-block “hate” site.

And among the authors who have spread TomDispatch’s antiwar gospel of hatred — now so judiciously cut off by the Pentagon — Nick Turse, in particular, has long grimly tracked the growth and spread of Washington’s forever wars and of the Special Operations forces, the semi-secret military that has become, in these years, their heart and soul. He returns to this sorry tale again today, this time in a unique fashion — by tracing the careers of those in the military, commanders and commanded, dead and alive, who returned to America’s official and unofficial war zones again and again and yet again. Maybe someone should suggest to the Pentagon that there’s something else out there to block, so that another website, 17 years from now, won’t be writing about Washington’s 34th commander in the field in Afghanistan. Maybe it’s time to block those wars. Tom

The Legacy of Infinite War 
Special Ops, Generational Struggle, and the Cooperstown of Commandos
By Nick Turse

Raids by U.S. commandos in Afghanistan. (I could be talking about 2001 or 2018.)

A U.S. drone strike in Yemen. (I could be talking about 2002 or 2018.)

Missions by Green Berets in Iraq. (I could be talking about 2003 or 2018.)

While so much about the War on Terror turned Global War on Terrorismturned World War IV turned the Long War turned “generational struggle” turned “infinite war” seems repetitious, the troops most associated with this conflict — the U.S. Special Operations forces — have seen changes galore. As Representative Jim Saxton (R-NJ), chairman of the Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, pointed out in 2006, referring to Special Operations Command by its acronym: “For almost five years now, SOCOM has been leading the way in the war on terrorism: defeating the Taliban and eliminating a terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan, removing a truly vicious Iraqi dictator, and combating the terrorists who seek to destabilize the new, democratic Iraq.”

Much has changed since Saxton looked back on SOCOM’s role in the early years of the war on terror. For starters, Saxton retired almost a decade ago, but the Taliban, despite being “defeated” way back when, didn’t do the same. Today, they contest for or control about 44% of Afghanistan. That country also hosts many more terror groups — 20 in all — than it did 12 years ago. “Vicious Iraqi dictator” Saddam Hussein is, of course, still dead and gone, but in 2014, about a third of “the new, democratic Iraq” was overrun by Islamic State militants. The country was only re-liberated in late 2017 and the Islamic State is already making a comeback there this year. Meanwhile, Iraq is besetby anti-government protests and totters along as one of the most fragile stateson the planet, while the Iraqi and Afghan war zones bled together — with U.S. special operators now fighting an Islamic State terrorist franchise in Afghanistan, too.

In spite, or perhaps because, of these circumstances, SOCOM continues to thrive. Its budget, its personnel numbers, and just about any other measure you might choose (from missions to global reach) continue to rise. In 2006, for instance, 85% of Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed overseas — Army Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs, and others — were concentrated in the Greater Middle East, with far smaller numbers spread thinly across the Pacific (7%), Europe (3%), and Latin America (3%). Only 1% of them were then conducting missions in Africa.

Today, the lion’s share — 56% — of those commandos still operate in the Greater Middle East, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by SOCOM, but all other foreign deployments have grown at that region’s expense. Africa Command has leapt from last to second place and now hosts 16.5% of America’s overseas commandos, European Command 13.9% of them, the newly renamed Indo-Pacific Command 8.6%, and Southern Command 4.5%.

In the Zone

As deployments have shifted geographically, the number of special operators overseas has risen dramatically. In any given week in 2001, an average of 2,900 commandos were deployed abroad. By 2014, that number had hit 7,200. Today, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw, it’s 8,300.

A generation of commandos have spent their careers fighting on the proliferating fronts of Washington’s forever wars, hopping from one conflict zone to another or sometimes returning to the same campaign again and again. Some have spent much of their adult lives at war and a number have lost their lives after multiple warzone tours, still without a victory in sight. “At this stage in the ongoing counter-violent extremist type of fight, it is not a rare exception for airmen to be on their 12th, 13th, or 14th deployment,” Lieutenant General Marshall Webb, the chief of Air Force Special Operations Command, told the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities earlier this year. And when it comes to serial deployments, special ops airmen are hardly unique.

Consider, for example, Green Beret Colonel Owen Ray who recently took command of the 1st Special Forces Group (1st SFG). His path to that post might be thought of as the military equivalent of working one’s way up from the mailroom. He has, in fact, held a command at every level of the 1st SFG. In 2003, he served as a detachment commander in Afghanistan. By 2011, he was back there as a company commander. In 2013, he returned as the chief of the 1st Special Forces Group’s 4th Battalion. Now, he heads a unit whose members have spent the last years deploying to hotspots across the planet. “I stand in absolute awe at the service rendered and the impact this unit had on multiple theaters,” said outgoing commander Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere at a July change of command ceremony in which he handed over the reins to Ray.

Beaurpere himself is a model of the long-war SOF experience in multi-theater warfighting. A French immigrant commissioned as an officer in 1994, he served in South Korea, Kosovo, and sub-Saharan Africa. In 2007, he commanded a Special Forces company in Iraq. In 2008, he was back in Iraq as the executive officer for a special operations task force in Baghdad. In 2010, he served as the deputy chief of staff of a SOCOM joint task force and the task force deputy operations officer during the lead-up to NATO’s war in Libya. In 2011, he took command of a special forces battalion and supervised its operations in West Africa. He also played a role in establishing a special ops presence in Central Africa to aid local proxies fighting Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. In 2012, he served as the chief of a special operations command and control element in the Horn of Africa. Beaurpere is now assigned to Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, where he serves as executive officer to the commander.

This spring, President Trump tapped Lieutenant General Scott Howell to be the first Air Force officer to head Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), SOCOM’s secretive “hunter-killers,” which include the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six. A longtime special operator, Howell has hopped back and forth between combat zones and stateside posts while steadily climbing the special ops ladder. His assignments have included a 2005-2006 stint, when he was still a lieutenant colonel, as commander of the Joint Special Operations Aviation Detachment Arabian Peninsula at Joint Base Balad, Iraq; a 2008-2010 assignment, when he was a colonel, as commander of the Joint Special Operations Aviation Component, Special Operations Task Force, at Balad Air Base, Iraq, and Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan; a 2012-2013 stint, when he was a brigadier general, as deputy commanding general of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan and NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan; and then, a 2016-2017 position, when he was a major general, as the head of NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan and Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan.

Or, for a grimmer look at the special ops experience in these years, consider the biographies of some of the commandos recently killed overseas. They offer a unique window on the operations tempo, scale, and scope of America’s never-ending wars. Take Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens. He completed his Navy SEAL training in December 2002and then deployed 12 times, carrying out perhaps 1,000 missions or more, including assignments in Afghanistan and Somalia, before he was killed in Yemen last January. Similarly, Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Kyle Milliken, who enlisted in the Navy in 2002 and joined the SEALs a short time later, survived tours in Iraq — in 2007 alone, he took part in 48 combat missions there — and Afghanistan only to be killed in Somalia last May.

Staff Sergeant Logan Melgar, a Green Beret who was reportedly strangled to death by two fellow special operators in Mali last June, was a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan. Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, one of two Green Berets killed in an Islamic State ambush in Niger in October 2017, was reportedly on his second deployment to that West African nation. Army Sergeant 1st Class Mihail Golin — the victim of a New Year’s Day attack in Afghanistan — enlisted in the Army in 2005, a year after emigrating to the United States from Latvia, serving in Iraq in 2006-2007 and Afghanistan in 2009-2010, 2011-2012, and again in 2017. Staff Sergeant Alexander Conrad, a 26-year-old assigned to the Special Forces, served two tours in Afghanistan — in 2012-2013 and again in 2014 — before losing his life in a June 2018 attack in Jubaland, Somalia.

Hallowed Halls

Today, who remembers Dan Brouthers or the Troy Trojans and Buffalo Bisons, the professional baseball teams he played for? The same could be said of William “Judy” Johnson of the Hilldale Daisies, Mike “King” Kellyof the Boston Beaneaters, and Charlie “Old Hoss” Radbourn of the Providence Grays who, in 1884, pitched 73 complete games and won 59 of them. (Yes, you read that right!). Those men are nonetheless immortalized in bronze forever — or at least as long as the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum stands in Cooperstown, New York.

Philip CochranLeroy Manor, and Aaron Bank might be even less well known to the rest of us, although they’re enshrined in the equivalent institution for their line of work. They are among the 69 members of the Commando Hall of Honor at SOCOM headquarters, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. Cochran is best known for his service as . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 August 2018 at 2:36 pm

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