Why are we surprised that we supported militia in Iraq, and they used torture?

Summary:  The recent story about militia in Iraq is rich in lessons for us. Not about the futile lost war. But about us and our ability to see and understand the world.

Militia, the face of freedom? From Albasrah.net

A hot story from The Guardian, 6 March 2013 — based on an investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic:

After the Pentagon lifted a ban on Shia militias joining the security forces, the special police commando (SPC) membership was increasingly drawn from violent Shia groups such as the Badr brigades.

Colonel James Steele was a 58-year-old retired special forces veteran when he was nominated by Donald Rumsfeld to help organise the paramilitaries in an attempt to quell a Sunni insurgency …

Coffman reported directly to General David Petraeus, sent to Iraq in June 2004 to organise and train the new Iraqi security forces. Steele, who was in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, and returned to the country in 2006, reported directly to Rumsfeld.

A second special adviser, retired Colonel James H Coffman, worked alongside Steele in detention centres that were set up with millions of dollars of US funding. Coffman reported to Petraeus and described himself in an interview with the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes as Petraeus’s “eyes and ears out on the ground” in Iraq.

“They worked hand in hand,” said General Muntadher al-Samari, who worked with Steele and Coffman for a year while the commandos were being set up. “I never saw them apart in the 40 or 50 times I saw them inside the detention centres. They knew everything that was going on there … the torture, the most horrible kinds of torture.”

… “Every single detention centre would have its own interrogation committee,” claimed Samari, talking for the first time in detail about the US role in the interrogation units. Each one was made up of an intelligence officer and eight interrogators. This committee will use all means of torture to make the detainee confess like using electricity or hanging him upside down, pulling out their nails, and beating them on sensitive parts.”

There is no evidence that Steele or Coffman tortured prisoners themselves, only that they were sometimes present in the detention centres where torture took place and were involved in the processing of thousands of detainees.

(The article bizarrely calls the militia “commandos”, part of the long effort by the news media and government to disguise the nature of these wars by using inaccurate labels.)

This story surprises many of our journalists and geopolitical experts, whose pose of child-like innocence appears to blind them to the most obvious of long-term trends.  Many but not all.  In February 2008 Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) explained that in Iraq and Afghanistan we used our trinity of tactics:


Iraq militia, NYT, 26 Nov 2006
Iraq militia, NYT, 26 Nov 2006

General Petraeus has abandoned the counterinsurgency manual in favor of the tactics which served us so well in Vietnam: massive firepower on civilian areas, search-and-destroy sweeps, and funding Popular Force militias.

(“Popular Front” means that they adopt a facade of representing a broad national coalition while in fact serving narrower interests.)

That we used militia, massive firepower, and sweeps in Iraq and Afghanistan should be old news (see the posts at the end for details). That we used or facilitated torture should surprise nobody familiar with our post-WWII history (eg, evidence of DoD teaching torture to allies at the School of the Americas, and OTJ training by the Special Forces).

This is one of the great oddities of our wars. We’ve fought them with our standard methods, using the tactics which failed in Vietnam despite a vast expenditure of money and blood. During our ten-year long adventure in Afghanistan and Iraq this blindingly obvious fact was obscured by the focus of experts and journalists on COIN tactics — which were only slightly applied (the military almost totally ignored the COIN manual’s primary recommendation: building up the legitimacy and strength of the local government).

This is another example of our characteristic blindness regarding even matters of great importance to us. The news media runs thousands of articles about our wars, yet we remain ignorant of why we invaded these nations (the public stories were lies in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq).  Ignorant of how they were fought, and to what result.

Self-government requires a people who do better. We can do better. The truth is out there, if we choose to grasp it.

For More Information

Other articles about our use of militia:

  • The Sheikh Down“, Shane Bauer, Mother Jones, September/October 2009 — “How the Pentagon bought stability in Iraq by funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to the country’s next generation of strongmen.”
  • Documentary Exposes US Role in Iraq Sectarian Conflict“, Real News Network, March 2013 — “Maggie O’Kane, Executive Producer of the BBC/Guardian documentary, tells about the role of Col. James Steele in supporting torture, death squads and brutal sectarian conflict during the height of the Iraq war. Steel’s reports went directly to Rumsfeld and Cheney.”

About America’s “trinity” of military tactics:

  1. Three blind men examine the Iraq Elephant, 6 February 2008
  2. Winning hearts and mind with artillery fire, 26 May 2008
  3. Another example of winning hearts & minds with artillery, 29 May 2009
  4. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009
  5. The Trinity of modern war at work in Afghanistan (more evidence that amnesia is a required to be an American geopol expert), 28 November 2009
  6. About our operations in Kandahar – all that’s old is new again, 20 October 2010



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