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The Laws of War, on the Ground

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

From october 2007 to November 2008, I served as the commander of Task Force No Slack, a unit of 1,000 soldiers that operated in and around Samarra, Iraq, a predominantly Sunni city about 60 miles north of Baghdad. During this period our forces, in conjunction with Iraqi Security Forces and a local militia called the Sons of Iraq, defeated the insurgency in the area. One clear measure of this was that, when we arrived, the enemy was launching some 135 attacks per month; when we departed, monthly attacks were down to fewer than eight. During the course of our deployment we shifted our focus from fighting the insurgency to rebuilding the local government and providing essential services to the roughly 250,000 Iraqis who lived in our area. As a result of my experiences in Samarra, I gained a profound respect for the laws of war and how they can be powerful in increasing the effectiveness of a counterinsurgent force.

First, I need to set the stage. In 2007, Samarra remained one of the most restive and lawless areas in Iraq. The effects of the Surge of 2007 had largely been negative for Samarra. Although the Surge increased security within Baghdad, insurgents and terrorists fled to outlying areas, and Samarra, which had never been fully pacified, was one of their favorite destinations. Thus, in the summer of 2007, the security situation within Samarra disintegrated. The police force was decimated by a car bombing that killed the police chief and cowed all other police officers into remaining at home. An organization called the Islamic State of Iraq (isi, part of larger al Qaeda in Iraq) controlled more than half of the city and virtually all the surrounding areas. In those areas it established its own style of governance. isi collected taxes, held trials, conducted public executions, and had frequent military parades to demonstrate its power over the people of the region — all this occurring within one mile of a base with 200 U.S. soldiers and many more Iraqi National Police and army units. Despite the often heroic efforts of those forces, at best they slowed the tide of isi’s expansion, but they were unable to arrest it or roll it back.

Yet as isi became larger and more powerful, it began to act arbitrarily, which hurt its strategy and undermined its support from the people. Its harsh brand of Islam was contrary to what most Iraqis believed. Its strict rules on tobacco — whose use could be punished by isi agents cutting off the smoker’s index finger — alienated many. Its public executions, which were held once a week on the same street corner, further repulsed the many Iraqis who saw their friends and neighbors executed based on rumors or hearsay. The most repugnant of all practices, however, was its kidnapping of young girls (fifteen or sixteen), driving them to camps in the desert, and forcibly marrying them to fighters (usually foreigners), which meant that those fighters could then rape the girls under the imprimatur of Sharia law. How frequently it occurred is impossible to tell. What I do know is that almost all Samarrans believed it was happening and were seething about it, especially about their inability to stop it. The Samarrans were learning that there was a much worse alternative to their government and the Americans, which was rule by al Qaeda-inspired fundamentalists.

The new guys in town

Into this complex, hyper-violent environment we arrived and set about conducting operations. We began by acknowledging that our single most important task was to understand our new environment. We believed this was absolutely critical if we were to succeed. Before we could craft a plan to roll back the insurgency, we first needed to understand both the insurgency and the entire community within which we operated. As we spent time talking to Iraqis from all walks of life, one surprising theme emerged and remained constant: Iraqis respected the Americans. In an area beset with lawlessness and violence, they viewed us as the only legitimate force. This shocked me; I had thought that in this area, long known as a hotbed of the insurgency, the local population would despise us. One major reason that the Iraqis came to see us as legitimate was our respect for the laws of war as practiced each day by our soldiers on patrol. This respect for the rule of law forms our ethical foundation, which defines how we conduct operations. Iraqis knew that our soldiers would not shoot indiscriminately, that we would not kidnap their men and hold them hostage, that if we manned a checkpoint we would not shake them down for cash, and that if we detained one of their sons, he would not be brutalized and tortured. The Iraqis had no such belief in either their own security services or, certainly, in the insurgents and terrorists who opposed us.

The Iraqis also knew that although we had tremendous firepower at our disposal, we used it judiciously and with a high degree of precision. We did not level villages in bombing raids or shoot indiscriminately if a roadside bomb exploded nearby. The Iraqis knew we were not perfect, but they largely accepted that there was a war raging and that we were doing all we could to avoid civilian casualties. Our commitment to the rules of engagement, based on the rules of warfare, greatly contributed to the esteem in which U.S. forces were held, and it enhanced our legitimacy.

What was most remarkable to me was that the foundation of this legitimacy rested on the shoulders of some very young soldiers. Our junior soldiers and noncommissioned officers symbolized our values every time they patrolled our area. Each day, these soldiers — almost all under the age of 25, many under 21 — dealt with life and death issues: Is that a car bomb approaching me or just an errant driver? Do I shoot or try to stop him using visual signals? Why is that man on the side of the road using his cell phone? Is he talking to his friend or is he a spotter for an ambush? Although we made mistakes, day in and out these young soldiers made such calculations hundreds of time each day and almost always showed good judgment — thus minimizing civilian casualties and increasing the respect Iraqis felt for Americans. As a leader of this task force, I could say many things and make many promises — but it was the actions of these young soldiers that truly established the impression that Iraqis formed of us.

This respect for the rule of law and professionalism was imparted to the Iraqi Security Forces at the lowest level. We routinely conducted joint patrols with the Iraqi Security Forces, and the powerful example of a 21-year-old U.S. sergeant leading his troops professionally much impressed the younger Iraqis in the ranks. They wanted to emulate their U.S. comrades — both in how they acted and how they dressed, giving rise to the amusing situation in which Iraqi soldiers and police coveted American knee pads and then promptly wore them improperly around their ankles, just like their American partners.

Not all ran smoothly; sometimes our position on the conduct of operations and how to treat people ran directly counter to Iraqis’ views and actions. The most serious problem in this area was the treatment of detainees. American forces learned much after the disgraceful and criminal events at Abu Ghraib prison, so that throughout the U.S. Army, proper treatment of detainees was emphasized and became part of our training. In sharp contrast, Iraqis beat and tortured detainees all too regularly. Academics can debate what defines torture, but the acts committed by some Iraqis were brutal by any definition. Early in our deployment, we discovered detainees in the Iraqi system who had been beaten with sticks and clubs, as well as those who had had wires attached to their ears and genitals and electrical shock administered with a car battery. In each case we took control of the detainee, put him into the U.S. detention system, and filed reports to ensure that both my superiors and Iraqi leaders knew of the abuse. Although this always led to an investigation by the Iraqis, they seldom followed up with disciplinary action, meaning no substantive reprimand and thus little or no change in behavior. At my level I would meet with the Iraqi commander and voice my displeasure. There was little more that I could do, but at least the Iraqi leaders knew I disapproved of torture and was not willing to turn a blind eye to this unethical behavior.

A prison puzzle

The longer i was in the area, the more I learned and understood — as did all our soldiers. One issue that came to my attention was the operation of the local prison, which was causing significant problems. As I met with Iraqis, a common complaint emerged: The Iraqi Security Forces were detaining men without filing charges and without any established legal process by which to release them from jail. Instead, these men were effectively held as part of a hostage ring run by the Iraqi Security Forces, who expected family members to pay a ransom for their release. Here is how it worked: The Iraqi Security Forces would conduct a raid on a suspected insurgent location; not finding any insurgents, they would take all men age fifteen and older and put them in jail. These men would be held in jail until the family could post a bail of $1,000 to $5,000 per detainee — an impossibly high sum in a land where $300 a month was a working wage that could support a small family. As I patrolled the city I would frequently be stopped by elderly women who would slip a small piece of paper in my hand with their son’s name written on it and wail, “Please see if my son is still in jail and if he is okay. I don’t have$5,000 to set him free and I do not know what to do.” As I dug into this issue, the news became even worse: I learned that the detainees who could afford to post this ransom were usually insurgents; they were the ones with large sums of cash at their disposal. So the prison system crushed both the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and that of the U.S. forces in multiple ways: First, it detained innocent men illegally, causing the general population to grow angry and bitter. Second, it allowed the truly bad actors in the area to get out of jail rapidly.

With the number of detainees running into the hundreds, you can imagine how this jail had become a cash cow for the Iraqi officers in charge of the city. It is worth noting that responsibility for running the jail was a coveted job, with both the National Police and the local police vying for control — all in an attempt to access that revenue stream, all of which made for a tremendously destabilizing and delegitimizing influence in the area. The local Iraqis assumed that the Americans approved of this operation, owing to our inactivity against it and our close cooperation with the Iraqi Security Forces. When I learned about this jail and the negative effect it was having on our legitimacy, I met with my leaders to craft a plan to change this situation.

I informed the Iraqi major general in charge of all the Iraqi Security Forces in Samarra that the jail would now be under joint U.S.-Iraqi control. He was not pleased but could not prevent it. We immediately took an inventory of all prisoners, including a medical assessment to determine their general health as well as whether any had been tortured. We then issued detainees id bracelets so we could track them. We next ensured that the each detainee’s release had been approved by both U.S. and Iraqi leaders. No longer would Iraqi leaders release known insurgents thanks to a hefty ransom. We then began to examine the evidence against every detainee and soon released many who were being held without charges. We instituted a system of regular medical checks for detainees as well as a twice-daily accountability check to ensure none was released without our approval.

We winnowed down the detainee population, releasing those who were being held without cause. In doing so, we greatly improved living conditions for the detainees as the prison population reduced from 420 to around 150 — all in a jail that was designed to hold no more than 125 prisoners.

These reforms helped end the deleterious effects of the jail on our efforts in the area, but they also caused a significant amount of tension with our Iraqi counterparts. We were able to work through this tension, and, in the end, those reforms increased our legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Over time, as the Iraqi forces embraced these practices, the people’s view of the Iraqi forces’ legitimacy increased as well, with many attendant benefits. As we moved forward to address other issues, such as how to reconcile and bring former insurgents to our side, the goodwill engendered by our actions against the jail paid huge dividends.

Months after we took control of the jail, I had a conversation with an Iraqi friend who had been a colonel in the Iraqi Army but lost his job when the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded it in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. He had tried to assist in forming a new Iraqi government in Samarra, working with Americans in the year immediately following the invasion. He soon became disillusioned with both the Iraqi government and the Americans, however, and decided to join the insurgency. Whether he became an active member or simply a supporter, I never knew. After he spent time with the insurgents, however, he became disillusioned with their barbarity, lack of vision, and religious fundamentalism. He then became one of the key negotiators who brokered the agreement whereby 2,000 local Iraqis, including many insurgents, came to the side of their government and the United States and later proved instrumental in quelling the insurgency. In all my dealings with him, he proved honest in word and deed.

Over time, we developed a rapport whereby we could talk about almost anything. One day I asked him about Abu Ghraib and its impact on Iraqis. I said, “I have seen the way all Iraqi forces treat their detainees. It doesn’t matter if they are Army, National Police, or Sons of Iraq — all of them beat and torture detainees. What you do to your own is much worse than anything that was done in Abu Ghraib by Americans to Iraqi prisoners. Where is the outrage? Where is the indignation that filled Iraqis when they saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib? Why is there such a double standard?” He looked at me, shook his head knowingly, and said, “My friend, you do not understand. First, you must remember that this occurred during a war and that you provided al Qaeda a great tool with your actions in Abu Ghraib — and they exploited it masterfully. Second, you have to remember that you are Americans and we have different standards for you. You came to Iraq under the banner of democracy and respect for human rights. Your actions in Abu Ghraib, along with many of your other actions, demonstrated you did not believe in these values and dropped them as soon as things became difficult. Abu Ghraib convinced many of us that you were not serious about how you wanted to change Iraq or the values that you proclaimed, and it convinced many to take arms against you.”

For me, this story illustrates that our actions are more powerful and more important than any proclamations we make. Our respect for the rules of war, our commitment to conduct ourselves ethically in difficult situations, is absolutely vital. If we truly want to prevail in these conflicts, we must reinforce our words with actions that demonstrate we believe in them even under duress.

Decisive action

One other story brought this issue into clear focus. February 2007 was a critical month for our operations. We had been in negotiations with insurgent leaders and were on the verge of having them come over to the side of their government and the U.S. forces. A Sons of Iraq movement, which had been so effective in other parts of Iraq, was on the verge of coming forth in Samarra, something that was believed impossible by many. On the day in which we were supposed to have key Iraqi Security Force leaders meet with the nascent Sons of Iraq leaders to discuss how they would conduct operations side by side, a series of bad events occurred.

In the center of Samarra, an Iraqi National Police checkpoint was attacked by insurgent small arms fire, killing one police officer. This attack inflamed the anger of the National Police. Rapidly, they gathered a battalion’s worth of police officers and went into the neighborhood from where they took the lethal gunfire. This neighborhood, known as Dobut 2, was a known insurgent stronghold, and enemy contact from this area was common. Whipped into a frenzy, the National Police proceeded to bust into houses of Dobut 2 and detain all adult males — roughly every male above the age of fourteen. Many of the National Police officers shot televisions, automobiles and windows and broke furniture. Theft was rampant as families watched the police officers rip jewelry off women and stuff it into their pockets. Most ominously, these officers told the women that with their men gone they were helpless — and that they would return at night for another visit, this time to rape the women.

All of this went unnoticed by American forces. The platoon that was living side by side with this National Police Battalion was operating in a different part of the city and had left behind a small skeleton crew to guard their living area. The transition team that was assigned to this National Police battalion was doing business in Tikrit, far to the north.

American forces became aware that something was amiss when the National Police began to return to their base and unload their male detainees in the central square of the base. As they unloaded the detainees from the trucks, np officers were standing by to butt the detainees with their ak-47s, savagely kicking and punching them as they assembled into a tight, clustered knot. More National Police gathered and continued the abuse of these detainees.

The noncommissioned officer in charge of the seven Americans left on the base, Staff Sergeant Anthony Wright, noticed something was going on and went out to investigate. What he saw shocked him, and he went to the National Police and told them to stop. In their fury, the policemen refused to listen, pushing him back and threatening him with their ak-47s. Some leaders would have let the Iraqis do it their way, claiming this was an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem — and use this excuse not to get involved. ssg Wright chose decisive action instead.

First, he called his company headquarters, explained the situation, and said he needed reinforcements immediately. He then gathered up the seven Americans under his control and ordered them to put on all their gear: helmets, body armor, weapons. Next he led these fully armed Americans and placed them between the National Police and the detainees. Pointing their weapons at the National Police, he let it be known that they needed to get past him and his men if they wanted to continue to abuse their prisoners. Facing down eight angry, fully armed Americans was enough to defuse the situation completely. The National Police officers began to skulk away as more U.S. forces arrived to take control of the scene.

American forces returned the detainees to their homes, and then remained stationed around the Dobut 2 neighborhood to ensure that no National Police officers returned to cause any more problems. They secured the neighborhood throughout the night. The following morning, when we sent our first dismounted patrols through Dobut 2, Iraqis came pouring out of their houses and kissed the hands of the Americans, expressing their thanks by presenting gifts of candy and flowers. Women wept in appreciation for the return of their sons and husbands — and the role that Americans had played in ensuring the National Police did not return to rape them.

In the next nine months, not a single attack against U.S. forces came from Dobut 2.

More significantly, the ethical actions of Staff Sergeant Wright ensured that the Sons of Iraq movement continued to come forward. If the National Police had continued unabated, their actions would have ended the chances for the Sons of Iraq. Some of the key leaders within the Sons of Iraq had family members inside of Dobut 2, and if they had been raped and abused, these leaders would have returned to the insurgency. Without Wright’s actions in stopping these abuses, it would have been impossible for the Sons of Iraq leaders to sit across the table from the leaders of the National Police. The ethical actions and strong leadership of one noncommissioned officer saved this important effort. When the situation hung by a thread, one American stepped forward and made the right ethical decision and had the strength of character to enforce his beliefs.

Virtue rewarded

For all the good that comes from following the laws of war, sometimes following these laws can be a hindrance. Invariably, information does not get divulged by detainees, bombs are not dropped on targets due to collateral damage concerns, and soldiers are slow to engage a target because they are not completely convinced the target represents a threat. It is no secret that attempting to follow the laws of war with respect to terrorist detainees has gummed up our detention system and left us with no effective way to handle a terrorist captured in foreign lands.

Some will argue that following the rules of warfare slows down the reaction time of soldiers — and that a preoccupation with minimizing collateral damage will place U.S. soldiers in more risk. Certainly, following the rules of warfare does slow reaction time and forces commanders to be discriminating in their use of firepower. Yet this discriminating and precise use of firepower, in the aggregate, does more good than harm — even at the lowest level. A recent study by the London School of Economics has determined a strong link between U.S. actions which have caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and a corresponding rise in attacks against U.S. forces. Thus, choosing to be precise in the use of firepower, thereby minimizing civilian casualties, is proving to be an effective way to lower the levels of violence against our forces.

This should not be hard for anyone to understand. The loss of innocent family members would place most people in a position of trying to exact some vengeance for their loss. By being precise and discriminating, we are not only protecting the innocent; we are protecting our own forces in the long term.

Yet the negative impact of following the rule of law on our operations pales in comparison with the benefit we gain from operating in an ethically principled manner, following the laws of warfare. Many of the laws of warfare are extensions of national values we claim, and have strong ethical underpinnings. The proper treatment of detainees is deeply rooted in the concept of individual rights — an American value. The laws which limit where we drop bombs and how we conduct operations all come back to a fundamental respect for a person’s right to live unmolested. When we chose to follow these rules in the most dangerous of circumstances, we are showing the world that we believe in these values and are willing to make sacrifices to live them. And I believe these actions resound within the population of the countries in which we operate.

It’s my firm belief that the proper conduct of our forces, following the rules of war, can have a profoundly positive impact on our operations. Opponents deride following the rules, saying they tie the hands of our troops and put them at risk; to me this criticism is shortsighted. In a conflict in which the population has the decisive vote, a vote often cast based on whom they view as legitimate, the actions of U.S. soldiers can have a deep impact on which side the people choose to support, as well as domestic and international commitment. I often hear critics say that the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan will always resent and hate the presence of the United States in their countries, but this has been disproven time and again in public opinion polls in those countries. For example, a recent abc/bbc poll of 1,691 Afghans asked this question: “Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the presence of the following groups in Afghanistan today?” Sixty-three percent supported or strongly supported U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and 53 percent supported or strongly supported nato/International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan. Interestingly, only eleven percent of those polled supported or strongly supported the Taliban, and only seventeen percent supported/strongly supported foreign jihadi fighters. I believe the actual numbers of troops are almost insignificant; what matters is how they act and what they are doing. A thousand U.S. soldiers in Iraq, terrorizing the population through the indiscriminate application of force, would be viewed very differently than 150,000 of the same U.S. soldiers operating in a measured, controlled manner within the rules of war to make Iraq safer and more stable.

Some will argue that our enemies use these rules of law against us — that they understand what we can and cannot do and use this knowledge to improve their operations. Undeniably this is true; terrorists and insurgents use our rules against us, which limits our effectiveness in the short term. In the long term, however, I believe those actions are self-defeating and do much to hinder their popular support. One common example would be using mosques to harbor terrorists or hide weapons. The insurgents knew that Americans were not allowed into these locations without first having laboriously gained approval from the highest levels. So instead of sending American troops into mosques to carry out searches, we used the Iraqi Security Forces — all of whom were presumably Muslim. Although this might have meant that in a hot pursuit, we would have to sit on our hands and wait for the Iraqi Security Forces to arrive and search — frustrating to be sure — it robbed the enemy of the propaganda value of having U.S. troops tromping through a mosque, appearing to desecrate it by their presence. The people of the area knew the enemy was hiding weapons and fighters in a place of worship and condemned them for such actions (making a place of worship into a place of conflict is odious in almost all religions), and the people of Iraq found this practice distasteful and ultimately self-defeating for the insurgents.

One other important benefit from ensuring that U.S. soldiers follow the rules of law and act in an ethical fashion is that it helps the troops themselves and eases their transition back into civilian society. A U.S. soldier operating overseas in places such as Afghanistan or Iraq daily carries the power of life and death over the people in those countries. Heavily armed, often scared, and frequently frustrated, a soldier can become aggressive in operating among the population. Unchecked and improperly led, a soldier can develop techniques for handling situations that, although not criminal, are improper. Soldiers may speak derisively to civilians, push or manhandle detainees, ram vehicles on the street, fire their weapons excessively to warn approaching vehicles, or, when engaged in a firefight, use their firepower indiscriminately.

Soldiers and leaders could attempt to justify these actions by saying that they are in a tough situation filled with many dangers and that this is the only way to be effective. Yet most soldiers have a sharp sense of right and wrong. In the short term they can justify their overaggressive actions; in the long term they will know they acted inappropriately, which can cause serious psychological damage. Multiple combat psychologists spoke to me about the importance of instilling an ethos of restraint and respect for the local people not just because it was operationally effective but also because it made for fewer mental issues when the troops came home. They spoke to me of soldiers who had developed such a brutal manner while in Iraq that the psychologists feared they could never return to civilian society as functioning members. Ultimately, soldiers do what they are told. It is the leader’s responsibility to give orders that will maximize the soldier’s chances of mission success as well as his chances of emerging from combat proud of what he did and how he acted. If a leader’s orders are in accordance with the laws of war, he will have done a great deal to ensure this will happen.

My experiences have taught me that following the rules of warfare and instilling the importance of ethical conduct in our soldiers are critical forces in a counterinsurgency. The actions of our armed forces, often carried out by its youngest members, do much to bestow legitimacy on our presence; and this legitimacy is a critical foundation for success.