You are browsing the archive for Stanley McChrystal.

Head of JTF-435 Pwn3d by Al Jazeera

9:23 am in Uncategorized by Jim White

I’ve been following for some time the attempts to put a warm, fuzzy face on General McChrystal’s reliance on Special Forces night raids as the central feature of his COIN strategy, as well as the propaganda surrounding the shell games being played with prisons in Afghanistan.

Today we have what could well be the biggest propaganda fail yet from Afghanistan. Earlier this morning, the @JTF435 twitter feed, after an ugly formatting fail, managed to tweet a link to a Facebook page in which the video above was embedded.

Presumably, the purpose of the video was to tout the recent release of a couple of Afghan detainees from Bagram. But the choice of this particular video is perplexing, at best. First of all, the report is from Al Jazeera. Didn’t the US directly target Al Jazeera in Iraq and Afghanistan? Next, even though the report begins with the release of the Afghan detainees, it moves quickly to the question of non-Afghan prisoners at Bagram, which could be as high as 60, and points out that these prisoners are likely in Afghanistan illegally.

But finally, the ultimate failure of the propaganda shows up for those paying close attention at about the 40 second mark of the video, where the Al Jazeera graphic labels Vice Admiral Robert Harward as Robert "Hardwood".

Sometimes the jokes just write themselves…

More Spin on McChrystal’s Command of Special Forces in Afghanistan

6:31 am in Uncategorized by Jim White

Obama Eikenberry McChrystal
President Obama meets with Ambassador Eikenberry and General McChrystal at Bagram on March 28. (White House photo)

The remarkable photo above was taken on President Barack Obama’s surprise trip to Afghanistan last month. It seems to reprise the struggle that played out last summer, when Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s words of warning were not heeded by President Obama when he chose to follow General Stanley McChrystal’s request for a surge of forces in Afghanistan. The photo seems to suggest that both Eikenberry and McChrystal are uncomfortable reporting the current state of affairs to Obama.

The discomfort Eikenberry and McChrystal are feeling could well be a result of the continued pattern of civilian deaths during night raids conducted by Special Forces. These civilian casualties have figured prominently in the ongoing justifications for McChrystal assuming command of Special Forces operating in Afghanistan. The latest entry in this ongoing attempt at spin comes in a statement from McChrystal’s Public Affairs Officer, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, to the blog Captain’s Journal:

Operational control of Marine or special operations forces is not based on concern about these forces “going rogue” or underperforming in recent operations. It is about unity of command and effort, which has been an enduring concern with the nations and branches supporting operations in Afghanistan and was identified as an area of improvement in General McChrystal’s August 2009 initial assessment.

To use a musical analogy, the best violin and cello and trumpet and drum players in the world don’t make a world-class orchestra until they’re playing under a conductor who can integrate individual talents into the opportunities and challenges of a particular composition. In the case of Afghanistan, those opportunities and challenges are best understood and addressed by the theater commander responsible for integrating localized security efforts into comprehensive improvements in security and Afghan capacity across the country.

Advocates of withholding OPCON from the theater commander will argue that forces can be trusted to be team players under different command arrangements. As you point out, this trust has been justified in the past, although personally I don’t know whether operational success can be attributed to exceptional command arrangements or whether such success occurs despite these arrangements. Nevertheless, what advocates often overlook is that the trust that they expect from theater commanders is a two-way street, and there is no great risk in giving theater commanders the benefit of the doubt in that relationship. Providing OPCON to a theater commander does not mean that that commander will be prone to ignore the lessons of history and misuse uniquely capable forces, any more than withholding OPCON will risk having component commanders use those forces in a doctrinally correct but ultimately counterproductive ways because of the component commander’s relative ignorance of the operational situation.

For details on the question posed to Smith by Captain’s Journal, see this post which was written partially in response to this March 15 article in the New York Times.

It’s really remarkable that Smith would refer to the "lessons of history" that McChrystal might be at risk of ignoring, because many of the worst aspects of that history date to McChrystal’s own command of Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan when he hid torture and prisons from the ICRC and human rights groups and operated in a manner that led to many civilian deaths and the imprisonment of many innocent civilians. In fact, just this week, we learned that Iraq had such good training from us on prison operations that they even have their own secret prison.

Further, in responding to this particular question from Captain’s Journal, Smith brings additional attention to his own role in the most sordid story to emerge from Afghanistan this year. In the New York Times article linked above, Smith is quoted about the deaths of two pregnant women in a botched Special Forces raid:

“The regret is that two innocent males died,” Admiral Smith said. “The women, I’m not sure anyone will ever know how they died.” He added, however, “I don’t know that there are any forensics that show bullet penetrations of the women or blood from the women.” He said they showed signs of puncture and slashing wounds from a knife, and appeared to have died several hours before the arrival of the assault force. In respect for Afghan customs, autopsies are not carried out on civilian victims, he said.

Smith didn’t realize at the time that he planted his statement in the New York Times that Jerome Starkey of The Times of London was still digging on the story and would come up with a very different description of those wounds:

A senior Afghan official involved in a government investigation told The Times: “I think the special forces lied to McChrystal.”

“Why did the special forces collect their bullets from the area?” the official said. “They washed the area of the injuries with alcohol and brought out the bullets from the dead bodies. The bodies showed there were big holes.”


Haji Sharabuddin, the head of the family who were attacked, told The Times last month that troops removed bullets from his relatives’ bodies, but his claims were impossible to verify. The hallway where four of the five victims were killed had been repainted and at least two bullet holes had been plastered over.

I doubt, however, that the deception referred to here by the Afghan official was aimed at McChrystal as much as it was intended for the press.

McChrystal himself, in his attempts at public relations, pays lip-service to an understanding that civilian deaths in night raids and widespread imprisonment of innocent civilians fuels the insurgency, and yet, as Gareth Porter recently informed us, the reality is that McChrystal has stepped up the use of night raids and civilian casualties have increased as a result:

Two moves by McChrystal last year reveal his strong commitment to night raids as a tactic. After becoming commander of NATO and U.S. forces last May, he approved a more than fourfold increase in those operations, from 20 in May to 90 in November, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times Dec. 16. One of McChrystal’s spokesmen, Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, acknowledged to IPS that the level of night raids during that period has reflected McChrystal’s guidance.

Then McChrystal deliberately protected night raids from political pressures to reduce or even stop them altogether. In his "initial assessment" last August, he devoted an entire annex to the subject of civilian casualties and collateral damage, but made no mention night raids as a problem in that regard.

As a result of McChrystal’s decisions, civilian deaths from night raids have spiked, even as those from air strikes were being reduced. According to United Nations and Afghan government estimates, night raids caused more than half of the nearly 600 civilian deaths attributable to coalition forces in 2009.

That would explain the tension seen in the faces of Eikenberry and McChrystal as they speak with Obama in the photo. I would suggest that perhaps Obama should listen just a bit more with his left ear.

Who Authorized Maryam Siddiqui’s Release?

6:16 am in Uncategorized by Jim White

Over at Emptywheel, Mary informs us that the long-missing daughter of Aafia Siddiqui likely has surfaced. Mary’s article provides an informative description of the background of the situation for the Siddiqui family, so I will not repeat that information nor the links she provided.

Assuming that the child really is Maryam Siddiqui (but, as Mary cautions, things in the Siddiqui case often are not as they first appear), I want to focus here only on the question of who authorized Maryam’s release and what motivation was involved.

Mary points to multiple reports in the Pakistani press that the release was engineered by Hamid Karzai. This would be a very interesting move by Karzai, coming as it does in the midst of his relationship with the US being very rocky over the last few weeks. In fact, last weekend, when Maraym first re-appeared, was the same time when Karzai "joked" that he was considering joining the Taliban, while also blaming the widespread fraud in his re-election on outside forces.

As I pointed out in comment 13 in Mary’s thread, such a move by Karzai could be seen as aimed at the US, telling them to "back off" him, because if he can release Maryam, he cold follow with the release of the still missing children of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Unlike this case, which has not yet been mentioned in the US press, the re-appearance of KSM’s children likely would receive intense media scrutiny that would eventually come to the realization that it is a war crime to hold children in secret.

The key problem with my suggestion above is that it is difficult to see how the decision to release Maryam could be Karzai’s alone. All suggestions that I have seen in the case of Aafia Siddiqui and her children are that the Siddiquis were held at the prison in Bagram. In fact, before her re-appearance, Aafia Siddiqui was called by many the "Gray Lady of Bagram".

The prison at Bagram remains under US command, as far as I can tell. A memorandum of understanding was signed in January calling for its eventual turnover to Afghan control. More recent stories still point out that this transfer has not yet taken place, and might not occur until next year.

The US unit in charge of all prison operations in Afghanistan is Joint Task Force 435, and as I reported previously, US Central Command confirms that General Stanley McChrystal has direct command over JTF-435. It appears that the first US facility that Afghanistan will take over (they already run the Afghan National Detention Facility in Pol-e-Charkhi) is the prison at Parwan.

It seems highly unlikely that Maryam, as a Pakistani citizen who was born in the US, would be transferred to the Afghan National Detention Facility, so we must assume that she remained at Bagram. That means that ultimate authority for her release would trace to McChrystal. Did McChrystal authorize the release? If so, why?

The "good" explanation for McChrystal authorizing a release would be that this was a humanitarian move that is part of a wider move toward a more civilian-friendly approach by McChrystal.

However, there are doubts about just how serious this attempt at a warm, fuzzy image for McChrystal really is. The key to understanding whether this was indeed a humanitarian move, depends, I think, on whether those above Mchrystal (Petraeus, Gates, and Obama) were informed of the release or even pushed for it.

Under a "bad" explanation for the release, McChrystal could be employing the "back off" message to Obama that I ascribed to Karzai above. That would lead to truly dangerous territory, if he is employing a veiled threat that he could make KSM’s children appear at any time and precipitate a major crisis. Of course, McChrystal himself would be consumed by the war crimes charges that would follow, but he presumably would take many people down with him in the aftermath.

The key question, then, is whether anyone among Petraeus, Gates and Obama were informed about or involved in the decision to release Maryam, because we know that such a decision almost certainly had to go through McChrystal in order to happen.

Another Move in the Afghan Prison Shell Games: Certificates!

6:56 am in Uncategorized by Jim White

In my most recent post on the shell games being employed by the United States in its attempt to deflect responsibility away from General Stanley McChrystal for his practice of widespread detention and abuse of innocent civilians as a central feature of his COIN strategy, I obtained a clear statement from a spokesman from US Central Command that McChrystal does maintain command authority over Joint Task Force 435, the unit headed by Vice Admiral Robert Harward that is tasked with responsibility for Afghan prisons, despite press reports that created the impression he did not have such command authority. Today, while scanning the most recent photos uploaded to Flickr from the ISAFMedia stream, I found a very interesting photo:

Harward certificate

Here, in full, is the caption that was provided for the photo:

CAMP DARULAMAN, Afghanistan – Brig. Gen. Saffiullah, Afghan National Army Military Police Brigade commander, holds a certificate presented by Vice Adm. Robert Harward, Joint Task Force 435 commander. The certificate was presented during a ceremony here April 5 in front of an ANA Military Police brigade. The brigade will complete the extensive training program prior to their assumption of detention facility security operations at the Detention Facility in Parwan. The brigade already conducts detention and corrections operations at the Afghan National Detention Facility in Pol-e-Charkhi. The event was another step toward the transition of the detention facility from the United States to the Afghan government. (Photo by U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Joost Verduyn)

So it appears that the shell game has progressed to one prison already being handed over to Afghan control. With Saffiullah now in possession of his full color Military Police Training Certificate, he and his brigade are nearly ready to take over control of another prison. Somehow, I doubt that these changes will result in any improvements in the process for Afghan citizens who have been detained to obtain a hearing on whether they were properly arrested.

McChrystal’s Employment of Military Deception

2:11 pm in Uncategorized by Jim White

warm fuzzy
The master of deception pretending to care about civilians

By now, since the New York Times is grudgingly going along with Jerome Starkey’s blockbuster reporting on US Special Operations Forces murdering pregnant Afghan women and manipulating the evidence in an attempt to hide their crimes, it should be painfully obvious to even the most disinterested observer that US forces, and especially US Special Forces, engaged in deception on this case. What I want to point out in this post is that the deception employed here is not a rare, unexpected development, but is instead a designed feature of how our Joint Special Operations Command forces operate under the command of General Stanley McChrystal. Although McChrystal is no longer head of JSOC after assuming command of all forces in Afghanistan, I consider JSOC still to be under his control since his hand-picked aide, William McRaven, is now in command.

Consider the deceptions we can lay unequivocally at McChrystal’s feet. In this article in The Nation, we find evidence that McChrystal played a large role in the coverup of the Pat Tillman death and that he played a personal role in the hiding of Camp NAMA (a secret prison site in Iraq) from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Another deception that is still being investigated relates to the "suicides" at Guantanamo in 2006. Scott Horton pointed out that the secret Camp No at Guantanamo could well have been under JSOC control. The head of JSOC at that time was Stanley McChrystal. Of special relevance is the report that the throats of the prisoners were missing when their bodies were sent to the families for burial. That seems awfully similar to the action of digging bullets out of bodies with knives. In both cases, bodies were cut up to remove incriminating evidence.

Deception flows easily from JSOC because deception is one of its tasks. Here is Senate testimony from 2003 from Lieutenant General Bryan D. Brown:

Information operations and information warfare will likely play an increasing role in 21st Century warfare. What role do you envision for U.S. SOCOM in overall U.S. information operations?

Special operations forces are very aware of the significant role Information Operations (IO) plays in today’s and in future conflicts. In fact, USSOCOM made IO one of the command’s core tasks in 1996. USSOCOM units have successfully employed IO core capabilities in both OEF and OIF, and IO continues to be embedded throughout SOF operations. However, USSOCOM continues to play a very significant role in PSYOP. As you know, USSOCOM owns the preponderance of the Department’s PSYOP forces and capabilities, including the EC-130 Commando Solo radio and TV broadcast aircraft. Due to the high demand for PSYOP forces, USSOCOM is in the process of growing its PSYOP force structure by adding two active duty regional companies and four reserve component tactical companies. This year the command also proposed an Advanced Technologies Concept Demonstration (ACTD) aimed at improving PSYOP planning tools and long range dissemination into denied hostile areas. In addition, USSOCOM is creating a 70 person Joint PSYOP Support Element, to provide dedicated joint PSYOP planning expertise to the Geographic Combatant Commanders, Strategic Command, and the Secretary of Defense.

Under what circumstances would the Commander, U.S. SOCOM, conduct information operations as a supported combatant commander?

USSOCOM became the lead for the war on terrorism IO planning after September 11th, 2001. In this new capacity, USSOCOM leads collaborative planning, coordination, and when directed, execution of IO. USSOCOM envisions IO supporting surgical, limited duration, counterterrorism missions, as well as, long range planning to develop coordinated, trans-regional strategies against terrorists and their supporters. Due to Strategic Command’s new Unified Command Plan responsibilities in regard to global IO, USSOCOM is working very closely with Strategic Command to insure mutual IO and PSYOP support and continuity.

Remember the recent news about Michael Furlong going a bit overboard on hiring contractors for Information Operations? Here is an interesting snippet from the Washington Post coverage:

Based in Lackland Air Force Base, Tex., the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center is the 435-person lead unit that "plans, integrates and synchronizes information operations in direct support of joint forces commanders . . . across the Defense Department," according its mission statement. Those operations may include "psychological operations . . . and military deception," according to a 2006 publication from the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Because senior military officers have had little experience in those areas, they frequently have relied on private contractors.

After a bit of digging, I found an excerpt from that 2006 Joint Chiefs publication on military deception. What I find interesting in the excerpt is this bit:

The functions of MILDEC include:

a. Causing ambiguity, confusion, or misunderstanding in adversary perceptions of friendly critical information, which may include: unit identities, locations, movements, dispositions, weaknesses, capabilities, strengths, supply status, and intentions.

Was a deception operation put in place to cover the murders of the pregnant Afghan women? Could it have been justified on the basis that admitting the incorrect targeting of this innocent household would reveal a weakness in intelligence gathering for JSOC?

The excerpt of the document even has this illustration of how deception operations are meant to operate:

deception operation

Glenn Greenwald documented today the creation and dissemination of the false story of the murders of the Afghan women. I find Glenn’s description to match pretty closely the deception process described in the illustration. Without Jerome Starkey piercing the veil of deception, the operation most likely would have worked.

Central Command: McChrystal Does Have Command Authority Over Detainee Operations Unit

6:21 am in Uncategorized by Jim White

This photo no longer appears on ISAFMedia’s Flickr stream!

In a post titled "More Shell Games: Command Structure for US Prisons and Special Operations in Afghanistan", I cited this article from AFP, which included this statement:

As the NATO commander, the only forces not under McChrystal’s control will be a special US task force that handles detainees, the small number of special operations forces and some support troops from other nations, the official said.

I also linked to this press release describing the return of a group from the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command (JECC) which had been in Afghanistan helping to set up Joint Task Force 435. JTF-435 has authority over US prisons in Afghanistan. I misinterpreted the press release to wrongly conclude that JTF-435, like the JECC, falls under the Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), when I stated:

As a part of JFCOM, then, JTF-435, and the prisoner operations under Harward, are well outside McChrystal’s official sphere of command within CENTCOM.

I received a response from a Media Officer in Central Command, Lieutenant Commander William Speaks, who has provided very useful information regarding the various command responsibilities involved. In the initial email, Speaks explained that the group from JFCOM was involved only in setting up JTF-435, as is common for JECC when it is involved in "helping to stand up new task forces before the permanent jobs are filled". He further explained that

Once they help get things set up and the permanent billets are established and filled, they turnover and leave. More importantly, while they’re there, they report to whomever has operational control over the entity they are helping to set up, not JFCOM. I thought this was made clear in the release White linked to, which was about the JECC team returning home.

I asked for further explanation regarding the media reports that I had seen where it appeared to be reported that McChrystal did not have authority over detainee operations, especially since even the first email from Speaks stated that " I can assure you that CENTCOM and ISAF do have authority over JTF-435, and JFCOM does not."

Here is Speaks’ full response to that question from me:

The AFP story is not inaccurate, but it is imcomplete in its explanation of Gen. McChrystal’s authorities. The story says that "as the NATO commander," the detainee operations task force is not under his control. While that’s accurate, it does not explain Gen. McChrystal’s dual-hatted role as Commander, ISAF, and Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan (COMUSFOR-A). The latter includes forces serving under the Operation Enduring Freedom mission, which is separate from the NATO/ISAF mission.

Gen. McChrystal does have authority over JTF-435 under his USFOR-A hat. You can certainly quote me on any of this information.
LCDR Bill Speaks

It appears that I was looking under the wrong shell for the Afghanistan prisons command authority. While it is not under McChrystal’s ISAF hat, it is under his USFOR-A hat. Given McChrystal’s history of hiding Iraq prisons from ICRC inspections, that arrangement does not give me a warm, fuzzy feeling.

More Shell Games: Command Structure for US Prisons and Special Operations in Afghanistan

10:08 am in Uncategorized by Jim White

This diary will, in the words of Emptywheel, go very far into the "weeds", but it should help to bring together several themes that have been percolating through recent diaries I have written on US handling of prisoners and night raids in Afghanistan. Please bear with me, as my weed-whacker blades tend to dull a lot faster than Marcy’s.

In this diary on Friday, I noted an AFP report (which I inadvertently failed to link) which explained that General Stanley McChrystal has been given expanded powers in Afghanistan. Here is the sentence of that report on which I now wish to focus:

As the NATO commander, the only forces not under McChrystal’s control will be a special US task force that handles detainees, the small number of special operations forces and some support troops from other nations, the official said.

Note the key exceptions of US forces that McChrystal will not command: the US task force in charge of detainees and special operations forces. Both of those groups were addressed in this diary, where I quoted extensively from a piece by Spencer Ackerman. That diary was addressing the question of whether the US still maintains secret prisons in Afghanistan and the appointment of former McChrystal associate Vice Admiral Robert Harward to head Joint Task Force 435, which is in charge of prisoner operations in Afghanistan. The diary also addressed the activities of Joint Task Force 714, now under the command of another McChrystal former associate, Vice Admiral William McRaven, who now heads the Joint Special Operations Command, as did McChrystal.

In that diary, I speculated that because Harward had been adamant about no secret prisons under his command and with the known history of McChrystal’s hiding of prisons when he headed JTF-714, that it was likely that JTF-435 handled only the publicly known prisons and JTF-714 still was in charge of the secret sites. There is now more information to support this hypothesis, and it comes from looking at the command structure of US forces in light of the exceptions to McChrystal’s command noted above.

The current org chart for the Department of Defense, at its highest levels, looks like this:
DOD org

I have taken that chart from Wikimedia Commons, but it is an accurate simplification of this org chart (pdf) from the Department of Defense (although DoD does not show the NSC involvement).

Note that operations occur under the direct command of the President’s Secretary of Defense through the Unified Commands. The Unified Commands can be found here, where there is a map (click on it to expand it) that shows the geographic areas covered by five of the commands. As can be seen on the map, Afghanistan falls under US Central Command (CENTCOM). The other two commands that will be of interest for discussion here are US Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) and US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), two of the four non-geographic commands.

McChrystal’s current appointment is as the Commander of ISAF (Interantional Security Assistance Force), a "NATO" operation that falls under CENTCOM. That means McChrystal reports directly to General David Petraeus, who heads CENTCOM. Keeping in mind the exceptions to McChrystal’s command noted above for prison operations and special operations, it is very interesting to discover just where JTF-435, Harward’s prisoner operation, is housed. From this news release dated Friday, it is clear that JTF-435 falls under JFCOM. As a part of JFCOM, then, JTF-435, and the prisoner operations under Harward, are well outside McChrystal’s official sphere of command within CENTCOM. Note also that the Ackerman article linked above clearly places JTF-714 within SOCOM, which is the Unified Command to which McRaven, as head of the Joint Special Operations Command, reports. This accounts for the "special operations" exception to McChrystal’s command within Afghanistan.

But note how this sets up yet another shell game with what the US is doing in Afghanistan. My diary on secret prisons noted how it was most likely that Harward was placed in charge of the prisons we acknowledge, while keeping the secret prisons under the control of special operations, most likely under JTF-714. Now, with Friday’s announcement that McChrystal was clamping down on night raids, the same shell game is playing out. Also from my diary Friday is this quote from Reuters:

U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan will be permitted to carry out raids at night only when there are Afghan security forces present, their commander, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, ordered on Friday.

But, since we know that the worst of the night raids are special operations (also almost certainly by JTF-714, following the playbook McChrsytal wrote when he ran it), McChrystal’s order would not apply to special operations forces answering to SOCOM.

Oh, and lest you get the impression that Harward is somehow in a better place by being in JFCOM rather than SOCOM, I took a look to see who is now commander of JFCOM. It is General James Mattis, who was in the news in 2005, when he uttered these amazing words:

Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who commanded Marine expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq, made the comments Tuesday during a panel discussion in San Diego, California.

"Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot," Mattis said, prompting laughter from some military members in the audience. "It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.

"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil," Mattis said. "You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."

What a poor choice of leaders.

It is also interesting to note in passing that JFCOM is home to the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, which houses the old SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) unit, where trainees were waterboarded as training to resist torture if captured. Note that the crafting of the torture memos relied heavily on claims that practices we used on our own troops in training them could not amount to torture. Is JFCOM using input from JPRA in crafting its prisoner treatment policies in Afghanistan?

In summary, then, McChrystal can "order" that Afghan personnel be present for night raids, but the night raids that cause the most damage are not under his command. Harward can claim no secret prisons exist under his command, but there is a separate command where they are very likely to exist. JTF-714, following the plans McChrystal developed when he ran it, still seems free to operate in its known free-wheeling way, breaking into homes in the dead of night, striking terror into families, and removing citizens who are held secretly and without access to hearings on whether there is sufficient cause to imprison them.

At a later date, it is probably worth some digging to look into that third category not commanded by McChrystal, the "some support troops from other nations". What do they do?

UPDATE: Please see this diary for an explanation from CENTCOM that McChrystal does in fact have command authority over JTF-435.

“Little America” in Afghanistan: Is the US Repeating a Failed 1950′s Experiment in Social Engineering?

9:17 am in Uncategorized by Jim White

Obama and McChrystal
Barack Obama and Stanley McChrystal discussing Afghanistan strategy last May.
From the White House Flickr feed.

Last October, Adam Curtis posted an article on the BBC website that provided a detailed look at the forgotten history of US development efforts in Helmand province. As the NATO offensive heads into its second day there, it is useful to compare the current efforts to what transpired fifty years ago.

Here is how Curtis opens the piece:

When you look at footage of the fighting in Helmand today everyone assumes it is being played out against an ancient background of villages and fields built over the centuries.

This is not true. If you look beyond the soldiers, and into the distance, what you are really seeing are the ruins of one of the biggest technological projects the United States has ever undertaken. Its aim was to use science to try and change the course of history and produce a modern utopia in Afghanistan. The city of Lashkar Gah was built by the Americans as a model planned city, and the hundreds of miles of canals that the Taliban now hide in were constructed by the same company that built the San Francisco Bay Bridge and Cape Canaveral.

As Curtis works his way through the remarkable history, it is clear that the US attempts at development in Afghanistan that began in the 1950′s were doomed from the start, but political forces kept them in operation:

But almost immediately things started to go wrong. In 1949 the first, small diversion dam was built. But it raised the level of the water table in the whole area. And that brought salt to the surface.

The American engineers realised this meant that the whole project probably wouldn’t work. But at that very moment President Truman made a speech promising to give aid to poor countries. It was the start of the Cold War and Truman was going to use development projects and American money to stop countries from becoming communist.

Curtis also provides a photo of a page from the Morrison Knudsen (the engineering firm that built many of the projects) magazine touting "Little America" in Afghanistan.

Curtis describes one of the key players in development of the US plan:

But again all the doubts and worries were overwhelmed because the American technocrats and politicians had become fascinated by a new idea. It was called "Modernization Theory". It said that there was a way of using science and technology not just to stop countries like Afghanistan going communist, but to actually transform them into democratic capitalist societies like America.

Modernization Theory had been invented by an ambitious academic at Harvard called Walt Whitman Rostow. He said that if you put the right technologies in place and educated key elites then the countries would inevitably develop into advanced capitalist societies. They would go through a series of logical stages (there were five) until you got what he modestly called "Rostovian Lift-off".

In the US strategy review that President Obama conducted, how much of this history of Afghanistan was considered? Again yesterday, the New York Times repeated General McChrystal’s claim that:

“We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” General McChrystal said.

Given the previous concerns expressed by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry about the suitability of the Karzai government as a partner, McChrystal’s claim leaves one wondering about the basis of what is in his box:

We underestimate how long it will take to restore or establish civilian government. The proposed strategy assumes that once the clearing and holding process has been accomplished in a given area, the rebuilding and transferring to Afghans can proceed apace, followed by a relatively rapid U.S. withdrawal. In reality, the process of restoring Afghan government is likely to be slow and uneven, no matter how many U.S. and other foreign civilian experts are involved. Many areas need not just security but health care, education, justice, infrastructure, and almost every other basic government function. Many have never had these services at all. Establishing them requires trained and honest Afghan officials to replace our own personnel. That cadre of Afghan civilians does not now exist and would take years to build.

We learn from Reuters that one aspect of the plan for after Marjeh is "cleared" of Taliban depends heavily on social scientists:

U.S. military officials say shooting their way to victory will not lead to peace in Afghanistan, and winning the cooperation of Afghan civilians is their most effective weapon.

Kristin Post, a social scientist working for a Department of Defense "Human Terrain Team," is about 12 km (8 miles) south of Marjah, and she is looking forward to going into the town, alongside a battalion of Marines, and talking to its residents.


Using civilian academics such as anthropologists and conflict resolution students like Post is a key part of the counter-insurgency, or COIN, doctrine behind Washington’s military engagement in Afghanistan.

If this approach sounds familiar, consider this revealing snippet from Curtis, where Rostow pops up again, but this time providing strategy for Vietnam:

By 1965 the Americans were fighting a bitter guerilla war against an unseen enemy, the Vietcong. The Vietcong hid among the thousands of villages in South Vietnam – from which they attacked the Americans. Rostow was convinced that you could use modernization theory to transform the country and defeat the communists.

He was a supporter of an idea called "Strategic Hamlets. The theory was simple – you took all the "good" Vietnamese out of the villages and resettled them in new planned villages which would be protected by the Americans. There the villagers would be educated by psychologists and special cadres to become new "modern" citizens devoted to democracy.

Granted, in this case the US approach is to "clear" the Taliban from Marjeh and then build government there, rather than moving the "good" Afghans to a new population center, but the approach appears to be the same. And the meetings with the population of Marjeh, which Post predicted, already have begun (h/t macaquerman for this link):

Hundreds of Afghan men walked for miles over dusty roads Saturday to hear the Marines explain those angry sounds of war coming from the Taliban stronghold of Marja.

Nearly 400 elders, farmers and tradesmen attended the open-air meeting called by their tribal leaders. In the distance, artillery boomed and Hellfire missiles exploded as the Marine-led assault on Marja entered its first full day.

For the U.S., the meeting was part of a strategy to move quickly from the fighting to the establishment of at least the beginnings of a government that answers to President Hamid Karzai, not the Taliban.

In noting the previous futility of instilling new governments in other countries, David Sanger in the New York Times article linked above notes its repetitive nature (hey, did he read my Groundhog Day post?):

The problem, of course, is that governments-in-a-box that are ready to roll in can also be rolled out — or rolled over. And the most heated arguments that unfolded during the Afghanistan review pitted those who thought that Mr. Karzai’s government needed one more chance to show it could get it right against those who argued that they had been to this movie before, and it always ended the same way.

Only time will tell us if we will see the same, sad ending to the movie or if a "Rostovian Lift-off" can be achieved this time. At the very least, it is my fervent hope that this time political considerations will not be allowed override signs of failure. In that regard, it would be very informative to have a fuller understanding of why Eikenberry is widely reported to have set aside his concerns last December to fall in line behind the present strategy.

Preparing For Surge, US Plays Shell Game With Prisons in Afghanistan

7:23 am in Uncategorized by Jim White

General Stanley McChrystal

The Obama administration is engaged in an attempt to absolve itself of responsibility for illegal detentions in Afghanistan, but its efforts appear to be nothing more than a fairly simple shell game. In an article published yesterday at Truthout, Andy Worthington explains the two basic aspects of the deceit: the US is transferring control of the Bagram prison, which is publicly acknowledged, to the Afghan government while continuing to maintain multiple secret detention sites. Here is Worthington on the transfer issue:

This [new policy for reviewing a prisoner's status] is depressingly close to the "new paradigm" of warfare introduced by Bush and Cheney, and it is, perhaps, no surprise that, as criticisms began to mount, the administration strategically announced that it was in the process of transferring control of Bagram to the Afghan government. It remains to be seen how swiftly the proposed transfer will occur, but it is unsurprising that the announcement has been made, for two reasons: firstly, because it diverts attention from current US policy, and secondly, because, as with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in Iraq, it allows the US government to abdicate all responsibility for the mistakes it has made. Signed in November 2008, the SOFA in Iraq has led to the transfer of thousands of prisoners in US control to the custody of the Iraqi government, even though what awaits them is not a review of whether their detention by US forces was a mistake, but the chaos of the Iraqi judicial system.

The agreement on transfer of control of the Bagram prison was signed on January 9 and could well represent the outcome of a review process first discussed last July:

A sweeping United States military review calls for overhauling the troubled American-run prison here as well as the entire Afghan jail and judicial systems, a reaction to worries that abuses and militant recruiting within the prisons are helping to strengthen the Taliban.

As Worthington points out, transferring control of the publicly acknowledged prison at Bagram is an attempt to deflect responsibility for occurrences at a prison that is known to "strengthen the Taliban". The Times article notes the known issues with prisons already under Afghan control and points to efforts by the US to provide training to improve conditions in the prisons. Given the overall deficiencies known to exist in recruiting and training Afghan defense and police forces, it remains dubious whether any progress has been achieved in training those in charge of Afghan prisons.

In the same article, Worthington presents new evidence that the US maintains secret prisons in Afghanistan (see this diary for a discussion of the recent UN report on secret prisons and this article by Anand Gopal for more):

Late last year, a reliable Afghan source informed a lawyer friend of mine that there were, at the time, about two dozen secret facilities in Afghanistan, including three or four in Herat, four or five in northern Afghanistan, and three or four in Kabul. According to this source, the majority were US facilities, although a few were run by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan government’s domestic intelligence agency, and a few others were run by the Afghan Army. The source added, "They are all worse than Bagram. All contain a mix of combatants, criminals and totally innocent persons. The main difference is that those at the US prisons are fed better. No one has any rights."

In addition, just last week, in response to my recent articles, a military insider let me know that, "Not only were there facilities in Bagram, but in Kandahar and Salerno as well. Saw them firsthand between 2006 and 2009, but was told not to speak of the jails." These, it was noted, were "unsanctioned facilities," which were off-limits to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Back in July, when the New York Times article linked above first came out, I seized on the second paragraph to note that Admiral Michael Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was attempting to inoculate himself against involvement in torture and illegal detention with the statement he put out calling for proper treatment of prisoners. I still think that was the case, and an article this week by Jeremy Scahill provides further information on why we would have the strange situation of a Joint Chiefs Chair attempting to separate himself from actions expected to be undertaken by forces ostensibly under his control. Scahill is writing about recent events in Pakistan, but this passage speaks to the situation in Afghanistan as well:

With General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded JSOC from 2003-2008, running the war, forces–and commanders–accustomed to operating in an unaccountable atmosphere now have unprecedented influence on overall US military operations, opening the door for an expansion of secretive, black operations done with little to no oversight. "The main thing to take away here is a recognition and acceptance of the paradigm shift that has occurred," says the former CENTCOM employee. "Everything is one echelon removed from before: where CIA was the darkest of the dark, now it is JSOC. Therefore, military forces have more leeway to do anything in support of future military objectives. The CIA used to have the ultimate freedom–now that freedom is in JSOC’s hands, and the other elements of the military have been ordered to adapt."

Scahill’s article also speaks to a Bush-era concept of "preparing the battlefield", continued by the Obama administration. Although different from the process Scahill described of sending in covert forces before sending ground forces, the actions with regard to prisons in Afghanistan also qualify as a preparation of the battlefield for McChrystal’s surge in Afghanistan.

The McChrystal/JSOC modus operandi is highly dependent on detaining large numbers of prisoners (see the Gopal article above for the effects on a family that was subjected to a nighttime raid to detain a family member). From the changes that have been announced in advance of the Afghanistan surge, it appears that the new detainees will be split between facilities under Afghan control and the remaining secret prisons under JSOC control, assuring that Mullen’s caution to treat prisoners according to international norms will be ignored.

If the surge does result in a large increase in prisoners to be disappeared into secret JSOC prisons or publicly transferred into poorly run Afghan prisons, then the surge will increase violence rather than decrease it. Avoid the rush and prepare now for a large helping of "who could have expected" when the violence increases.

Does the US Still Maintain Secret Prisons in Afghanistan?

7:38 am in Uncategorized by Jim White

Vice Admiral Robert Harward, from his Navy biography

Yesterday, Vice Admiral Robert Harward, in a conference call with bloggers, responded to a question from Spencer Ackerman about the issue of secret prisons in Afghanistan. Harward has served under General Stanley McChrystal, the current commander of US forces in Afghanistan, for many years and his current position is "command, control, oversight, and responsibility for U.S. detention and correction operations in Afghanistan". Here is Ackerman’s report on Harward’s response:

Harward said unequivocally that “all detainees under my command have access to the International [Committee of the] Red Cross.” The admiral suggested that The Times may have misconstrued “field detention sites” where detainees are initially in-processed for “a very short period” before transfer to detention facilities like the Parwan facility at Bagram, since the locations are undisclosed for operational security reasons.

“There are no black-jail secret prisons,” Harward said. “We do have field detention sites we do not disclose, but they’re held there for very short periods, and then they’re moved — if they’re determined to need additional internment, they’re moved to the detention facility at Parwan or released.”

Taken at face value, Harward’s response would suggest that the US has taken positive actions to put the bad history of secret detention sites behind us. However, given Harward’s personal role in that dark history, closer scrutiny of his response is warranted. Going back to the Harward biography linked above, we see that Harward now has command of Joint Task Force 435, while he most recently served in Joint Task Force 714. This Ackerman article is one of the very few public discussions of both of these task forces and also serves to provide more background on Harward’s association with McChyrstal:

More directly, McRaven and Harward share a professional fraternity with McChrystal. Before McRaven took over JSOC — an entity that operates almost entirely in secret — McChrystal ran it for five years, supervising stealthy teams in Afghanistan and Iraq that tracked down and killed senior terrorists like al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. One of McChrystal’s deputies during that period was Harward, and the bonds between the officers remain strong. “General McChrystal and Vice Admirals McRaven and Harward have established relationships through the special operations community,” said McChrystal’s spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis.


As a result, McChrystal is turning to McRaven and Harward for critical tasks in Afghanistan. McRaven runs a secretive detachment of Special Forces known as Task Force 714 — once commanded by McChrystal himself — that the NSC staffer described as “direct-action” units conducting “high-intensity hits.” In an email, Sholtis said that because Task Force 714 was a “special ops organization” he “can’t go into much detail on authorities, etc.” But the NSC staffer — who called McRaven “McChrystal Squared” — said Task Force 714 was organized into “small groups of Rangers going wherever the hell they want to go” in Afghanistan and operating under legal authority granted at the end of the Bush administration that President Obama has not revoked.

Given McChrystal’s history with Camp Nama, it is not too big a stretch to presume that the secret prison operations also have been conducted under Task Force 714 along with the operations Ackerman described. Since Harward now commands Task Force 435, the "under my command" part of Harward’s response becomes interesting. Are only the publicly acknowledged prisons under Harward’s command in JTF 435, with secret ones still under McRaven’s ("McChrystal Squared") control in JTF 714? It would be very informative to hear McRaven’s response to the same question posed to Harward.

The latter part of Harward’s response is equally troubling. He suggests that this article in the New York Times discussing a secret prison in Afghanistan has conflated temporary field holding facilities with secret detention sites. Although the Times article is indeed murky on this issue, a report released this week by the UN (see this press release for links to the full report and its executive summary) provides extensive documentation for multiple secret detention sites in Afghanistan and clearly distinguishes temporary holding sites from them:

Outside of the specific “high-value detainee” programme, most detainees were held in a variety of prisons in Afghanistan. Three of these are well-known: a secret prison within Bagram airbase, reportedly identified as “The Hangar” ; and two secret prisons near Kabul, known as the “Dark Prison” and the “Salt Pit.”


The Experts heard allegations about three lesser-known prisons including a prison in the Panjshir valley, north of Kabul, and two other prisons identified as Rissat and Rissat 2, but it was not yet possible to verify these allegations.

The key question now becomes whether the sites documented by the UN are still in operation. Note that the UN report has parsed President Obama’s Executive Order calling for closure of black sites (and closure of Guantanamo) and does not like what was found,while also putting to rest the conflation of temporary sites (CIA in this case, though) with secret prisons:

The Experts welcome these commitments. They believe however that clarification is required as to whether detainees were held in CIA “black sites” in Iraq and Afghanistan or elsewhere when President Obama took office, and, if so, what happened to the detainees who were held at that time. Also, the Experts are concerned that the Executive Order which instructed the CIA “to close any detention facilities that it currently operates” does not extend to the facilities where the CIA detains individuals on “a short-term transitory basis”. The Order also does not seem to extend to detention facilities operated by the Joint Special Operation Command.

So, the UN working group notes that JSOC operations appear to have been left out of Obama’s executive order purporting to end the use of secret prisons. Everything now hinges on the credibility of Harward’s flat statement "There are no black-jail secret prisons". Such a statement would carry much more credibility if it were accompanied by an admission of those sites which were previously used and documentation that all prisoners held there have been accounted for in shutting the prisons down. For now, the attempt to deflect attention to the temporary holding sites seems to put Harward on shaky ground, leaving open the distinct possibility of secret prisons still in operation, but not directly under his command.