Trained Killers, from the Americas to Afghanistan

In 2005 it was a common to find bodies of Iraqi men, bound and shot execution style on the streets of Baghdad
In 2005 it was a common to find bodies of Iraqi men, bound and shot execution style on the streets of Baghdad

For most Americans the death squads and torture chambers that killed thousands in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua in the 1980’s are difficult to understand and easy to forget because, aside for an apology by President Bill Clinton in 1999 – the United States has never fully acknowledged nor taken responsibility for its role in them.

So, aside from some outstanding reporting by American and foreign journalists to the contrary, the mainstream has treated this dark period of U.S foreign policy as a sidebar story, and continues to do so until this day. What do the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have to do with any of this? Well, it’s simple. Since we’ve never really learned from our history, as they say, it was doomed to repeat. In fact, as we transition out of Afghanistan as a conventional military force, myriad reports suggest the CIA will continue to train and support local militias and paramilitary "counterterrorist" teams, embedded no doubt with U.S Special Operations Forces, long after we’re allegedly gone.

These are the same Afghan paramilitary teams and militias – as we’ve reported in this space time and again – that have been blamed by local Afghans for torture, rape, thievery, corruption and murder.

While it might seem like a wholly separate story, we can posit that recent headlines in which Afghan President Hamid Karzai is demanding that U.S Special Operations Forces get out of Wardak province is all of a piece with American military activities dating back not only to the Iraq War, but in places like El Salvador, where U.S military-funded and trained commandos representing the rightwing government were accused in the 1980s of forming "death squads," killing and torturing tens of thousands of people during that country’s bloody civil war.

Col. James Steele in Iraq Credit: The Guardian
Col. James Steele in Iraq Credit: The Guardian

Thanks to stunning revelations this month published by The Guardian newspaper, we know now a key U.S military officer with ties to those "clandestine paramilitary units" in El Salvador – Colonel James Steele – was a key yet albeit shadowy figure behind the training of the Shia militias accused of engaging in the very same extrajudicial activities in Iraq, including the disappearance of thousands of Iraqi men at the beginning of the war into detention centers that were nothing more than secret interrogation and torture chambers run with the funding and assistance of the U.S military.

"These units conducted some of the worst acts of torture during the US occupation and accelerated the country’s descent into full-scale civil war," wrote the article’s authors. The story, aided and inspired by the 2010 Wikileaks release of thousands of U.S documents known as the "Iraq War Logs," which told the story of how our military was knowingly turning over Sunni men to Iraqi commandos to be tortured, also revealed that Steele’s partner in Iraq, now-retired Col. James Coffman, reported directly to Gen. David Petraeus, who at the time was in charge of setting up Iraq’s new security forces. Coffman, described as Petraeus’s “eyes and ears,” and Steele, a civilian at the time who reported directly to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were both placed by witnesses on site at the U.S-funded detention centers in question. These witnesses, who spoke on camera for The Guardian, said it would have been virtually impossible for Steele or any other U.S official visiting there at the time not to know what was going on.

“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,” Iraqi General Muntadher al-Samari, who worked with both men in 2004, told The Guardian.

According to an explosive 51-minute documentary produced by The Guardian in conjunction with its March 6 story, the Iraqi commandos were 5,000 strong at their peak in 2006. At the same time, some 3,000 bodies a month were turning up on Iraqi streets. The U.S government has never acknowledged – and in fact has denied – that the commandos it trained were responsible for death squads and torture activities.

Instead, Gen. Petraeus, who was later credited for leading the "Surge" that ended the civil war and began the long-anticipated American exit, and Gen. Stanley "man hunter" McChrystal, once head of the vaunted JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) accused of overseeing its own secret interrogation centers in Iraq, were hailed as heroes and both went on to command the U.S war in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, about the same time the commandos under Steele and Coffman were being trained, Major Gen. Geoffrey Miller was brought in from Guantanamo Bay to set up the prison at Abu Ghraib. He has been accused of bringing with him from Gitmo the interrogation and torture techniques later exposed in the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal. In fact, a Senate Armed Services Committee investigation into detention practices in 2008 explicitly said:

…Senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees…. the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.

Abu Ghraib
Abu Ghraib

Suddenly the excuse that it was a "few bad apples," or as Rush Limbaugh so revealingly called it in 2004, just soldiers "blowing off some steam," seemed painfully misplaced. But like the others, Miller was never officially held accountable, and was even honored with a Distinguished Service Medal after his 2006 retirement from the Army. And the senate committee report, like all the others, provided very little resistance to the wave of propaganda supporting the gelling Surge myth and the recalibration of "victory" in Iraq.

On the other hand, Pvt. Bradley Manning, who admitted to downloading and turning over what became the Iraqi War Logs in part because he personally witnessed Iraqis turned over to torturers in Iraq, is awaiting a court martial and could be sentenced to life in prison.

Yet the legacy lives on beyond the white wash. According to a report March 14, 16,000 Iraqi war prisoners still remain unaccounted for 10 years after the start of the 2003 invasion. That number may be much higher considering that not all missing persons had ever been reported by their families to begin with.

And the violence in Iraq continues, too, as reported daily in these pages, a shameful outgrowth of the sectarian war that left the Shia Muslims – led by U.S-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – in command of an increasingly authoritarian state stacked hard against their former oppressors, the Sunni Muslims. To make matters more unseemly, it turns out that the CIA is still in Iraq training the elite Iraqi special operations forces created by the U.S military, likely the same elite soldiers that writer Shane Bauer – yes, that Shane Bauer – documented in his excellent 2009 report, "Iraq’s New Death Squad" for The Nation magazine. In it, he refers not to Steele or Miller, but to Maj. General Simeon G. Trombitas, "commander of the Iraq National Counter-Terror Force Transition Team, part of the multinational command responsible for turning control of the ISOF (Iraq Special Operations Forces) over to the Iraqi government."

Those forces, once allowed to operate on their own in places like Sadr City during “the Surge” in 2008, Bauer wrote, were accused "of human rights abuses, killings and politically motivated arrests." It was not clear how much the Americans knew, he said, or tacitly approved. But as history tells us today, much of “the Surge” success can be attributed to the sectarian cleansing of the Sunni in Baghdad and the put down of the opposition in Sadr City at that time.

Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller in Iraq
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller in Iraq

More from Bauer:

A towering man with a gray mustache and a wrinkled brow, Trombitas spent nearly seven of his over thirty years in the military training special forces in Colombia, El Salvador and other countries. On February 23 he gave me a tour of Area IV, a joint American-Iraqi base near the Baghdad International Airport, where US Special Forces train the ISOF. As we walk away from the helicopter, he cracks a boyish smile. Though he’s worked with special forces all over the world, he tells me the men we are about to meet are “the best.” …

…Trombitas told the official blog of the Defense Department that the training missions used in Latin America are “extremely transferable” to Iraq. Salvadoran Special Forces even helped train the ISOF, he tells me. “It’s a world of coalitions,” he says. “The longer we work together, the more alike we are. When we share our values and our experiences with other armies, we make them the same.”

According to a Wall Street Journal report last week, President Barack Obama signed several secret orders in 2010 and 2011 that effectively transferred support for the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) from U.S Special Forces to the CIA after the White House could not come to an agreement allowing the U.S military to stay in Iraq after 2011. Furthermore, WSJ reports, Obama has now directed the CIA to increase its cooperation and support of these state militias, which report directly to al Maliki and have been blamed for – you guessed it – "torturing detainees with impunity" at secret detention facilities in Baghdad, according to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report.

This was affirmed more recently by an Amnesty International paper, "Iraq: A Decade of Abuses," released March 11, which said, "ten years after the US-led invasion that toppled the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains enmeshed in a grim cycle of human rights abuses, including attacks on civilians, torture of detainees and unfair trials."

Put it all together, and it appears the U.S government has in some way, been linked to death squads and torture chambers from the beginning and through each stage of the war.

"These recent revelations illustrate the law of unintended consequences, as one American foreign policy mistake inevitability leads us into more and more mistakes," said Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, in an email to Antiwar.

"You win a fight against an idea –  Islamic extremism – with a better idea, not by stooping to work with thugs and villains. This will end badly."

Now turn to Afghanistan. While Maj. Gen. Trombitas might have gone on to command U.S Army South, we know McChrystal and Petreaus both took over U.S and ISAF commands in Afghanistan. Calling it a "community watch with AK-47s," the Afghan Local Police (ALP), now some 19,600 strong, was a Petraeus-inspired project, completely funded and trained by U.S Special Operations Forces (SOF). A "prized defense program," the ALP were designed to supplement government security forces, particularly after American troops finally withdraw from the country.

We know from various reports this has not gone so well – though the Pentagon has just pledged $1.2 billion to extend the life of these "rural police" for at least five more years. Just recently, President Hamid Karzai has demanded the removal of SOF who are training and working with Afghan Local Police in Wardak province. According to a March 10 report by Gareth Porter and Shah Noori at the Inter Press Service, the local population in Wardak has been "terrorized" by armed Afghans thought to be connected to SOF there. A joint U.S-Afghan investigation is allegedly looking into claims of abuses, including night raids in which locals have been whisked away from their homes. According to Porter and Noori, it’s not clear whether these armed Afghans are part of the ALP, special units formed by the CIA or another U.S-sponsored outfit.

As of this writing, the SOF are still in Wardak, prompting protests over the weekend. Karzai has also made claims about CIA-linked paramilitaries kidnapping and interrogating a university student in Kabul. Sound crazy? Well, it turns out there are thousands of CIA-trained commandos operating under what’s called the Counterterrorist Pursuit Team and they’ve been around since the CIA landed in Afghanistan in 2002. They are modeled after American elite forces, and some of them have been trained in the U.S, according to reports.

Rather than disbanding or operating on their own after 2014, however, it turns out all of these Afghan paramilitary organizations – as well as members of our own SOF – may just coalesce under the CIA’s cover once it’s clear that U.S combat troops can no longer stay in the country under current immunity status.

If we were paying attention, we would have known a year ago that this was likely in the works. According to Kimberly Dozier for The Associated Press in March 2012:

If the plan were adopted, the U.S. and Afghanistan could say there are no more U.S. troops on the ground in the war-torn country because once the SEALs, Rangers and other elite units are assigned to CIA control, even temporarily, they become spies.

No matter who’s in charge, the special operations units still would target militants on joint raids with Afghans and keep training Afghan forces to do the job on their own.

… Pentagon spokesman George Little denied the idea is being discussed.

Washington Post writer Greg Jaffe, pretty much confirmed the emerging scheme in February 2012:

The CIA is expected to maintain a large clandestine presence in Iraq and Afghanistan long after the departure of conventional U.S. troops as part of a plan by the Obama administration to rely on a combination of spies and Special Operations forces to protect U.S. interests in the two longtime war zones,

U.S. officials said that the CIA’s stations in Kabul and Baghdad will probably remain the agency’s largest overseas outposts for years …

In Afghanistan, the CIA is expected to have a more aggressively operational role. U.S. officials said the agency’s paramilitary capabilities are seen as tools for keeping the Taliban off balance, protecting the government in Kabul and preserving access to Afghan airstrips that enable armed CIA drones to hunt al-Qaeda remnants in Pakistan.

"If, as I expect, Afghanistan also refuses to grant immunity to US forces remaining after the scheduled NATO withdrawal at the end of next year, look for all of the Special Operations trained militias (known in Afghanistan as the Afghan Local Police) to also come under CIA control along with the current force under CIA control," wrote Jim White for, on March 12.

"Who needs a SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with immunity for US troops when we have the CIA?"

If this is the "light footprint" that everyone is buzzing about – we should want nothing to do with it. How we can think that just because our presence is "clandestine" that our bloody mark won’t be recognized, and revenged upon sometime, somewhere down the line? Or that our zombies won’t come back to bite us?

Not that we couldn’t see this coming down Highway 1. When all of our past misdeeds – from El Salvador to Iraq – become mere footnotes and fodder for well-meaning but often marginalized journalists and human rights activists outside the mainstream, there is no incentive for our military to reverse course. Torture and extrajudicial justice became convenient to our interests — institutionalized even — whether the military admits to being directly involved or not. Why not go with what works?

Certainly James Steele, the star of The Guardian’s 51-minute documentary on the torture chamber horrors in Iraq, has been unharmed by it all. Click onto his bio on the Premiere Speakers Bureau website. It calls Steele a motivational speaker, and quotes a deputy secretary of defense referring to his "incredible bravery and also incredible expertise about police forces in third world countries," and characterizes his work with the Iraqi police as "heroic."

Some group will pay him thousands of dollars to talk about it. And unfortunately for the rest of us, that’s all they will want to hear.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.