Is the U.S. fine-tuning the sectarian violence in Iraq?

That’s a mind-boggling but logical implication of an amazing anecdote in a Washington Post commentary today written by John Rogers, a captain in the U.S. Army who served in Iraq from June 2006 to September 2007.

Rogers’s piece is an explanation of why he plans to leave the army. One of his reasons is that his “experience with war has left [him] feeling angry, frustrated and mismanaged.” To illustrate this point, he describes the following incident (which he says was not the only one) in which he was “blocked in doing my job in Iraq.”

My mission as a platoon leader was to clean up police corruption and reintegrate the Iraqi police into the security structure of Ghazaliyah, a district in western Baghdad. Over time, my platoon built a relationship of trust with Iraqi policemen, who gave us leads on insurgents. On one patrol, we detained a Sunni whom our battalion’s intelligence officer confirmed as a genuine criminal. This man had threatened local residents, preventing them from participating in a clinic we had restarted.

A search of his home yielded illegal weapons, sniper bullets, insurgent propaganda, gobs of money and lists of Iraqi political and military officials’ addresses. When we learned that he was the leading Sunni insurgent in Ghazaliyah, our platoon felt like world-beaters. Morale surged. Finding this man validated counterinsurgency theory — empowering indigenous forces, patiently letting them take the lead, and collecting intelligence through local and national networks that know the “human terrain” better than foreign armies. It taught my men to be patient with it, and gave them pride.

Moreover, a change came over our counterparts in the Iraqi police. You could see their hope awakening. They began to feel safe in giving us the names of corrupt policemen and police car numbers. We secretly built a case against their leader (which this very newspaper inadvertently exposed in late 2006 when it published the full name of my Iraqi confidante, creating even more stress for my troops.)

So, good grab, right? Wrong. We later had to release the detainee. Somehow the evidence to hold him was lacking — even though he had discussed his role in sectarian violence under questioning by our intelligence officers. At the detention facility, I learned that most of the evidence we had collected against him had never been analyzed. I was told that a high-ranking official (I don’t know whether it was a diplomat or someone from the CIA or the Army) had called the facility, incredulous that the man was being detained. Later, I found out that our detainee was politically well-connected, which supposedly played a role in his release. But we lost credibility with the Iraqi police. And we were ticked off at the waste of our time and our unnecessary exposure to danger.

It’s possible that there was some great rationale for releasing this man. But my men and I will never know why he was really let go. We knew that he was contributing to sectarian violence. Could someone at least tell my men that everything they did counted for something? What did I risk their lives for?

Incredible. A man that Capt. Rogers knew was contributing to sectarian violence was released from detention, apparently on the orders of a high-ranking U.S. official.

The Iraqi people believe that the sectarian violence in their country is instigated exclusively by outside forces. It looks like they may be right.


12 thoughts on “Is the U.S. fine-tuning the sectarian violence in Iraq?”

  1. Should have just put a round in his skull when no one was looking. Now you know better though, don’t you?

  2. Phil E. Drifter thats not how you do things. Shooting him leaves Captain Rogers responsible, and thats not good for him or the army. They did what they were supposed to do. If anyone deserves to be shot, its the “high-ranking U.S. official”.

  3. By the [il]logic used here, could I then assume that when a suspect is detained by police, and later released by a judge, that there must be some sort of micromanagement or “fine-tuning” going on? I think not. In fact, when this situation occurs in democratic, non-military legal systems (as it does constantly), the usual course of thought allows for, and implicates, the “loopholes” which naturally occur in all systems.

    Could an ulterior motive have been responsible for the release of the detainee in this story? It is always possible, but this story provides no factual basis for that theory.

    This article is nothing more than speculative hyperbole, and the last sentence supports that conclusion:

    “The Iraqi people believe that the sectarian violence in their country is instigated exclusively by outside forces. ”

    People “believe” all sorts of things, but beliefs don’t necessarily translate to facts.

  4. Yes, that is amusing, but it has absolutely nothing to do with my comment, which was clearly aimed at the content of the article at the top of this page, and the resulting assumption.

    The aforementioned article poses this question: “Is the U.S. fine-tuning sectarian violence in Iraq?” and then purports to logically answer that question in the affirmative, based on the mysterious experience(s) of a single individual (and untold numbers of anonymous Iraqi citizens, of course). If we tie this story in with your link, could I then assume that the “high-ranking U.S. official” mentioned in this story was probably NOT a general, since they appear to have the same problems as captains? You might like that assumption, but I don’t, because neither I, nor the captain, have any idea who kicked this guy loose, or for what reason. It may have been for political reasons, it may have been for strategic reasons, it may have been a typical bureaucratic screw-up. It could have been a colonel, a general, an intelligence spook, or a Pentagon janitor who emptied the wrong trash can. Either way, you don’t know, the captain doesn’t know, I don’t know, and the author of this piece certainly doesn’t know.

    I’ll restate my point in the simplest possible terms: This article, based on it’s content, as well as the material it links to, fall pitifully short of answering such a huge question.

    Is the U.S. fine-tuning sectarian violence in Iraq? Probably to some degree, would be my guess. Are they the only ones fine-tuning that particular environment to their liking? Probably not, would be another guess. Can I prove either assumption based on facts derived from my experience or the stated experiences of others? No I can not.

    We all assume the worst from governments, and rightfully so. They are predatory monsters by nature, and the bigger they get, the more dangerous and unaccountable they become. No one, least not me, can reasonably dispute that, but when there is evidence of it, I would like much more substantial proof. Vague hearsay I can get from any street corner.

    Unfortunately, you (like EBO) have not provided much of a retort, nor have you provided useful information about the subject. You have merely attempted to draw a parallel between two ambiguous subjects in order to promote your illusion of superiority. Being your illusion, genius, I don’t see it.

  5. I haven’t had that good a retort since I quipped with ex-MI. Unhappily, aside from knowing the strategy, secrecy is the watchword of the day. Still, when a fellow provides an example of a trend for our understanding of the state of morale, saying there are unanswered questions is really missing the point.

  6. Jack, “vague hearsay” is hardly appropriate to describe an anecdote coming from this particular source. In order to make your point, you’re ascribing an absolute minimum of credibility to an Army captain willing to go on the record in the Post, which is something military men, even short-timers, don’t do lightly. He’s not anonymous and his assignment and experience can be verified easily enough by anyone in the military wanting to rebut him or reporters wanting to investigate further, and he knows that.

    We can reasonably conclude that the incident did happen, that the release wasn’t a mistake of any sort, by the janitor or otherwise—because nothing would preclude rearresting the man—and that it was politically motivated.

    You’re right, we don’t know who ordered the man freed. We do know that he was freed from a facility under US control—”we had to release the detainee”; “we lost credibility with the Iraqi police”—which means that whoever was responsible had sufficient clout to order around whoever was in charge of the facility, which means that it was an American who, whether or not he was in uniform, was able to pull rank on the military.

    Your comparison of this situation to ones that occur in “democratic, non-military legal systems” is pointless, since we’re not actually dealing with such a system here in any but the most tenuous sense; instead, we have a corrupt government which owes its existence to, and is obviously dominated by, a massive US troop presence.

    Even if that were not the case, and Iraq had a functioning civilian legal system, in this instance the arrest was made by the US military, which we know for certain is not subject to any procedural loopholes of the kind to which you allude—there are literally tens of thousands of Iraqis at present detained and imprisoned by US forces with no charge and no judicial oversight—and the arrested man was held at a US-controlled facility. The notion that the guy was kicked on a technicality is ludicrous.

    The problem with Eric’s piece isn’t its speculative nature, but rather the degree of surprise he expresses and, perhaps, his use of “fine-tuning”, since US efforts in Iraq seem generally more crude than fine. We have a wealth of non-anecdotal, non-speculative material from which we can conclude that the US does in fact routinely pit one faction against another (and that various Iraqi factions pit the US against one another), as with the now-foundering cooptation of Sunni insurgents to fight the mix of home-grown and imported fanatics constituting al Qaeda in Iraq. Although the conflict between the prime minister’s Shia faction and al Sadr’s hadn’t rekindled at the time Eric wrote, the US also has a thoroughly documented and highly public history of backing Maliki’s Iranian-backed SICI supporters against al Sadr’s nationalist ones, and even of playing off factions internal to the governing majority against one another; consider how Maliki displaced his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jafari, with US support.

    You can make a good argument that the captain doesn’t know why or by whom the release was ordered, since he explicitly says so, but I really don’t see how you can sensibly argue that it wasn’t, at some level, a political act by the US.

  7. Weldon,

    At the risk of furthering what has become an obvious disagreement of context, I respectfully submit my final reply to this discussion. After all, I believe that we can all agree that armed conflicts of any sort are generally least productive for those most affected, and I, as I’m sure do most of you, have other things which hold greater potential for a more rewarding outcome. However, I strongly disagree with your characterization of my opinion regarding the original article in question, and although I disagree on several points, I think I can summarize with one in particular.

    Regarding your point about my “vague hearsay” reference, I submit the following:

    The captain’s anecdote mentions his experience with an unnamed Sunni man, deemed a “criminal” by an unnamed intel officer for unspecified crimes, who was subsequently released on the orders of an unnamed official (from some unknown governmental branch), for an unknown reason. If that doesn’t qualify as vague, I don’t know what does.

    I realize that these sorts of details are vague out of necessity, and wouldn’t expect the captain or anyone else to compromise such an apparently sensitive issue, but just because some details are necessarily secret and cannot be divulged at the risk of some consequence, does not disqualify them from being defined by the adjective in question.

    I also am not questioning the integrity of the officer, whom I do not know (which by definition makes it hearsay – to me at least), I have merely expressed my intent to withhold an opinion due to the vagueness inherent to the story, and have suggested that others, for matters of clarity of reason, do the same.

    I appreciate your obvious familiarity with details of the larger issue(s); I just think this particular reference to those issues is flat.

    I sincerely wish all of you the very best, and have enjoyed (some) of the comments on this otherwise important and relevant blog.

Comments are closed.