Revolution #166, May 31, 2009

New U.S. General in Afghanistan: A Background of Torture, Assassinations, and Lies

On May 12, Barack Obama’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, announced that the commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, was going to be ousted from his position and replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. This is a major move, taking place at a time when Obama is sending 21,000 more troops into Afghanistan to add to the 38,000 already there. (See “Afghanistan: Air Strikes, Civilian Deaths and U.S. War OF Terror” in this issue of Revolution.)

So who is this new general heading up the U.S. occupation forces in Afghanistan? A 1976 graduate from West Point, McChrystal has been a long-time high-level commander of “special operation” forces (like the Green Berets, Rangers, etc.) that carry out targeted killings and other “unconventional” missions. A 2006 Newsweek magazine article said McChrystal “is not someone the Army likes to talk about. He isn't even listed in the directory at Fort Bragg, N.C., his home base… he runs the most secretive force in the U.S. military.” At the time, McChrystal headed up Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an “elite” unit whose existence the Pentagon refused to even acknowledge. The Newsweek article described JSOC as “part of what Vice President Dick Cheney was referring to when he said America would have to ‘work the dark side’ after 9/11. To many critics, the veep's remark back in 2001 fostered his rep as the Darth Vader of the war on terror and presaged bad things to come, like the interrogation abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.” (“The Military: The Hidden General Exposed,” Newsweek, June 26, 2006)

Much of what McChrystal has done as “special operations” commander remain hidden from view. But some things have come out.

Overseeing Torture at Camp Nama, Iraq

In the summer of 2006, Human Rights Watch issued a report about torture of detainees at three American military facilities in Iraq (“No blood, no foul,” July 22, 2006). One of them was Camp Nama, at the Baghdad International Airport, which was operated by the Joint Special Operations Command—under the direction of McChrystal (who was then a Major General). The “interrogators” at this torture camp were members of a special military-CIA task force known at various times as Task Force 20, Task Force 121, Task Force 6-26, and Task Force 145.

An American sergeant, known by the alias “Jeff,” was an interrogator at Camp Nama in 2004. He told Human Rights Watch about one typical case of torture at the camp: “He was stripped naked, put in the mud and sprayed with the hose, with very cold hoses, in February. At night it was very cold. They sprayed the cold hose and he was completely naked in the mud, you know, and everything. [Then] he was taken out of the mud and put next to an air conditioner. It was extremely cold, freezing, and he was put back in the mud and sprayed.

“This happened all night. Everybody knew about it. People walked in, the sergeant major and so forth, everybody knew what was going on, and I was just one of them, kind of walking back and forth seeing [that] this is how they do things.”

Interrogators like Jeff filled out an "authorization" form detailing what particular torture they used on prisoners—indicating, as Human Rights Watch noted, “that the use of these tactics was approved up the chain of command.”

From the Human Rights Watch report: "Jeff said that he did see Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. Joint Special Operations forces in Iraq, visiting the Nama facility on several occasions. 'I saw him a couple of times. I know what he looks like.'"

“Jeff also said that the commanding officer at Nama would sometimes tell the interrogators that the White House or Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had been briefed on intelligence gathered by the team, especially intelligence about Zarqawi:

“[They'd say:] ‘Rumsfeld was informed, such and such a report is on Rumsfeld's desk this morning, read by Secdef [Secretary of Defense]’…it's a big morale booster for people working 14 hour days. Hey, we got to the White House!'"

Jeff told Human Rights Watch that someone asked the colonel directly in charge of Camp Nama whether the International Red Cross or some other agency would be coming to the prison to observe, as required by international law. Human Rights Watch reported, “Jeff explained that the colonel told them that he ‘had this directly from General McChrystal and the Pentagon that there's no way that the Red Cross could get in.’ Jeff did not question the colonel further on how these assurances were given to those in command in Camp Nama. He explained that they were told: ‘they just don't have access, and they won't have access, and they never will. This facility was completely closed off to anybody investigating. Even Army investigators.’”

A New York Times article on Camp Nama, appearing several months before the release of the Human Rights Watch report, also revealed some of what was going on there: “American soldiers made one of the former Iraqi government's torture chambers into their own interrogation cell. They named it the Black Room. In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball.” (“In Secret Unit’s ‘Black Room,’ a Grim Portrait of U.S. Abuse,” March 19, 2006)

The Times noted, “Placards posted by soldiers at the detention area advised, ‘NO BLOOD, NO FOUL.’ The slogan, as one Defense Department official explained, reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: ‘If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it.’ According to Pentagon specialists who worked with the unit, prisoners at Camp Nama often disappeared into a detention black hole, barred from access to lawyers or relatives, and confined for weeks without charges.”

Heading Up an Assassination Unit

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has been looking into JSOC’s activities as an assassination squad. In a recent interview with Gulf News (based in the United Arab Emirates), Hersh said about what JSOC was doing during the Bush years: “There's a special unit that does high-value targeting of men that we believe are known to be involved in anti-American activities, or are believed to be planning such activities.

“In Cheney's view this isn't murder, but carrying out the ‘war on terror.’ And in the view of me and my friends, including people in government, this is crazy. The vice president is committing a crime. You can't authorise the murder of people. And it's not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's in a lot of other countries, in the Middle East and in South Asia and North Africa and even Central America.

“In the early days, many of the names were cleared through Cheney's office. One of his aides, John Hanna, went on TV and acknowledged that the programme exists, and said killing these people is not murder but an act of war that is justified legally.” (“You can’t authorize murder: Hersh,” May 12, 2009,

Speaking at University of Minnesota on May 11, Hersh said the JSOC was essentially “an executive assassination wing.” And as Hersh noted, Stanley McChrystal, who as head of JSOC worked closely with Cheney, has just been named the commander in chief of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

The U.S. special operations forces have carried out many of the raids and bombings of villages in Afghanistan—in the name of going after Taliban leaders and fighters—that have resulted in massacres of civilians and destruction of homes. Investigative reporter Gareth Porter points out, “Many of the airstrikes and commando raids that have caused large-scale civilian deaths have involved Special Operations forces operating separately from the NATO command. Special Operations forces under McChrystal’s command also engaged in raiding homes in search of Taliban suspects, angering villagers in Herat province to the point where they took up arms against the U.S. forces, according to a May 2007 story by Carlotta Gall and David E. Sanger of the New York Times.” (“McChrystal Choice Suggests Special Ops Strikes to Continue,” May 12, 2009, Inter-Press Service)


People who think that Obama is waging a “good war” in Afghanistan need to ask themselves: What does it mean when this president appoints the former head of the murderous “special operations” forces—responsible for torture, assassinations, and massacres of civilians—as the overall commander of this war?

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