Today The Guardian has released an hour-long documentary and article investigating the role of U.S. counterinsurgency advisers and top military and government officials in training and supervising the Special Police Commandos and paramilitary units responsible for acts of torture and sectarian violence during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Since early 2005 it was clear that the “Salvador Option” in Iraq would mean the imposition of terror against the Sunni civilian population by majority Shiite police forces and paramilitaries coordinated by the Ministry of the Interior, sparking the explosive civil conflict which wracked the country in the following years. Brutal tactics including torture and government death squads have been central to U.S. supported counter-insurgency campaigns from Vietnam to Central America and the Middle East, as personified by retired U.S. military officer James Steele, a veteran adviser of the Salvadoran military during the 1980s and a high-level civilian “consultant” to the U.S. occupation and Iraqi security forces.
In my undergraduate research at the time, I elaborated on the functional similarities between the Iraqi and Salvadoran death squads and special forces, and detailed the human rights violations which these repressive structures committed. I also highlighted the policy of official denial and obfuscation with which the U.S. government responded to allegations of human rights violations in El Salvador during the 1980s.
The Guardian’s report makes clear that despite their denials, U.S. government officials and military commanders were intimately involved with the strategic decision to bolster sectarian militias and aware of the abuses committed by the Iraqi security forces, even ordering U.S. troops to ignore acts of torture and mistreatment of detainees, in contravention of international humanitarian law. For this information we must thank courageous U.S. military and Iraqi whistle-blowers, especially Chelsea Manning, who has taken responsibility for the release to Wikileaks of the classified logs which expose the extent of the reported abuse of detainees, as well as the memos which reveal Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s close supervision of adviser James Steele’s work with the Iraqi security forces.
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This report is especially timely as U.S. Special Forces have been accused of committing disappearances and other abuses in Afghanistan, and as El Salvador faces the possibility of future trials for human rights violations committed during the armed conflict following the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ ruling that the country’s amnesty law cannot block the investigation of atrocities such as the 1981 El Mozote massacre, committed by an elite U.S.-trained battalion. The Guardian’s investigation also highlights the impunity enjoyed by U.S. government and military officials for their roles in masterminding the implementation of brutal counterinsurgency policies which have led directly to acts including ethnic cleansing in Iraq and genocide in Guatemala.