January 20, 2006
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, or so the saying goes. Unfortunately it seems that even those who did learn from history are hell-bent on doing the same thing, most likely because they learned something different. As various news reports come out about Shiite death squads operating within Iraqi police forces — which are being trained by U.S. soldiers — one can’t help but wonder if it’s a throwback to American policies in Latin America in the 1980s.
While it may be tempting to write off such claims as fabrications, dismissing them requires ignoring a fair amount of evidence. When viewed in total, several pieces of circumstantial evidence raise very disturbing questions about exactly what is going on in Iraq, and exactly how our government is involved with it.
To begin with, in January 2005 there were news reports that the Pentagon was debating a top-secret strategy dating to the Reagan administration, named by many news reports as the "Salvadoran Option." Newsweek reported that under one Pentagon proposal, U.S. Special Forces teams would train Iraqi squads, likely composed of Kurdish fighters and Shiite militiamen, "to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers." Obviously there was no explicit mention of assassination or other illegal activities in the report, but a short look at the recent history of Latin America makes it difficult not to wonder whether these are part of the plan as well.
In the 1980s paramilitary and military squads were responsible for the extralegal kidnapping and murder of alleged leftist rebels, sympathizers and even their family members in many countries in South and Central America. Despite massive civilian death tolls, many in the American government (and the citizenry for that matter) recognize U.S. support for these paramilitary units as successful.
Following this, one cannot ignore the many people in the Bush administration who, either directly or through very few degrees of separation, have connections to the administrations which supported these policies. Dick Cheney served as secretary of defense under the elder George Bush and was responsible for directing the widely condemned (even by staunch allies such as Augusto Pinochet) invasion of Panama.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also served in the Reagan administration as a special envoy to the Middle East. John Negroponte, well known for his involvement with the funding of the Contras in Nicaragua, served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq starting in 2004 but left the position in February of last year to assume the position of director of national intelligence. With individuals who share the same ideology as the Reagan administration in power now, one must wonder whether they would implement the same strategies as those used in the 1980s.
The circumstantial evidence does not stop here, however. Not only are those who were once responsible for setting policy in the lower Americas involved in forming current U.S policy in Iraq; those who actually committed atrocities in the Americas may be too. Back in 2004 there was news (not so widely covered by the "liberal" media) that American "security contractors" hired by the Pentagon had recruited retired soldiers from countries like Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Guatemala. The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported in March 2004 that one such company, Blackwater USA, was transporting "a first group of about 60 former commandos, many of who had trained under the military government of Augusto Pinochet," from Santiago to a training camp in North Carolina, later to be taken to Iraq.
The reason? Taking into consideration the Pentagon discussion of the "Salvadoran Option," it’s highly possible that they were recruited because the soldiers from these countries are quite skilled in brutally repressive counterinsurgency tactics, due in part to the training that some received at the School of the Americas, a training facility for Latin American military personnel in Georgia.
Chilean newspapers estimate at least 37 Pinochet-era veterans have gone to Iraq, and one freelance Argentinean journalist, Mario Podesta, claimed to know of at least seven veterans of his country’s last military dictatorship who have left the country for the Middle East as well. It seems that those directly responsible for disappearance, torture and execution of the enemies of brutal dictators in countries like Argentina are finding new employment as mercenaries in Iraq.
Despite all this, I’m sure there are still some especially red-blooded Americans out there willing to dismiss all of this as mere coincidence. Not to worry, however, there is more. Recent news reports have surfaced that Shiite groups operating within the Iraqi police force are responsible for the arrest and detention of many Sunnis. Neither the American nor the Iraqi government denies that this is happening; public statements and news reports excuse it as an unintended consequence of the rush to build up Iraq’s police, however.
The Interior Minister of Iraq faces continuing allegations of condoning torture and using paramilitaries to arrest Sunnis. A former Interior Ministry employee also claims that many of the employees of the Interior Ministry are members of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and have ties to the organization’s armed militia, the Badr Organization (formerly the Badr Brigade), which has been accused of committing politically motivated assassinations.
One who is more trusting of governments than I might be tempted to believe that all of this is simply coincidence. Simply trusting in our government blindly, however, is a fundamentally bad idea; a healthy level of questioning and skepticism with regard to its policies, especially when the stakes are as high as they are in Iraq, is absolutely necessary. While the evidence presented here is not significant enough to draw concrete conclusions, it is significant enough to raise doubts. Given all these facts and allegations, the possibility that the current situation in Iraq is not merely an accident but actual policy must be considered.
Conor Hanlon is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.