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US-trained death squads are the dark legacy of the war on terror

September 13, 2021 at 5:38 pm

Plumes of smoke can be seen from the World Trade Center towers in New York City during the 9/11 attacks [Michael Foran/Flickr]

There are relatively few truly world-changing events, but the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Centre in 2001 was one. Regardless of the numerous theories that have surrounded it or the obvious and undisputable fact that revenge has been taken against innocent people directly and indirectly worldwide, it set into motion a series of events which have shaped the world for the past two decades.

Increased securitisation, unprecedented state surveillance and a global shift in how Muslims are perceived are just a few of the results of that fateful day. Around the globe, and particularly in the “third world”, however, those effects have included regime change – not entirely a bad thing for the regimes’ many victims – in Afghanistan and Iraq. This has been deadly.

Washington has also developed its use of unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — which have killed at least 22,000 civilians since 9/11 (and that is a very conservative estimate). Modern weapons and their innocent victims are part of the dark legacy of the “war on terror”.

To this legacy must be added the US-trained militias and death squads which continue to wreak havoc and fuel sectarian conflicts. Those in Iraq provide a classic example. Following the US-led coalition’s invasion in 2003 and the toppling of President Saddam Hussein, there was hope for the state-building process that was promised by Western leaders. An interim government was installed, national institutions started to be reconstructed, and a civilian police force was recruited and trained by British and American advisors.

The Sunni insurgency then spiked across the country, plunging the coalition into a rapidly deteriorating security situation. Instead of combating the insurgents with coalition ground troops, Washington looked back to previous conflicts which embroiled US troops, such as Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, and El Salvador in the 1980s, in which US forces mastered counter-insurgency tactics.

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“Fighting terror with terror” saw the hiring of locals who understood their own terrain and cultural dynamics better than foreigners. They formed militias with America’s full backing. In Iraq, who better to recruit for militias against the Sunni insurgency than Shia Muslims? Having been repressed for decades under Saddam Hussein and brutalised following their attempted uprising (they were encouraged but then abandoned by the US), the Shia finally had their chance for vengeance, ironically with US sponsorship.

They grasped it. Shia from all over Iraq, especially their heartlands in the south, heeded the call to form the Special Police Commandos or “Wolf Brigade”. Officially, this came under the control of the Ministry of the Interior, but in reality it was led by an American “advisor”, Colonel James Steele.

Steele had impressed his superiors in Vietnam, and played a major role in the counter-insurgency in El Salvador by leading the training of death squads and commandos in the Salvadorian military. When he was sent by the Pentagon to Iraq, he was seen as the perfect fit to lead the operation in the use of the same tactics on a new battleground.

What followed was years of raids, extractions, torture, extrajudicial executions and mass killings of Sunnis committed by the Pentagon-backed Special Police Commandos, all done in cooperation and coordination with US forces in Iraq.

Rather than training civil police as per the initial plan, the US and its coalition partners instead helped to widen the sectarian divisions in Iraq by arming, forming and training Shia militias against the Sunnis. That support was revived a decade later in 2014, when Shia militias fought against Daesh with the aid of the international coalition.

Yet more irony is that Washington’s counter-insurgency strategy only aided the emergence of the Shias’ own insurgency against coalition forces in the 2000s and again following the territorial defeat of Daesh. Now that such militias continue to attack the US presence and Embassy in Baghdad, added to the militia networks in neighbouring Syria, Washington finally seems to understand the threat posed by its strategy.

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Only two years before the invasion of Iraq, the US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the former Taliban government. Similar tactics were used there, with American forces and advisors enabling and aiding the formation of militias for the infamous Afghani warlords under the Northern Alliance. These US-backed warlords committed numerous atrocities against Taliban prisoners of war and civilians, killing thousands in their revenge campaign across the country.

Following the ousting of the Taliban, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) established the Afghan intelligence agency known as the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The NDS is infamous for its human rights violations and its extrajudicial killing of civilians – many of whom were barely connected with the Taliban – and its 01 Unit was notorious for its night raids and killing of families as well as children studying at religious schools.

Up until the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan last month, the NDS enjoyed the full backing of Washington and its units were reported to be accompanied on operations by US forces and CIA advisors. That partnership continued right up to the hurried evacuations from Kabul Airport in August, in which NDS-controlled sections of the airport saw personnel attempting to secure bribes from evacuees in return for allowing them to leave. They were also reported to have abused evacuees and prevented them from leaving, as evidenced in footage on social media.

That could be one explanation why so many Afghan interpreters for the coalition forces did not get out of the country, whereas NDS operatives were reportedly airlifted out by the US.

The US strategy against insurgencies in the countries it invaded, the forming and training of what were effectively death squads to eliminate dissent with great brutality, remains one of the darkest legacies of the “war on terror”. Not only did it fail to work in the long-term – just look at the Taliban comeback, for example, and America’s defeat in Vietnam – but it also provided the perfect breeding ground for what could be years of sustained sectarian violence and the emergence of new enemies for Washington to consider.

Twenty years ago, the US and its coalition partners planted seeds in their global “war on terror”. The fruit looks set to haunt them for decades to come.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.