With Labor’s budget doubling Australia’s expenditure on Afghanistan, it seems pertinent to look at where that war might be heading, especially since Obama’s appointment of General Stanley McChrystal to oversee the conflict clearly signals a new direction.

So what does McChrystal bring to the table? Both Bob Woodward and Sy Hersh have spoken of a secret assassination program accompanying the “surge” in Iraq, a program that achieved remarkable success in killing insurgent leaders. The strategy was theorised by the Australian soldier and academic David Kilcullen, based upon the Vietnam-era Phoenix Program, but McChrystal was the guy actually in charge.

As Tom Hayden explains, the Special Ops units under his command “served as judge, jury and executioner in hundreds of extrajudicial killings […] with the targeted victims […] from broad categories such as ‘the Sunni insurgency’ and “renegade Shiite militias” or other ‘extremists.’ [T]he operation was kept secret from the American public, media and perhaps even the US Congress.”

In the New Yorker, George Packer thus concludes: “McChrystal’s background makes him an expert in a counterinsurgency strategy that focuses on eliminating high-level targets”.

In other words, in Afghanistan, we’re likely to see an intensification of the assassination program that Australian SAS units have already been conducting. The implications are enormous. In a report for the ABC in 2008, Rafael Epstein noted that the SAS’s activities raised both ethical and legal issues. “It’s legal to strike at an enemy’s chain of command,” Epstein mused, “but what happens in a society like Afghanistan, where there’s a blurred boundary between political and military leadership?”

The history of Phoenix, which notoriously descended into a carnival of atrocity, provides one answer.

But there’s another historical parallel worth noting, since it relates directly to McChyrstal’s appointment. The destruction of insurgent infrastructure depends on acquiring intelligence quickly, usually from the interrogation of suspects. That’s why, as Michael Otterman notes in American Torture, the CIA’s assassinations in Vietnam relied on information obtained via torture — so much so that many of the techniques discussed in the Bush administration’s “torture memos” (sleep deprivation, stress positions, etc) were first perfected by South Vietnamese interrogators working for Phoenix.

It is not, then, entirely coincidental that McChyrstal, responsible for Special Ops assassins, was also in charge of the notorious Task Force 6-26, which tortured detainees at a place called Camp Nama from 2003 to 2006. Esquire has a lengthy account of what went on there.

[T]wo Iraqi men died following encounters with Navy Seals from Task Force 121 — one at Abu Ghraib and one in Mosul — and an official investigation by a retired Army colonel named Stuart Herrington, first reported in The Washington Post, found evidence of widespread beatings. “Everyone knows about it,” one Task Force officer told Herrington. Six months later, two FBI agents raised concerns about suspicious burn marks and other signs of harsh treatment. Then the head of the Defence Intelligence Agency reported that his men had seen evidence of prisoners with burn marks and bruises and once saw a Task Force member “punch [the] prisoner in the face to the point the individual needed medical attention.” […]

During his first six or seven weeks at the camp, [one interrogator] conducted or participated in about fifteen harsh interrogations, most involving the use of ice water to induce hypothermia. By his reckoning, at least half of the prisoners were innocent, just random Iraqis who got picked up for one reason or another. Sometimes the evidence against them was so slight, [he] would go into the interrogation without even knowing their names.

As Tom Hayden says, McChyrstal’s appointment thus suggests that the war is about to get even dirtier.

What’s more, the remarkable rehabilitation of the Phoenix Program isn’t the only echo of Vietnam in recent events. The thing about secret counterinsurgency programs is that they make escalation much easier for politicians, since their missions are always deniable. Thus Judah Grunstein notes about McChyrstal: “[A[ll the indications are that his appointment signals a “wink wink, hush hush” acknowledgement that the “Afghanistan” War is about to be expanded into its de facto, as opposed to its de jure, battlefield — and that the lion’s share will take place below the visible tip of the iceberg.”

Afghanistan’s already become more expensive for the US than Iraq. Australia’s budgeted increase in the war might yet prove the first down payment on a much larger investment.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey