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Outsourcing War Crimes 

A privatized military runs wild

SAN DIEGO--It was late fall 2001, and the United States conquest of Afghanistan was nearly complete. A passel of foreign war correspondents milled about the lobby of the Hotel Tajikistan, waiting for the Tajik foreign ministry to issue permission papers we needed to pass the checkpoints between Dushanbe and the Afghan border, so we could go on to cover the siege of Kunduz. I popped into the Soviet-vintage hotel's business center to check my e-mail. That's when I met Jonathan Keith "Jack" Idema, the former Special Forces soldier charged on July 5 along with two other Americans for kidnapping and torturing Afghans as part of an unauthorized, vigilante anti-Taliban operation run out of a private home in Kabul.

"U.S. citizen Jonathan K. Idema has allegedly represented himself as an American government and/or military official," the U.S. military said in a statement. "The public should be aware that Idema does not represent the American government and we do not employ him."

That's their current story, anyway.

Agents of the National Security Directorate, Afghanistan's new intelligence agency, say they found eight starved Afghan detainees--three of them hanging by their feet--in Idema's rented house in central Kabul, along with a few AK-47 rifles and blood-soaked clothes. None of Idema's prisoners were working against the Karzai regime, so the NSD plans to release them. Idema, say officials, was probably hoping to torture his victims into telling him the location of Osama bin Laden so he could collect a $25 million bounty.

Idema was nice at first, chatting me up with jittery intensity as he alternately identified himself as belonging to--or, more accurately, implying identification with--the CIA and U.S. Special Forces. Griping about a Pentagon ban against supplying Northern Alliance forces with medical supplies, Idema slipped me a computer disc containing photos of gruesome wounds that had gone untreated because of the inhumane policy. He asked me to pitch a piece on the subject to my editors at The Village Voice, but with a caveat: "Don't publish those photos before talking to me first." I promised that I wouldn't. "If you do," he added, "you will die in great pain." He went on at length about the special shadowy brotherhood of Green Berets past and present, and described how anyone who crossed them would be marked for death. I would never have broken my pledge, but I didn't need a story that badly. I soon left for Afghanistan; so, eventually, did Idema.

"Kabul is brimming with plainclothes agents and former military types working for private security firms," notes The New York Times. "United States Special Forces troops also move around unhindered in unmarked cars, sometimes looking like Afghans in Afghan clothes and beards, and sometimes more recognizable as Americans, in uniforms, baseball caps and sunglasses." This odd mix of the official and unofficial, public and private, was even more pronounced during November and December 2001.

You'd see them speeding around in SUVs with tinted windows and sipping tea with Afghan warlords and commanders, barrel-chested men in their 30s and 40s with short-cropped hair and accents from the South and Midwest. Ask them who they were or what they were up to and you'd get a broad, insolent grin. "Just visiting," one such goon replied. "Didn't you hear? Afghanistan's open for tourism!" He carried enough guns and ammo to take out a large Colorado high school. Who were these guys?

Most journalists assumed that these non-uniformed soldiers were just what they wanted us to believe: U.S.-government employed covert operatives. Why not? Until the fall of Kabul, the uniformed U.S. military presence in Afghanistan was virtually nil. Burly men with big guns ran the war. Besides, Afghanistan is a dangerous, unpleasant and expensive place to live. No one would put in time there without good reason.

But there was no reliable way to know for certain. Roughly a hundred six-man Special Forces commando units authorized to wear local garb, ignore standard rules of engagement and otherwise apply "unorthodox tactics" worked alongside a new CIA "Special Activities Division" composed of about 150 retired fighters, pilots and specialists. These 800 men, not officially employed by the Pentagon, spearheaded the U.S. war against the Taliban, coordinating air strikes, bribing Northern Alliance warlords, and allegedly supervising the massacre of thousands of Taliban POWs. Afghanistan was America's first fully privatized war.

Jack Idema, reportedly retired from the Special Forces in 1992, fought alongside the Northern Alliance in 2001. He had enough money to buy goods and services at inflated war zone prices, not to mention references in the U.S. military--and a lot of chutzpah. He convinced Afghan cops to help him conduct raids. On three occasions he even got NATO's ISAF peacekeeping force to check buildings for mines and bombs. Admitted a duped NATO spokesman: "ISAF personnel believed that [Idema] was what he purported to be, which was a Special Operations agency and therefore they believed they were providing legitimate support to a legitimate security agency."

Beginning in Afghanistan and now in Iraq, the Bush Administration has assigned jobs previously carried out by the traditional uniformed military to private contractors, covert intelligence officers and retired commandos. The idea is "plausible deniability"; should a character like Idema go too far, the government disavows his crimes as the acts of a renegade. Only Idema and the Pentagon will ever know the truth about his status.

Unprecedented power has been placed in the hands of Soldier of Fortune types, to guys who carry grenades but not IDs and don't even bother to make up phony names. At Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, such men relied upon their anonymity--the prison's commanding general says that they refused to identify themselves to her--to deflect blame for their torture and rape of Iraqi inmates onto such minions as Private Lynndie England. In Kabul, Jack Idema allegedly took advantage of the blurred line between private and public soldiering to run his private war on terror.

You don't need to be a four-star general to see that nameless soldiers in civilian clothes aren't America's ideal ambassadors, or that a lack of accountability invariably leads to confusion and rampant abuse. Considering the Bush Administration's disdain for law and order, maybe that's the point.

Ted Rall is the author of a new book, Generalissimo El Busho: Essays and Cartoons on the Bush Years. Ordering information is available at amazon.com.)

Copyright 2004 Ted Rall

Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate/Ted Rall

Ted Rall online: www.rall.com

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