The deal on coercive interrogation

Joe Gandelman, of course, has his usual excellent round-up of media and blogospheric commentary on the compromise that’s apparently been cut on the legislation making its way through the Congress on the detention and treatment of prisoners. Go over and take a look at it. Here’s how the Washington Post characterizes the deal:

THE GOOD NEWS about the agreement reached yesterday between the Bush administration and Republican senators on the detention, interrogation and trial of accused terrorists is that Congress will not — as President Bush had demanded — pass legislation that formally reinterprets U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Nor will the Senate explicitly endorse the administration’s use of interrogation techniques that most of the world regards as cruel and inhumane, if not as outright torture. Trials of accused terrorists will be fairer than the commission system outlawed in June by the Supreme Court.

The bad news is that Mr. Bush, as he made clear yesterday, intends to continue using the CIA to secretly detain and abuse certain terrorist suspects. He will do so by issuing his own interpretation of the Geneva Conventions in an executive order and by relying on questionable Justice Department opinions that authorize such practices as exposing prisoners to hypothermia and prolonged sleep deprivation. Under the compromise agreed to yesterday, Congress would recognize his authority to take these steps and prevent prisoners from appealing them to U.S. courts. The bill would also immunize CIA personnel from prosecution for all but the most serious abuses and protect those who in the past violated U.S. law against war crimes.

I have little to add to everything that’s already been said. I’m against torture; I don’t think it’s quite as outrageous as some do to ask for a definition of what torture is. Nor do I think that it’s outrageous to insist that the Congress become more than critics (or cheerleaders) of what the country’s policies and values are.

The one comment I wanted to make was on risk-taking. I don’t believe that the Administration has done what it has done because of sadism or malignity. The idea that anybody has actionable intelligence after having been held in detention for years is absurd. It’s been my take that prisoners have been stuck in detention in Guantanamo because the Administration didn’t know what else to do with them. They didn’t want to take the heat for executing them nor did they want to take the heat for releasing terrorists. So they just left them in Guantanamo in the hope that it would all blow over.

I don’t know whether it’s Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney or who it is but it certainly appears to me that there are some high-stakes gamblers in this administration. From the invasion of Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq to the detention and treatment of prisoners presumed to be terrorists they’ve taken a series of high-risk/high-reward gambles.

The invasion of Afghanistan is a gamble which IMO paid off. Providing logistics and air support for the Northern Alliance enabled us to oust the Taliban (the achievable goal) with relatively few losses, maintaining political support for the action. We didn’t apprehend Osama bin Laden (the unachievable goal).

Has the gamble for Iraq paid off? It’s certainly looking shaky now. The removal of the Saddam Hussein government and, ultimately, the apprehension of Saddam Hussein proceeded with remarkable speed and precious few American deaths. That part paid off. That Iraqis would seize the bull by the horns and create a decent society for themselves hasn’t paid off at least not yet.

It looks to me as though the gambles with respect to prisoners has backfired.

7 comments… add one
  • I agree with most of what you say here, but have some minor disagreements…First, The invasion of Afghanistan is a gamble which IMO paid off. Providing logistics and air support for the Northern Alliance enabled us to oust the Taliban (the achievable goal) with relatively few losses, maintaining political support for the action. We didn’t apprehend Osama bin Laden (the unachievable goal).

    I agree that the achieved the objective of toppling the Taliban as described, but you forgot to mention the other gamble the administration made when they chose to go to Iraq. Mainly, they left Afghanistan to mostly fend for itself hoping that the Karzai government would be able to unite the country and establish a decent democracy in the region. That gamble it turns out was a bad one, and our decision to keep only a minimal presence in the country also did not pay off as we only achieved the same thing the Sovs did, mainly we helped the government control the cities but left the countryside, particularly in the South, to the Taliban which has now gained strength to fight against us and our NATO allies using some of the same techniques that Zarqawi used in Iraq.

    That part paid off. That Iraqis would seize the bull by the horns and create a decent society for themselves hasn’t paid off at least not yet.

    We didn’t give them much help in this area since we failed to fill the security vacuum left by the demise of the Hussein regime and through our failure to provide enough troops to keep the peace, allowed Zarqawi and AQ to set up shop in Iraq and move it toward civil war…as they stated their aim to be.

    With regard to the debate on interrogation…I think it displayed clearly the failure of the democratic party. It did not present any ideas, nor did it engage in the debate leaving only republicans to resolve an important issue for our country. The perception this leaves is that only one party is truly committed to the war and to addressing the questions and problems that emerge therefrom, and that is not the Democratic Party. It pains me to say it, because i think we need a change of direction in this country, but the Dems continue to embrace leadership or present any alternatives to the current administration.

  • I’m not sure why there is this perception that we somehow “abandoned” Afghanistan by going into Iraq. I’ve been to Afghanistan twice and I can definitively say that it has not been abandoned. Much progress has been made there despite the recent resurgence of the Taliban in the south (which, IMO, has been overplayed in the press). The fact is we don’t need tens or hundreds of thousands of troops there – the geography and demography of Afghanistan make large numbers of conventional troops pointless. Afghanistan was, has been, and will continue to be a primarily Special Operations kind of war.

  • The Taliban appears to have safe haven in Waziristan. From there they can maintain the strategic initiative — choosing the time and place of battles. Karzai is increasingly unpopular. The opium warlords are increasingly rich and brazen. I’m not impressed by this victory.

    As for Iraq I never thought the Iraqis would seize the bull by the horns and I was a war supporter. I assumed we meant to impose democracy top down. If the Iraqis were the sort of people likely to get their act together they’d have been able to take Saddam down themselves.

    The gambling point is maybe almost too apt. Walk through any casino and you can spot the guy who lies to his wife and pretends he hasn’t just gambled away the mortgage money. “I just need a little more time to get healthy, just a few more hands . . .”

  • Yes, that’s basically the way I see it, MT. Sometimes you gets the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.

    I also think there’s a number of things we should remember. First, Afghanistan per se has no strategic significance. Hard on the Afghan people but there it is. We have an interest in seeing that al-Qaeda doesn’t set up shop there again but that’s about it.

    I was one of the few that opposed the invasion of Afghanistan largely on prudential grounds and, honestly, I was surprised at how well it went. But we shouldn’t confuse that with the idea that much more than removing the Taliban could ever have been accomplished as long as there’s an open border with Pakistan and we value Musharraf enough to refrain from ignoring the border.

    Iraq does have strategic significance and we dasn’t let it become a failed state. As I see it the only way we can ensure that is to maintain a substantial military presence. But that doesn’t necessarily mean carrying all the water. As we train the Iraqi military and more of Iraq comes under their control we need to consider what our actual interests really are very carefully.

    If it had been left up to me the whole shebang would have been handled very differently but, then, it wasn’t left up to me and for that I’m grateful.

  • MT,

    It’s not a victory, but the war is not yet over. Certainly there are problems in Afghanistan – the border issue is the biggest worry IMO. Even if Pakistan had the will to control the border area, it doesn’t have the means. The border areas have long been pretty much de facto independent, and attempts by the Pakistani military to control the region since 2001 have largely been failures. A conventional army like Pakistan’s does not have the equipment or training to compete with the experience tribal guerrilla fighters in the mountainous border terrain.


    That’s a good point on strategic significance. Certainly Afghanistan’s is much less.

    As for troop levels, there really isn’t any way to increase the number of troops in Iraq. The Army is currently has around 50% of its brigades deployed at any one time, with the other 50% refitting and preparing to deploy. But even this is not sustainable beyond a few more years. Ideally, to maintain a continued presence overseas requires 30% of the force deployed, 30% refitting, and 30% preparing to deploy.

    I don’t agree with the conventional wisdom that more troops are needed in Iraq. Unlike conventional wars, more troops often means less effectiveness in counterinsurgency warfare. While not the best example, consider what 55 SF personnel were able to do in El Salvador in the 1980’s. I think a similar scenario is becoming more likely in Iraq. In essence, we would choose sides, withdraw the majority of our conventional forces (to around 15,000 – about the size of the contingent in Afghanistan) and use SOF advisors, money and a steady flow of weapons to ensure our “chosen” faction(s) maintain control of the country and emerge victorious from a civil war. Such an eventuality will not be pretty (as evidence by the brutality on both sides in El Salvador), but I don’t see many other options that would preserve US influence in the country.

  • The partition scheme for Iraq proposed by Joe Biden and others is unworkable. Two glaring problems. First, Baghdad. Baghdad has a substantial Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shi’a population as well as a mixed population—folks with a mom who’s Sunni and a dad who’s Shi’a or vice versa. Unless the proposal is for a massive relocation of populations you’re right back where we are right now.

    Second, the Sunni Arabs aren’t looking for an enclave: they want the whole enchilada, things as they were under Saddam. What are their motivations for stopping the same shtick they’re pulling now?

  • Maybe I’m feeling sentimental tonight but I don’t know how we’re going to live with ourselves as a country if we leave Iraqis with ethnic cleansing and a civil war. Or let Afghanistan revert to a Taliban-style government. I think that’s where this is going and I don’t have any brilliant plan to stop it, but I’m not going to like myself or my country much if the end game is women being dragged out of schools and forced into burqas, massacres, newspapers closed, people pushed from their homes into refugee camps. How are we going to square that with our conscience and our image of ourselves? Setting aside for the moment all the strategic issues, how do we promise people liberty and deliver them into civil war?

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