Congress will scrutinize rules of engagement in Afghanistan

The House Armed Services Committee will soon examine the rules of engagement used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The classified, full-committee briefing will cover tactical directives that limit  the use of force by NATO troops, according to a letter sent by Rep. Ike Skelton, D.-Mo.

Skelton said in his Aug. 26 letter to the three congressmen that he shared their “deep interest in ensuring that the members of the Armed Forces serve in conditions which allow them to act in self defense and provide sufficient force protection.”

The rules of engagement have been under a steady barrage of fire since July 2009, when Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, issued guidelines directing “leaders at all levels to scrutinize and limit the use of force such as close-air support against residential compounds and other locations likely to produce civilian casualties.” He also restricted the use of air-to-ground munitions and indirect fire, such as artillery rounds, against residences.

Furthermore, concerns come also from marines in Afghanistan, who have complained that insurgents regularly hide their weapons in fields and ditches, making it easy to blend in with civilians after a firefight.

Critics of McChrystal’s directives had hoped that the rules of engagement would be altered this summer, after he resigned in June. But McChrystal’s replacement, Army Gen. David Petraeus, issued a tactical directive update last month that appeared to reinforce many of the previous rules.

US to test iris scan technology

The Homeland Security Department plans to test futuristic iris scan technology that stores digital images of people’s eyes in a database and is considered a quicker alternative to fingerprints.

The department will run a two-week test in October of commercially sold iris scanners at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, where they will be used on illegal immigrants, said Arun Vemury, program manager at the department’s Science and Technology branch.

“The test will help us determine how viable this is for potential (department) use in the future,” Vemury said.

Iris scanners are little used, but a new generation of cameras that capture images from 6 feet away instead of a few inches has sparked interest from government agencies and financial firms, said Patrick Grother, a National Institute of Standards and Technology computer scientist. The technology also has sparked objections from the American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU lawyer Christopher Calabrese fears that the cameras could be used covertly. “If you can identify any individual at a distance and without their knowledge, you literally allow the physical tracking of a person anywhere there’s a camera and access to the Internet,” he said.

Iris scans can be quicker than fingerprints. “You can walk up to a wall-mounted box, look at the camera, and that’s it,” Grother said.

Homeland Security will test cameras that take photos from 3 or 4 feet away, including one that works on people as they walk by, Vemury said.

In 2007, the U.S. military began taking iris scans of thousands of Iraqis to track suspected militants. The technology was used in about 20 U.S. airports from 2005 to 2008 to identify passengers in the Registered Traveler program, who could skip to the front of security lines.

Financial companies hope the scans can stop identity fraud, said Jeff Carter of Global Rainmakers, a New York City firm developing the technology. “Iris is going to completely reshape the fraud environment,” he said.

The fight against terrorism in Yemen

The White House is allegedly considering adding the CIA’s armed Predator drones to the fight against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen. The idea is to reassign some of the Predator drones already hunting high-value militant targets in Pakistan’s tribal regions to the U.S. special operations forces assisting local counterterrorist forces in Yemen.

But U.S. officials may have a hard time selling the concept to the Yemeni government in Sanaa, where reports of the potential use of drones has already touched off controversy.

Drones would be a “nonstarter,” Yemen’s ambassador to the United Nations told the AP earlier this year.
“To even posit this theory about U.S. drones only builds support for radicalization,” Abdullah al-Saidi said at the time. “Yemen will not allow it.”

Meantime, Amnesty International criticized (JURIST) methods used by the government of Yemen in counter-terror operations as violations of human rights. In a report, “Yemen: Cracking Down Under Pressure,” the rights group accused the government of perpetrating numerous human right abuses in attempting to quell the rebel movements of the Zaidi Shi’a in the north and the Southern Movement, in addition to its US-sponsored actions against al Qaeda.

These alleged abuses include arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances (already denounced in 2008 by Human Rights Watch), among other actions taken by security forces. These forces, according to AI, are accountable only to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The report also cited the rising number of executions in the country after convictions for links to al Qaeda or the rebel movements. AI also pointed to the actions of the US and Saudi Arabia in promoting these actions by Yemeni authorities following the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in December.
AI went on to criticize the role of the special counter-terrorism courts that have been used by Yemeni authorities to convict journalists and opposition figures critical of the government.

US Treasury sued to allow Anwar al-Awlaki lawsuit

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center on Constitutional rights continue their lawsuit against Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner  and the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control over their having blocked the ACLU’s attempt to challenge the government’s authority to engage in the targeted killing of American citizens suspected of terrorism. The lawsuit is being brought on behalf of Nasser al-Awlaki, the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, the extremist cleric who has been linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and several terror plots targeting the United States. Nasser al-Awlaki maintains that his son is innocent.

The center and the ACLU said Aulaqi’s father contacted them shortly before Treasury named Aulaqi a “specially designated global terrorist” on July 16, freezing his assets and barring U.S. entities – including lawyers – from doing business with or providing services to him without obtaining a license from OFAC.

OFAC Director Adam Szubin said that his office would be willing to issue a license to the rights groups, noting that it is the policy of the OFAC to facilitate the provision of pro bono legal services to those sanctioned by the body.

In announcing the continuance of the lawsuit despite the license, the rights groups expressed appreciation for OFAC’s prompt response, but explained:

OFAC’s regulations are unconstitutional because they require lawyers who are providing uncompensated legal representation to seek the government’s permission before challenging the constitutionality of the government’s conduct. Notably, OFAC has indicated that the license issued to us today can be revoked at any time. We will pursue our claim that OFAC’s attorney-licensing regulations are unconstitutional and should be invalidated.

The ACLU points out that there’s something strange about the OFAC delaying granting a license to defend someone whom the government claims is such an imminent threat they should be killed at first opportunity.

“We don’t think the we should have to ask the government’s permission before suing it for violations of constitutional rights,” said Vince Warren, executive director of the CCR.

The larger issue is less one of Anwar al-Awlaki’s guilt and innocence but rather the scope of the government’s authority to target U.S. citizens for killing without due process. The ACLU and the CCR want to challenge that authority, but they can’t even do that without the OFAC’s permission.

“The same government that is seeking to kill Anwar al-Awlaki has prohibited attorneys from contesting the legality of the government’s decision to use lethal force against him,” says the complaint.

Should the lawyers overcome that hurdle, they would be in a position to seek court resolution of some of the most central legal disputes in the war against Al Qaeda — including whether the whole world is a battlefield subject to combat rules, or whether Qaeda suspects far from the armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq must, in the absence of an imminent threat, be treated as criminals entitled to trials.

The lawsuit can have potential far-reaching consequences, especially as targeted killings is the new U.S focus in Afghanistan the NY Times reports.

American intelligence reporting has recently revealed growing examples of Taliban fighters who are fearful of moving into higher-level command positions because of these lethal operations, according to a senior American military officer who follows Afghanistan closely.

The administration’s shift in thinking is gradual but has been perceptible in the public remarks of various officials. The incoming commander of the military’s Central Command, Gen. James N. Mattis, was asked last week by Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, whether the administration’s July 2011 date for starting to withdraw American troops implied a shift in emphasis from counterinsurgency to a strategy concentrating on killing terrorists.

“I think that is the approach, Senator,” he replied.

The emerging American model can best be described as “counterterrorism, with some counterinsurgency strategy that forces the hands of insurgent leaders,” said a diplomat with knowledge of the planning. It melds elements of both strategies in a policy that continues to evolve, as conditions change.

More info here and here.

UN experts call for stronger regulation of private security companies

The United Nations group of independent experts on the use of mercenaries says it will present a proposal for a possible international convention to regulate activities of private military and security firms during its five-day meeting at the UN Headquarters in New York this week.

The UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries will brief permanent missions at the UN, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academics on the content and scope of its proposal aimed at closing the legal gap covering such activities at the international level. The independent experts are calling for more stringent regulations, oversight and monitoring of mercenaries and PMSC at both national and international levels.

The Working Group has, since its creation in 2005, been monitoring the impact on human rights of the activities of mercenaries and private military and security companies (PMSC), and in particular their lack of accountability.

Earlier this month, CRS released a report entitled “Department of Defense Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan: Background and Analysis”. Here’s the summary:

The Department of Defense (DOD) increasingly relies upon contractors to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has resulted in a DOD workforce that has 19% more contractor personnel (207,600) than uniformed personnel (175,000). Contractors make up 54% of DOD’s workforce in Iraq and Afghanistan. The critical role contractors play in supporting such military operations and the billions of dollars spent by DOD on these services requires operational forces to effectively manage contractors during contingency operations.

Lack of sufficient contract management can delay or even prevent troops from receiving needed support and can also result in wasteful spending. Some analysts believe that poor contract management has also played a role in abuses and crimes committed by certain contractors against local nationals, which may have undermined U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. DOD officials have stated that the military’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with congressional attention and legislation, has focused DOD’s attention on the importance of contractors to operational success.

DOD has taken steps to improve how it manages and oversees contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. These steps include tracking contracting data, implementing contracting training for uniformed personnel, increasing the size of the acquisition workforce in Iraq and Afghanistan, and updating DOD doctrine to incorporate the role of contractors. However, these efforts are still in progress and could take three years or more to effectively implement.

The use of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan has raised a number of issues for Congress, including (1) what role contractors should play in contingency operations, (2) whether DOD is gathering and analyzing the right data on the use of contractors, (3) what steps DOD is taking to improve contract management and oversight, and (4) the extent to which contractors are being effectively included into military doctrine and strategy.

This report examines current contractor trends in Iraq and Afghanistan, the steps DOD has taken to improve contractor oversight and management, and the extent to which DOD has incorporated the role of contractors into its doctrine and strategy. The report also reviews steps Congress has taken to exercise oversight over DOD contracting, including contracting issues that have been the focus of hearings and legislation.

Afghanistan war logs confirm existence of Task Force 373, special forces hunting top Taliban

The Nato coalition in Afghanistan  has been using an undisclosed “black” unit of special forces, Task Force 373, to hunt down targets for death or detention without trial, The Guardian reports. The unit of elite soldiers, which includes members of the Navy Seals and the Delta Force, get their orders directly from the Pentagon in Washington and operate outside of the chain of command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), according to Der Spiegel. Details of more than 2,000 senior figures from the Taliban and al-Qaida are held on a “kill or capture” list, known as Jpel, the joint prioritised effects list. The Jpel list assigns an individual serial number to each of those targeted for kill or capture and by October 2009 this had reached 2,058.

In many cases, the unit has set out to seize a target for internment, but in others it has simply killed them without attempting to capture. The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path.;In the close to 92,000 logs leaked, 84 pertain to JPEL-related actions.

The disclosures come from more than 90,000 records of incidents and intelligence reports about the conflict obtained by the whistleblowers’ website Wikileaks in one of the biggest leaks in US military history. The logs detail the toll on civilians exacted by coalition forces: events termed “blue on white” in military jargon. The logs reveal 144 such incidents. At least 195 civilians are admitted to have been killed and 174 wounded in total.

Philip Sands:

We now have extensive international rules on the conduct of armed conflict, incorporated into the Security Council resolutions that govern the operations of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, as it is formally known. The latest of these – resolution 917 adopted in March 2010 – calls for “full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and international humanitarian law throughout Afghanistan”. The logs indicate that these rules do not seem to have brought much by way of added protection to the local population.

Under these international rules, targeted killings may be permitted in the armed conflict in Afghanistan, provided they are used against individuals who are directly involved in combat. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Professor Philip Alston, has raised concerns that targeted killings “are increasingly being used far from any battle zone”. These newly available logs underscore this expression of concern, not least since they refer to the use of unmanned drones, including Predators, on a significant scale, and the deaths of a great number of civilians. Alston has alerted us to the use of targeted killings “in a framework which may well violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law”.

That seems like understatement.

US court awards terror victims $378 million against North Korea

The Terror Finance Blog reports that a US federal court has handed down a historic decision finding the government of North Korea and its intelligence service, the Cabinet  General Intelligence Bureau, liable for an infamous terrorist attack perpetrated in Israel in 1972.  The U.S. District Court in San Juan, Puerto Rico has ordered the defendants to pay $378,000,000 in damages to two families.

The case arises from a lawsuit brought by victims of the 1972 terror attack at the Lod Airport in Israel in which 26 people were killed and 80 injured. The plaintiffs alleged that the government of  North Korea trained and financed the terrorists who carried out this heinous massacre.

(H/T Georgetown SLB)