Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Torture is Tactical; Rapport is Strategic

On the subject of torture and the war on terror, consider this column by "Matthew Alexander," (psuedonym), a military interrogator in Iraq, discussing the advantages of rapport building over torture in Iraq. One of the things he learned was torture and abuse by Americans was a major recruiting tool for foreign jihadis. Another was that being treated humanely could be a serious blow to terrorists' world view. He also gained valuable insight into the insurgents' motives:
Over the course of this renaissance in interrogation tactics, our attitudes changed. We no longer saw our prisoners as the stereotypical al-Qaeda evildoers we had been repeatedly briefed to expect; we saw them as Sunni Iraqis, often family men protecting themselves from Shiite militias and trying to ensure that their fellow Sunnis would still have some access to wealth and power in the new Iraq. Most surprisingly, they turned out to despise al-Qaeda in Iraq as much as they despised us, but Zarqawi and his thugs were willing to provide them with arms and money. I pointed this out to Gen. George Casey, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, when he visited my prison in the summer of 2006. He did not respond.

Perhaps he should have. It turns out that my team was right to think that many disgruntled Sunnis could be peeled away from Zarqawi. A year later, Gen. David Petraeus helped boost the so-called Anbar Awakening, in which tens of thousands of Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and signed up with U.S. forces, cutting violence in the country dramatically.
Balloon Juice blog presents Alexander's column with a revealing juxtaposition from Andrew McCarthy defending torture:
Superior force and discipline are not enough against this adversary. We need intelligence. Intelligence is the single asset that stands between the terrorist and scores — if not more — of slaughtered civilians. Between the terrorist and murdered American military personnel. In the war on terror, as in no war before it, intelligence will be the difference between victory and defeat. . . . [T]here are certain circumstances in which high-level al Qaeda operatives are captured in the throes of plotting massive strikes. There are certain circumstances in which such a terrorist might be able to tell us, right now, where bin Laden is, or Zarqawi, Zawahiri, and other leaders who are themselves weapons of mass destruction because they have the wherewithal to command massive strikes.
Alexander and McCarthy actually agree on an important point; it is intelligence that will win counter-insurgency. But they disagree, not only how how to obtain intelligence, but, at a much deeper level, on what intelligence really is.

For the sake of argument, I will grant McCarthy and other defenders of torture a point and assume that torture is, in fact, the quickest and easiest way to get the information they want. But the type of intelligence McCarthy and others like him discuss is revealing; it is narrowly military. What type of attack are you planning? Where is your weapons cache? Where are the EID's hidden? Where can I find your leader? Granted, all this information is important and worth knowing, but it is purely tactical. It may thwart a few attacks and win a few battles, but it is not how counter insurgencies or great wars of ideas are won.

Contrast this with what Alexander learns by building rapport; fighters' backgrounds, their motives, their quarrels and internal disputes, their differences, and what really makes them tick. This is strategic information, the sort of knowledge that defeats insurgencies, builds alliances, and wins wars of ideas. It is the sort of information that can not only win a war, but build a peace. And torture is worthless for gaining this sort of complex, sophisticated information.

I don't know Matthew Alexander's real name or where to find him. But I hope the Obama Administration finds him and gives him a major role in retraining our interrogation teams. Maybe, just maybe, he can help us win in Afghanistan.

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