The Way of the Commandos

Getting to Know the General


In a country of tough guys, Adnan Thabit may be the toughest of all. He was both a general and a death-row prisoner under Saddam Hussein. He favors leather jackets no matter the weather, his left index finger extends only to the knuckle (the rest was sliced off in combat) and he responds to requests from supplicants with grunts that mean ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Occasionally, a humble aide approaches to spray perfume on his hands, which he wipes over his rugged face.


General Adnan, as he is known, is the leader of Iraq‘s most fearsome counterinsurgency force. It is called the Special Police Commandos and consists of about 5,000 troops. They have fought the insurgents in Mosul, Ramadi, Baghdad and Samarra. It was in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, where, in early March, I spent a week with Adnan, himself a Sunni, and two battalions of his commandos. Samarra is Adnan’s hometown, and he had come to retake it. As the offensive to drive out the insurgents got under way, the only area securely under Adnan’s control was a barricaded enclave around the town hall, where he grimly presided over matters of war and peace, but mostly war, chain-smoking Royal cigarettes at a raised desk in the mayor’s office. With a jowly face set in a permanent scowl, Adnan is perfectly suited to the grim realities of Iraq, and he knows it. When an admiring American colonel compared him to Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather,’ Adnan took it as a compliment and smiled.


Early one evening, I was sitting in his office when an officer entered with a click of his heels — an Iraqi salute of sorts. He reported to Adnan that a rebel weapons cache had been discovered, and Adnan congratulated him — but issued a warning. ‘If even one AK-47 is stolen,’ he said, ‘I will kill you.’ After a pause, he smiled and refined the threat. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I will kill your’ — and he used a coarse word that referred to the officer’s most private body part. There was nervous laughter. Everyone seemed certain that not a single gun, or single anything, would go missing.


Not long ago, hard men like Adnan, especially Sunnis, were giving orders to no one. Six weeks after the fall of Baghdad, the Coalition Provisional Authority dismissed the Sunni-led Iraqi Army, and the United States military set out to rebuild Iraq‘s armed forces from the ground up, training new officers and soldiers rather than calling on those who knew how to fight but had done so in the service of Saddam Hussein. By late last year, though, it had become clear that the new American-trained forces were not shaping up as an effective fighting force, and the old guard was called upon. Now people like Adnan, a former Baathist, have been given the task of defeating the insurgency. The new strategy is showing signs of success, but it is a success that may carry its own costs.


A couple of hours after Adnan issued his AK-47 threat, I sat with him watching TV. This was business, not pleasure. The program we were watching was Adnan’s brainchild, and in just a few months it had proved to be one of the most effective psychological operations of the war. It is reality TV of sorts, a show called ‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice.’ It features detainees confessing to various crimes. The show was first broadcast earlier this year and has quickly become a nationwide hit. It is on every day in prime time on Al Iraqiya, the American-financed national TV station, and when it is on, people across the country can be found gathered around their television sets.


Those being interrogated on the program do not look fearsome; these are not the faces to be found in the propaganda videos that turn up on Web sites or on Al Jazeera. The insurgents, or suspected insurgents, on ‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice’ come off as cowardly lowlifes who kill for money rather than patriotism or Allah. They tremble on camera, stumble over their words and look at the ground as they confess to everything from contract murders to sodomy. The program’s clear message is that there is now a force more powerful than the insurgency: the Iraqi government, and in particular the commandos, whose regimental flag, which shows a lion’s head on a camouflage background, is frequently displayed on a banner behind the captives.


Before the show began that evening, Adnan’s office was a hive of conversation, phone calls and tea-drinking. Along with a dozen commandos, there were several American advisers in the room, including James Steele, one of the United States military’s top experts on counterinsurgency. Steele honed his tactics leading a Special Forces mission in El Salvador during that country’s brutal civil war in the 1980′s. Steele’s presence was a sign not only of the commandos’ crucial role in the American counterinsurgency strategy but also of his close relationship with Adnan. Steele admired the general. ‘He’s obviously a natural type of commander,’ Steele told me. ‘He commands respect.’


Things quieted in the office once the episode of ‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice’ began. First, a detainee admitted to having homosexual relations in a mosque. Then several other suspected insurgents made their confessions; two of them had been captured by Adnan’s commandos in Samarra, and their confessions were taped, just hours before, in this very office. Adnan sat smoking Royals and watching the show like a proud producer.


‘It has a good effect on civilians,’ he had told me, through an interpreter. ‘Most civilians don’t know who conducts the terrorist activities. Now they can see the quality of the insurgents.’ Earlier he said: ‘Civilians must know that these people who call themselves resisters are thieves and looters. They are dirty. In every person there is good and bad, but in these people there is only bad.’


The episodes of the program I have seen depict an insurgency composed almost entirely of criminals and religious fanatics. The insurgency as understood by American intelligence officers, is a more complex web of interests and fighters. Most of the insurgency is composed of Sunnis, and it is generally believed that Baathists hold key positions. But the commandos, who are the stars of ‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice,’ are also led by Sunnis and have many former Baathists in their ranks, so the Sunni and Baathist aspect of the insurgency is carefully obscured.


Of course, propaganda need not be wholly accurate to be effective. The real problem with the program, according to its most vocal critics — representatives of human rights groups — is that it violates the Geneva Conventions. The detainees shown on ‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice’ have not been charged before judicial authorities, and they appear to be confessing under duress. Some detainees are cut and bruised. In one show, a former policeman with two black eyes confessed to killing two police officers in Samarra; a few days after the broadcast, the former policeman’s family told reporters, his corpse was delivered to them. The government’s human rights minister has initiated an investigation.


‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice’ is a ratings success because it humiliates the insurgency, satisfying a popular desire for vengeance against the men who spread terror and death. Yet the program plyas rough not only with its confessing captives but also with the rules and laws that govern the conduct of war. As I learned in Samarra, this approach was not just for television. It was Adnan’s effective yet brutal way of conducting a counterinsurgency.


Building a Home-Grown Counterinsurgency

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