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Trouble in Iraq - An Interview with Mark Schneider and Major General Peter Abigail
Trouble in Iraq - An Interview with Mark Schneider and Major General Peter Abigail
Trouble in Iraq - Mark Schneider and Major General Peter Abigail
Presenter: Geraldine Doogue
Sunday, 16 May 2004
After a week of shocking revelations about its treatment of prisoners, the US government continues to try to regain some credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis and the rest of the world. One group which has been watching Iraq for some time, and which has issued a detailed blueprint for the immediate future, is the influential International Crisis Group, headed by our ex foreign minister, Gareth Evans. The ICG would like to see the immediate appointment, overseen by the UN, of a consultative assembly of Iraqis, which would essentially form a transitional government. The senior vice president, is Mark Schneider, a former head of the Peace Corps.
And Major General Peter Abigail is the former Land Commander of the Australian Army. The Australian military has 15 years of peace keeping experience, in Cambodia, Somalia, Bougainville, the Solomons and East Timor. He explains how an occupying army can maintain the peace without alienating the local population.
Good evening, it’s Geraldine Doogue, welcome to Sunday Profile in which we step right into the mess that is Iraq – with two key questions: what should happen next, and do Australian peace-keepers have anything constructive to contribute, based on previous experience?
Australian military forces have stepped up to peace-keeping and peace-enforcing in several theatres, especially Cambodia and East Timor, smaller arenas clearly, than Iraq: but what were the classic lessons and mistakes from this relatively new military skill: a former senior army man, Major-General Peter Abigail will join us later.
First, to a diagnosis of the current dilemmas in Iraq – and a prescription for a way out of what increasingly looks like a genuine quagmire, the word that became such a symbol of American impotence in Vietnam 3 decades ago.
Leaving aside the almost daily dose of horrible headlines and pictures from Iraq, you might have noticed that the rhetoric surrounding this action is shifting quite markedly. Even those who are rampantly pro-American, like The Australian’s regular columnist and former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Mike Costello, are now scathing in their commentaries ….”for God’s sake” he wrote on Friday, “somebody has to be accountable, somebody has to pay a price and it should not be just a bunch of often ill-trained young reservists …I doubt the US has ever been brought so low”
Well joining us now is an expert observer with wide experience in international peacemaking and administration, Mark Schneider. He’s number two to our ex foreign minister, Gareth Evans at the International Crisis Group, the highly influential private body that offers foreign policy advice to governments among others …
Mark Schneider, a month ago your group said ‘Iraq is on a knife edge’, and that was a month ago – what’s your assessment today?
Mark Schneider I think that it’s cutting through at the moment, I think that the situation really has gotten worse as a result of the revelations with respect to the detainees, and unfortunately that has to some degree dominated the discussion, I mean it is absolutely atrocious conduct and I think that appropriately there will be people held accountable and today you may have noticed there was an order given essentially ending a whole series of procedures that were used for interrogation and attempting, after the fact, to put the United States back in a position of complying with the Geneva Convention in respect of detainees.
Geraldine Doogue: Will that be sufficient though?
Mark Schneider: Well I think it’s a major first step. I think the United Nations community, the United States itself and the people of Iraq are obviously going to demand some kind of accountability for those who carried out these abuses – think it’s appropriate.
Geraldine Doogue: What should happen on June 30th, which is the big handover date, whatever that quite means, I’m not sure any more – what do you think ideally ought to happen?
Mark Schneider: What we’ve said in the report that you’ve mentioned is that political responsibility for the transition should previously have been handed over to the United Nations, acting through a high ranking representative appointed under a new Security Council resolution. The Provisional government of technocratic experts should be appointed ..
Geraldine Doogue: Why does that matter, because you do stress this business of being technocratic?
Mark Schneider: Because I think that the object should not be for the international community to try and determine the political balance at the moment, when there is no possible way for carrying out any kind of representative election. So what you want to do now is simply to try and relieve some of the conditions of misery that exist in the country, and enable the Ministeries to begin to function more effectively. And so you want to put technocrats into these positions of responsibility – let them get on with the business of providing services to the Iraqi people, while you are preparing an electoral process which would in fact permit in the future a representative government to be selected.
Geraldine Doogue: So almost no politicians in this lot and palpably no politicians – very much non partisan, not trying to nod to all the different regional needs – forget all that for the moment you say.
Mark Schneider: To a large extent, the political representation if you will would come in two ways – the President and vice President would be political, presumably they would represent the three major groupings, that is the Sunni, Shi’ite Moslems, as well as the Kurds – but then the Ministers would be technocratic.
Then you would have a national conference of Iraqis which would be convened, something on the order of the Loyajurger in Afghanistan, and they would essentially select a Consultative Assembly, a much smaller group, which would to some degree, during this interim period be the way in which popular representation would take place. And it would provide an opportunity to make judgements about the relationship between the Provisional Government and the Coalition forces. It would have some ability to oversee and put a stamp of legitimacy on the electoral procedures being put together.
Geraldine Doogue: And what would their powers be, this Assembly coming out of a convention?
Mark Schneider: This is where if yo uwill, political legitimacy would reside for this time period. They would essentially have the ability to say yes to the plans for carrying out the election. They would be a way to have some Iraqi buy-in to the major steps that have to take place between now and whenever that election happens.
Geraldine Doogue: And this would all be under the UN, not the US, you’re saying.
Mark Schneider: Exactly right and that would be a major shift right there.
Geraldine Doogue: Would they have the right, for the sake of argument, to veto military action such as we have seen in Falluja?
Mark Schneider: I think – if yo umake a distinction between a major decision to carr yout a military action – they would. If you are talking about in the midst of some operation – no. Tactical immediate response to some threat, they wouldn’t have any involvement.
Geraldine Doogue: So they would have a chance to veto a US military decsion, would they?
Mark Schneider: I think that the answer would avhe to be yes – I mean, if you recall, today there were comments, the US administration essentially said that if that government that come into being on June 30th in fact said to the United States, we don’t want you here, then the United States would presumably have to leave.
Geraldine Doogue: Yes, but they don’t really mean that, Colin Powell doesn’t expect an answer, to go, does he?
Mark Schneider: no, neither does anyone in the region or really in Iraq. I think that most people would view it as a disaster at this point, since there is no other security arrangement available. The assumption would be however that that kind of authority would reside within this provisional government, and therefore if they could do that much, that is say to the United States, thank you very much, but take a leave, then presumably on major military actions, they would have some say.
I will say that this is not totally beyond the pale in terms of what has been occurring. If you recall the last several weeks it would appear that the US and the military, have in some sense been consulting with Ayotollah Al-Sistani and the Shias about how they are going to respond to this threat in Fallujah and with respect to Sadr and Najab.
Geraldine Doogue: I wonder if you think we are getting the full story on Iraq. There’s so much that is awful at the moment, but from your assessment at the Crisis Group, is there cause for any applause and hope going on at the moment in the stories we’re not getting?
Mark Schneider: I think that applause is harder, hope, I think you still have to hold out some hope that the end result is one that permits the Iraqi people to have a much different future. At the same time at this moment, it’s just about as bad as you could think in terms of a post conflict situation – we don’t have a post conflict situation.
Geraldine Doogue: Why was the Pentagon so grotesquely ill equipped to manage this post conflict phase, whatever it represents?
Mark Schneider: I think some of the assumptions were badly mistaken, and as a result it led to a distorted planning process that produced the kind of situation that we find today. When you go back to the analysis that resulted in one of the US Generals saying that we are going to need several hundred thousand troops on the ground for a considerable amount of time after, in the post conflict phase, and that was widely discredited by the Administration, it turns out that he was probably quite right. Similarly there was very poor post conflict planning in terms of reconstruction and structuring the political process, and part of it was the mistaken decision in our view, to, in a sense put the United Nations on the sidelines.
We argued from the beginning that once the conflict was taking place, that the post conflict process should be as international, as non US, and as much a UN managed process as possible, in order to strengthen the legitimacy and credibility of this transition period.
Geraldine Doogue: Can a small place like Australia, which after all was one of the four that supplied troops – could we make a difference to the process now, as some people here are suggesting, is there something useful a country like Australia could do?
Mark Schneider: I think that Australia has a great deal to offer in terms of how you make a federal state work – also Australia’s contribution of troops to the multinational force is an important contribution – I think that the kind of increased support for the United Nations role is something that is crucially important, and one would hope that Australia would press that more strongly.
In a sense this is an important responsibility for the members of the Coalition, to help push the process in the direction of greater Iraqi control, and with respect to the international role, a greater role for the United Nations.
Geraldine Doogue : Mark Schneider thank you very much for joining us.
Mark Schneider : Thank you
Geraldine Doogue : Mark Schneider, from the International Crisis Group whose website consistently offers fascinating analyses of world trouble spots.
Well, practically speaking, how should a military force approach such a complex engagement? For once, Australia can genuinely speak with experience. For the last fifteen years the Australian defence force has built-in peacekeeping and enforcing into its brief and has begun to think very deeply about what’s required and what’s different to conventional soldiering. Major General Peter Abigail was nominated by defence as a replacement for Peter Cosgrove as Army Chief two years ago. But he was passed over and then left the force as often occurs. Known to be one of the most thoughtful Generals, he’d been the Army’s most Senior Operational Officer and was closely involved in peace work in Bougainville in 1994. Peter Abigail, welcome.
Peter Abigail : Hello Geraldine. Nice to be here.
Geraldine Doogue : Are we Australians right to be proud of our nation building and peace enforcement qualities.
Peter Abigail : I think yes. I mean we come from a strong heritage of being compassionate and I guess, in a way, identifying with the underdogs, but we also have professional military forces who invariably have a very clear idea of what the purpose of any particular intervention might be. Our experience in peacekeeping and nation building as a secondary issue, particularly over the last 10 or 15 years, I think has demonstrated the qualities that the Australians defence force brings to this exercise. Ranging from commitments in Bougainville, the Solomon Islands, Cambodia, Somalia, to a degree, Rwanda, and obviously East Timor.
Geraldine Doogue : What would you say are the classic lessons we’ve learned and mistakes we’ve made?
Peter Abigail : Lessons we’ve learned…if you are going into a contested situation, that is peace has not been declared and all you’re doing is going there to maintain it, so if you’re in a peace enforcement situation, which for example was the case in East Timor and was the case in Somalia, then one of the lessons that we have known for sometime and have reinforced in each of these experiences is that it’s very smart to go in with overwhelming force. The approach being that the more force you put on the ground, the less the likelihood that somebody is going to have a go at you; somebody is going to try and challenge you. So it’s the deterrent effect that an overwhelming force can have. As an example, in East Timor, which was probably the most contested or potentially most contested situation we’ve had in that period of time, the operational concept was very much one of establishing the force in Dili in overwhelming force – being prepared to face challenges at that time – but in the expectation that by establishing that overwhelming force, it would make things easier subsequently. We refer to it as the oil spot sort of concept where we would go establish and progressively spread out, then go and establish and progressively spread out in other areas. That worked very well and it didn’t take very long for those who might’ve been interested in challenging Intafet to realise that that wasn’t a smart thing to do.
Geraldine Doogue : So you in effect have to behave as if you’re at war even though you’re there as peacekeepers or peace enforcers?
Peter Abigail : Absolutely. I mean the use of military force really only has credibility if it’s clear that you both are willing to, and have the capacity to, use it and use it properly.
Geraldine Doogue : Might that be where the Americans have fallen down? We’ve heard that Donald Rumsfeld is obsessed with actually transforming the military and having a small military and much bigger planners. What do you think about whether this might be an area they’ve made some mistakes?
Peter Abigail : I think it’s reasonable to say, maybe not for the initial combat stage. I think even Americans themselves were probably surprised at how quickly they got to Baghdad. As a second issue to that it is also, I think, reasonably clear that the conduct of guerrilla warfare or an insurgency was probably part of Saddam Hussein’s war plan. He would have known that he could not have competed on a conventional battlefield with the coalition forces and there’s reasonable evidence around that an insurgency campaign was actually put in place and so the declaration of the end of major combat as it occurred on that American aircraft carrier was but a stage in the whole process. And I think it wasn’t so much in getting to Baghdad; that it was about the aftermath. It was about establishing security and stability throughout Iraq where I think the troop numbers have been shown to be a bit problematic.
Geraldine Doogue : Was there any risk in this that you, in effect, as the peace enforcers, crush out any emerging civil society as part of this overwhelming force approach?
Peter Abigail : Well the overwhelming force has to be very directed at the adversary, not at the people. And this is where notions of, that I mentioned earlier, compassion and identifying with the underdog and being very clear of what the purpose of the military action is so important. We have, and the Americans and Brits and others do as well, we operate within very tightly defined rules of engagement in terms of how force may be applied in what circumstances and issues of proportionality and a number of other factors at play. But you have to be extremely careful how force is used and, of course, not use force against the civilian population – the people you are there to protect, to assist, in terms of providing security for those people. And so you have to be very judicious in the way in which force is used.
Geraldine Doogue : What if the insurgents are hiding among a civilian population?
Peter Abigail : It becomes a real problem and that of course is part of the difficulty in Iraq. You want national leadership to emerge – you want local leaders to emerge – and as we found in East Timor…it was a local solution that was put in place dealing with district administrators, dealing with village chiefs, etc, in putting in place the framework where the people themselves would tell you if there were insurgents operating in the area.
Geraldine Doogue : What about soldiers being asked to become jailers when in fact their core business is being a soldier; when you have to become effectively an occupying group?
Peter Abigail : Well in the American context they have the organisations who actually can run prisons and in fact as I understand it the role of that brigade, that US brigade, that was running Abu Ghraib and some others is actually detention. So they have the training to do it and they have that function as a recognised part of their operations. I wouldn’t be asking infantryman or anybody not properly trained in that particular role to undertake those duties.
Geraldine Doogue : Peter Abigail, could I come to the question of the Geneva Convention and whether you had to question your capacity to maintain the Geneva Convention requiring that the dignity of prisoners be respected, while also trying to extract information from people when they didn’t want to give it?
Peter Abigail : I’ll speak generally about this. I’m not sure that in my experience I’ve ever had to deal with this personally but if you look at the Geneva Conventions at one end of the spectrum it declares that it’s totally right and proper and the obligation of a prisoner to give name, rank and serial number. At the other end of the spectrum it…proscribes torture, cruelty, inhumane behaviour, and then there’s this big gap in the middle.
You’ve got this area in the middle which is all about reasonable – what is reasonable? What would a reasonable person construe to be appropriate behaviour? And that, if you get 15 lawyers in a room you can get 15 different versions of that.
Geraldine Doogue : So could I say, this is very difficult isn’t it? Would you say nakedness is okay but having dogs near people not? And even the question of what genders are to be involved in the interrogation. Is that an issue?
Peter Abigail : I think it’s an issue in that quite clearly it was deliberately provocative. It was attuned, it seems to me, to the sensitivities that apply particularly in the Arab World and in Iraq.
Geraldine Doogue : So almost racist…
Peter Abigail : Well I wouldn’t put it that way. I think it was seen as a pressure point. As I understand it the photographs weren’t taken to send home to your folks, they were actually taken to show to other prisoners; to coerce them into giving information before something similar might happen to them. Over history, as my understanding of it, and I’m not an expert in this area, but my understanding of it is that disrupting peoples sleep patterns and having them naked so that they get cold or hot or whatever is all part of the disorientation process which has been viewed to be relatively acceptable. It’s been viewed I guess to be reasonable but I mean it is a case by case point and it very much is down to individuals views of what is reasonable.
Geraldine Doogue : Would you sense that it is a deliberate policy with a command structure behind it or do you think it’s an aberration of people who I think have been described as…with no training, no supervision and a lack of discipline?
Peter Abigail : This is more than Sergeants and Privates. I am aware that in the US chain of command I think it’s seven commanders at different levels have been relieved or suspended. I’d be very surprised given the real desire and intent for transparency in this on the part of the US administration, I’d be very surprised if we don’t see further legal action coming up that command chain. But there is a limit to how high up that command chain goes; certainly not at coalition level and certainly not back in the Pentagon. I think what we’re dealing with here is a matter of interpretation and probably not sufficient clarity in the orders and not sufficient supervision at appropriate levels.
Geraldine Doogue : Major General Peter Abigail thank you very much for your time.
Peter Abigail : You’re welcome Geraldine.
Geraldine Doogue : Major General Peter Abigail, now retired, who consults on defence and strategic issues to various organisations.
Well thank you for your company and thank you too to producers Kathy Gollan and Rowan Barwick.