A fascinating scandal has erupted in Washington that is exposing the sordid underbelly of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
According to a New York Times investigation and other Washington sources, the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies have fielded covert mercenary networks in Afghanistan, Pakistan (AKA "Afpak"), and Iraq whose mission is to murder tribal militants and nationalists opposing Western occupation.
US law forbids murder or using mercenaries. But, as Cicero said, "laws are silent in times of war."
A former senior Pentagon official specializing in murky foreign operations, Mike Furlong, set up a company, International Media Ventures (IMV), to supposedly provide the US military with "cultural information" about Afghanistan's Pashtun tribes. Codename: Operation Capstone.
Two obscure, Orwellian-named Pentagon outfits, "the Cultural Engineering Group" of Florida, and "Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Program" of Virginia funded Furlong with $24.6 million.
Furlong hired a bunch of former special forces types and assorted thugs. These rent-a-Rambos's real mission was to assassinate Pashtun leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and target tribal compounds for strikes by US Predator drones. Another heartwarming example of free enterprise at work and how to win Muslim hearts and minds.
In short, a 2010 version of the Mafia's contract killers, known as "Murder Inc."
Thickening this plot, retired CIA types, including the flamboyant Dewey Clarridge, whom I well recall from the 1980's Afghan war, were reportedly involved. IMV's CEO came from major defense contractor L-3, long involved in top-secret operations.
It is uncertain if Furlong's Murder Inc. had time to go operational. But its exposure is causing a huge ruckus. In best US government tradition, the Pentagon has cut Furlong adrift. He is now under criminal investigation.
Shades of CIA agent Ed Wilson, whose frightful case I long followed. Wilson was set up as a deniable "independent" by CIA to supply arms and explosives to Libya and Angola. When this intrigue blew wide open, Wilson was kidnapped by US agents, convicted on the basis of lies by the government, and buried alive in federal prison.
This latest guns-for-hire scandal recalls the brutal, 1980's guerilla war in El Salvador, which I covered, where the US became involved with government death squads. It also reminds me of the long-forgotten 1968—1972 Operation Phoenix in South Vietnam in which CIA and South Vietnamese special units killed from 26,000 to 44,000 suspected Communists or sympathizers. US Special Forces were heavily involved in these liquidation operations.
The Furlong scandal comes at a time of growing criticism of the US government's use of over 275,000 mercenaries (AKA "private contractors") in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These hired gunmen and logistics personnel operate without any accountability, legal structure, or oversight.
Intelligence sources in Pakistan say that US mercenaries are likely behind some of the bombings of civilian targets, particularly those in Peshawar. Indian intelligence agents are also spreading mayhem in an effort to destabilize Pakistan.
Private mercenary firms like Xe (formerly Blackwater) and DynCorp have raked in fortunes running private armies for the US. They are major donors to the far right of the Republican Party. Deeply worried civil libertarians warn these private armies are only a few goose-steps away from resembling the Nazi Brownshirts of late 1920's Germany.
Amazingly, it seems US Special Forces in Afpak have not until this month been under the control of supreme commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. They apparently reported to his rival, Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus in Tampa. These Rambos have been rampaging around, killing at will and committing atrocities against civilians, reports the UN.
This is ironic since McChrystal rose to his high rank by leading US Joint Special Operations Command's special forces on campaigns of liquidation and intimidation in Iraq, and later, Afghanistan.
To the Pentagon's fury, CIA has long run its own killer paramilitary units and drone assassination operations, 90% of whose victims are civilians, according to Pakistani media investigations. Such "wet affairs" undermine the agency's basic mission of intelligence-gathering.
CIA's paramilitaries report only to Langley which does not talk to the Pentagon. Pakistan's feeble rent-a-government is not even informed in advance of Predator strikes and assassinations on its own territory.
How many of the 15 other US intelligence agencies are running their own little illegal private armies? Add special forces from NATO contingents, whose operations remain a deep secret. Australia, for one, has come under heavy criticism for attacks on civilians by its SAS units. Britain's renowned SAS and SBS commandos are very active in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The US brands all al-Qaida suspects and Taliban "illegal combatants," denying them due process of law and the Geneva Convention's prisoner protections. It's OK to murder and torture such "terrorists," says Washington.
But what, then, about the army of US mercenary Rambos that are running amok, who wear no uniform, kill at will, and have no legal oversight? Or America's Special Forces?
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada. He is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.
Copyright © 2010 Eric Margolis