Warfighting and Torture

George W Bush’s admission of having ordered the water boarding of three al-Qaeda terrorists, re-opens the long-running debate on the extent to which normal war-fighting measures can be used in asymmetric warfare.

The problem with asymmetric warfare is the constant presence of innocent people. But that’s how terrorists like it to be, so that security forces can be blamed for their deaths.

Every step away from normal policing that the terrorists can cause security forces to take, is one step closer to victory. If order cannot be maintained without martial law, curfews or special power legislation being enacted, the government gets weaker while the terrorists get stronger. Whenever things get too hot for them, terrorists go away until it quietens down, then return having been unaffected by the military crackdowns. The only ones to suffer are the innocents.

Torture falls into this scenario, as an indicator that a democratic state cannot maintain law and order without resorting to undemocratic means. It’s also banned by the Geneva Conventions, and so not a legal procedure even in what one might call ‘full-on war’.

There have to be guidelines for how people behave, if only to understand the extent to which the opposition are not going to comply – The Geneva Conventions are one example; the government forces obey them, and in Resistance to Interrogation training, soldiers liable to capture learn to evaluate the enemy by his lack of adherence to them.

Soldiers are not conducting personal operations involving the safety of their own families. To do so would be intolerable, and as was frequent in the bad days of Northern Ireland, Irish soldiers were not posted into their home areas. (Some nevertheless insisted on going – several in my own unit). Soldiers must do their job according to the guidelines – Yellow Cards and so on. Soldiers who act outside the guidelines or the remit they’ve been given, leave themselves open to all sorts of problems – not all of them legal.

The use of torture to save lives is sometimes suggested – especially when raids on terrorist houses are necessary. Nobody plans raid or hit operations without good intelligence, the plans are carefully evaluated in terms of the risk to innocents, and a team would not go in if it was certain that innocents would be killed. So the supposedly ‘lesser’ evil of torturing a suspect for accurate information, to achieve a lesser likelihood of injuring innocents in an operation makes little military apart from moral sense. In any case, as is generally accepted, you can’t be sure information gained by torture is going to be accurate – and in any case, regardless, shit happens. Only you tortured somebody as well…

And the suitcase-nuclear-in-London scenario may face us yet. But how likely are the security forces to capture the perpetrator in time to ‘persuade’ him or her to tell us where it is before it explodes? And how likely are we to be utterly certain that this is what’s happened, and that this suspect knows about it? And anyway, if we knew enough to capture this person, why don’t we also know where the bomb is?

But we know from regimes which have used torture that once approved – even if not officially, the use of torture spreads, until it’s used routinely. Little of the information gained from torture can be verified; and as in Argentina, the Soviet Union, etc etc, innocent people are betrayed, who then under torture betray others, then others – proving only that there is no justice and the state has failed.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, where the locals are used to brutality, we can’t afford to even look down this particular slippery slope. Which is why it’s so astonishing that President GW Bush is admitting to having ordered it himself, 18 months after the 911 outrage.

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