Prisoners in Kosovo

The detainee abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib, rightly or wrongly, will forever be linked to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. Iraq was not the first time that Sanchez dealt with these issues, however.

He likely encountered prisoners during combat operations of the first Gulf War, when he commanded a tank battalion as part of Gen. Barry McCaffrey's 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized). He certainly encountered detention and interrogation issues as a general deployed to Kosovo. He tells us on pages 123-24 of his book:

In Kosovo, I gained a reputation inside the intelligence community as both a hands-on and extraordinarily demanding individual. I dedicated a period of time every day to interface with our intelligence staff. I also worked with my superiors to establish and fill the position of director of intelligence. However, the Intelligence requirements were so complex and intense that a couple of people came and went in that job before I was satisfied that we had the leadership and expertise necessary for the mission. And I had to be very clear with our intelligence personnel that we needed to find new ways of gathering information. The lives of our soldiers depended on it.

We were gradually able to improve our capacity and capability by taking advantage of the diversity of our joint interagency coalition, which included the CIA, Special Forces, and foreign intelligence services. We pulled everybody together to formulate strategies, synchronize operations, and come up with innovative solutions. For example, we set up an organization designed specifically for human intelligence operations. We called it G-2X. The "G-2" represented the standard intelligence function of any headquarters staff, and the "X" represented the human aspect. With that organization, we became very effective in preventing enemy attacks on the lives of our soldiers.

As we became more proficient with our intelligence capabilities, we also began capturing more insurgents [in Kosovo]. So we were forced to set up and continually improve our own detention facilities and interrogation center at Camp Bondsteel. In Kosovo, there was no question that the Geneva Conventions applied to all prisoners. No one from the Department of Defense came in to help us, and no one ever questioned the morality of our approach.

Task Force Falcon did experience one notable case of prisoner abuse, however. In the spring of 2000, we received information from locals about an incident involving members of the 82nd Airborne Division deployed in Vitina. Our preliminary investigation determined that a sergeant and four of his squad members had captured a couple of Serbs while they were planting land mines. The prisoners were taken into an abandoned house, beaten, and threatened with death unless they talked. The investigative report stated that the solders were focused on gaining intelligence necessary to save lives and, because the prisoners had not been seriously harmed, no charges should be filed. I did not agree, however, and subsequently recommended a court-martial. It was clear to me that the squad could have conducted tactical questioning, but instead chose to violate both the Geneva Conventions and our own standards regarding interrogation and prisoner treatment. There was no doubt in my mind that, if we had them get away with it, other soldiers on the ground would have thought it was okay to do similar things. In the end, we referred the sergeant and his men for court-martial, where they were convicted and send to prison.

Yet, for all of his apparent affection for the rule of law and the Geneva Conventions, Sanchez appears distrustful of military lawyers and the constraints they have placed on his operations. He relays the story of an MP unit commander who hesitated over whether to use deadly force in response to a Serb assault, saying "there might be investigations if we killed people." Sanchez writes that he reproached the commander, telling him that he should never allow the fear of an investigation to hinder his tactical decision-making. But then Sanchez adds that "training for rules of engagement had to be conducted by warfighters and not by lawyers."

This statement illustrates Sanchez's view of the role of law in warfare. He clearly subscribes to the conservative philosophy of "lawfare," which views the law as a constraint on American power. If only the lawyers would let commanders take the gloves off, and set aside the rules of engagement, battlefield commanders could win our nation's wars. Or so the argument goes.

Now, it's absolutely true that rules of engagement do limit and constrain the use of force by military commanders. But, these rules also do some good. Which is probably why the Army's counterinsurgency manual emphasizes the role of law in small wars (like Iraq) where the support of the people is paramount. By constraining, limiting and focusing the use of force, they confer some semblance of legitimacy and humanity on it. That matters, because wars are means to a political end, and force must be used legitimately and justly for maximum effect.

By Phillip Carter |  May 15, 2008; 6:00 AM ET  | Category:  Wiser in Battle
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Go back to his respnse on 13 May in the Post to my question on resigning after Abu Gharib. He does not believe that participating in violations should cause someone to stand up and say stop! There is not a concept of personal responsibility within him - he passes it on. Never should have been commissioned.

Posted by: Willam Keller | May 15, 2008 6:24 AM


How many posts on Sanchez's book does this make now? Really, with all that's going on in the world, is this level of coverage really necessary?

Posted by: Andy | May 15, 2008 8:50 AM

Sanchez's argument that "warfighters" and not "lawyers" should do the "training" on rules of engagement does not support his implicit conclusion: That lawyers should be removed from the process. Instead,

  • "Warplanners" must get more formal training in the requirements of the law of armed conflict, while simultaneously

  • "Lawyers" must get more training (and experience, if feasible) in the realities of armed conflict, and

  • "Warfighters" must learn that no plan -- or set of rules of engagement -- survives contact with the enemy... a concept they're already supposed to understand.

Reaching that conclusion, however, would have required clear thinking on the part of LTG Sanchez (and his ghostwriter(s)), which is not something that one learns at the Pentagon. Or at the service academies. Or, all too often, while trying to navigate DOPMA's career system established for the Cold War military.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | May 15, 2008 11:23 AM

I really have to wonder about American leaders and their memories .. Hilary thinks she was under fire in Bosnia. Sanchez takes credit for establishing the Kosovo Protection Corps in his book - and then extending it to the rest of the province .. when in fact it had been established for months by the time he got to theatre. The KPC was stood up in September 1999 under the leadership of UK General Mike Jackson. (Read his book if you want the full story!)

Makes me wonder what else Sanchez is 'remembering' - or perhaps embellishing.

(That and KFOR, which was a NATO force mandated by UNSCR 1244, was never referred to as UNKFOR ... as Sanchez purports in this book.)


Posted by: KFOR Alumni | May 24, 2008 12:16 AM

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