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Why Accountability for Iraq’s Militias Matters

Iraq is awash with daily atrocities, with the Islamic State (ISIL) reportedly burying people alive, drowning people in submerged cages, detonating explosives around victims’ necks, and shooting its own members trying to defect. The group has murdered thousands, including up to 1,700 Shia military cadets in Tikrit in June 2014.

The response of Iraq, and much of the world, has been to fight ISIL on the battlefield, at huge cost — not only in combat deaths of the largely volunteer fighters, but also to local populations that these fighters abuse after freeing them from ISIL.

ISIL has shown its disregard for the laws of armed conflict that are meant to protect civilians, but Iraq’s anti-ISIL forces are no more accountable to international standards. It is high time for Iraq to establish better mechanisms to hold its own forces to account, not only to protect the civilian population, but also to ensure that new abuses do not breed resentment feeding a resurgence of ISIL-like groups.

As the Iraqi military moves to retake Fallujah from ISIL with support from volunteer militias and ahead of the offensive to dislodge ISIL from Mosul, the Iraqi government and the US-led anti-ISIL coalition should also press for accountability for Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — the name for the largely Shia volunteer forces.

Iraq has built up increased command structures for these forces, but is lagging in ensuring effective control over them, including by prosecuting those members who execute, torture, kidnap, loot, and pillage populations in recaptured areas.

To start, Iraq should make war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide offenses under domestic law. Iraq should also join the International Criminal Court, which has a mandate over these crimes. International oversight can help in establishing a credible system than could independently and impartially investigate these grave abuses. Most of all, the state needs to prosecute abusive fighters and their leaders.  Continue Reading »

Is it legal to target ISIL’s oil facilities and cash stockpiles?

An important story in yesterday’s New York Times explains how the U.S. and coalition forces have dramatically increased their targeting of ISIL’s oil facilities (including oil trucks and oil wells) and ISIL’s “bulk cash stockpiles,” which are found in places such as “bank vaults [and] private residences.” “The destruction in recent months of these targets, deep behind enemy lines, which commanders previously avoided for fear of causing civilian casualties — has seriously damaged the Islamic State’s ability to pay its fighters, govern and attract new recruits, military officials say,” reports the Times.

Because ISIL, unlike al Qaeda, is not exclusively a military organization — it holds territory and engages in at least some “civilian” governance functions — the targeting of these facilities and stockpiles raises important issues under the laws of armed conflict. (In an earlier post I discussed how this distinction between AQ and ISIL might complicate the potential targeting and detention of individuals who are “part of” ISIL.) The customary law of armed conflict, reflected in Article 52 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, provides that attacks on objects must be “limited strictly to military objectives,” i.e, “to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.” But what if the anticipated military advantage, although “definite,” is also indirect? In particular, what if that advantage consists of the anticipated diminution of the enemy’s revenues, some (but not all) of which are used to support military operations? Does the fact that some of the proceeds of a particular industry or operation contribute to the war effort mean that the operation itself is a “military objective” and thus a legitimate target? And, if so, does this mean that virtually all economic enterprises are legitimate targets, simply because of the indirect advantages they offer to the military arm of the state?

An important new article by Just Security’s Co-Editor-in-Chief (on leave) Ryan Goodman is the best treatment I’ve seen of this difficult and increasingly significant topic.  Continue Reading »

The Early Edition: May 27, 2016

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.


US special operations forces in Syria. The Defense Department has confirmed that photos taken by an AFP photographer in a village 40 miles from Raqqa show American commandos assisting Kurdish YPG forces during their offensive against ISIS north of the militant group’s de facto capital. [The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman; New York Times’ Eric Schmitt]  The Pentagon has denied that special operations forces are taking a front-line role against ISIS, though press secretary Peter Cook acknowledged that there was no “specific measurement” for what the “forward line” is. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

The US is “two-faced” if it refuses to see Syrian Kurdish YPG militia as terrorists, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today. [Reuters’ Tulay Karadeniz et al]

Meanwhile, the military push on Raqqa is facing challenges, as US officials fail to convince a sufficient number of local Arab forces to take part in the assault let by the Kurds. [Financial Times’ Geoff Dyer and Erika Solomon]

Battle for Fallujah. Humanitarian conditions in the embattled Iraqi city are of mounting concern, 50,000 civilians remaining in the city which has been controlled by ISIS since January 2014. Conditions have worsened in recent months as government-aligned forces put the city under siege. [Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Mustafa Salim]

“I strongly urge all parties to the conflict to secure exits for the civilian population of Fallujah.” Becky Bakr Abdulla from the Norwegian Refugee Council discusses the conditions in a displacement camp outside of the city, and the threat posed to those that remain in the city. [The Guardian]

“Fallujah is a place with bad memories for the American soldiers who served in Iraq.” The Economist comments on the importance of the strategic city and why reclaiming it from the Islamic State has become a priority.

Syria peace negotiations will resume “as soon as feasible,” the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura told the Security Council yesterday.

“Intelligence officials, who have spent the past two years trying to pinpoint Baghdadi’s movements, are now convinced that he moves within a tight arc of north-western Iraq and north-eastern Syria.” Martin Chulov and Spencer Ackerman discuss the “hunt” for the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at the Guardian. Continue Reading »

Important First Step by HPSCI on Pre-Publication Review Reform

Editor’s note: This post also appears on Lawfare.

We are happy to learn, via Secrecy News, that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) has weighed in constructively on the pre-publication review issue that we first wrote about here (and followed up on here, here, and here; see also Steve Aftergood’s contribution).

On page 7 of its Report on the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, in a Section titled “Committee Priorities,” the Committee expressed its concerns with the pre-publication review process: Continue Reading »

The Early Edition: May 26, 2016

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.


Islamic State is facing military assaults on two of its strongholds: Raqqa, Syria and Fallujah, Iraq. The two offensives hope to capitalize on losses suffered by the group in recent months. Nour Malas has further details at the Wall Street Journal.

The US military says it has rectified the poor intelligence collection and target identification that has plagued the war against Islamic State, with successes now apparent in the targeting of oil rigs and secret cash stores. However, some critics think that the new approach has greater risk of civilian casualties, reports Eric Schmitt. [New York Times]

Moscow will halt airstrikes against al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, it announced on Wednesday, a move designed to give other rebel groups the opportunity to distance themselves from the extremists. [Washington Post’s Hugh Naylor]

Russia has accused Turkey of providing Islamic State with chemical components used in improvised explosives that are “being widely used to commit terrorist acts;” the accusations were levied in a letter from Moscow UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. [AP’s Edith M. Lederer]

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out two strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on May 24. Separately, partner forces conducted a further 15 strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]


The Afghan government has called on the Taliban to engage in peace negotiations, threatening dire consequences for the group’s new leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, if it fails to do so. [Al Jazeera]

Haibatullah faces “contradictory expectations” from those inside the militant group and outsiders such as the Afghan government, with the former looking to him to unify the fractious group, and the latter looking for indications that the new leader is more willing to end fighting than his predecessor, reports Sune Engel Rasmussen. [The Guardian]

“The question to Mr Obama is whether this killing is merely an end in itself or part of a strategy to drive Pakistan, America’s supposed ally, and Taliban leaders to the peace table.” The New York Times editorial board discusses the drone strike that killed previous Taliban leader Mansour this weekend.

Does killing the leaders of militant groups work? Asks Yaroslav Trofimov, concluding that “the verdict is far from clear and, to an extent, depends on the size and cohesion of the targeted group.” [Wall Street Journal] Continue Reading »

The Early Edition: May 25, 2016

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.


Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the Taliban’s new chief, following a meeting of leaders in the Pakistani city of Quetta. A deputy to previous leader Mullah Mansour, Akhundzada is a “relatively obscure figure” considered unlikely to be “divisive,” reports Mujib Mashal. [New York Times]  Akhundzada holds “hard-line views” and is opposed to peace talks with the Afghan government and the US, according to an anonymous Taliban source. He has also reportedly issued “fatwas” against US troops. [NBC News’ Mushtaq Yusufzai et al]

“How the US tracked and killed the leader of the Taliban.” Adam Entous and Jessica Donati explain how the US intercepted intelligence in order to track Mansour in an area of Pakistan in which its surveillance drones do not operate, until the moment came to “fix” on his vehicle and “finish” him before he reached the city of Quetta. [Wall Street Journal]

The muted reaction to Mansour’s death demonstrates that drone technology is now “taken for granted,” says Mary Dejevsky. But, she says, the fact that drone strikes can accurately target opponents with minimal collateral damage “does not mean that all questions about their use are at an end,” something the West would realize if Islamic State started to use them to close the gap between “us” and “them.” [The Guardian]

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing of a minibus in Kabul, Afghanistan, this morning, which killed eleven people. [AP’s Rahim Faiez]

A growing number of children are being recruited into Afghan forces, despite government pledges to clear its military of minors. The UN reported that 43 boys were recruited to fight last year, twice as many as in 2014. Afghan government forces receive a lot of their funding from international partners, including the US and the UK. The US’ 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act banned funding to eight countries known to use child soldiers, but Afghanistan is not one of them – something it has refused to explain, reports Sune Engel Rasmussen. [The Guardian]


Fight for Fallujah. Iraqi security forces bombarded the city of Fallujah yesterday, part of government efforts to reclaim the strategic city in Anbar province from Islamic State. [Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Mustafa Salim]  Some 50,000 civilians are trapped in Fallujah, sparking concerns among UN and humanitarian organizations. [Al Jazeera]

For the American military, the “battle to rid the Iraqi city of Fallujah of ISIS is shrouded in mystery,” writes Nancy A. Youssef, with some officials believing the battle could be “ferocious and intense” while others see the militant group as “too stretched to protect anything” other than Mosul, the group’s capital in Iraq. [The Daily Beast] Continue Reading »

The MSF Airstrike Report: Better on the Facts Than on the Law

The military’s investigation of the October 2015 airstrike on the Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was back in the news last week thanks to highly speculative accounts that unidentified Afghans might have manipulated US forces into attacking the facility. While there is little doubt many Afghan officials harbored substantial resentment over MSF’s willing treatment of Taliban fighters, to my reading, the investigation report logically discredits this conspiracy theory.

The facts show that Afghan personnel requested the attack by providing geographic coordinates corresponding to a legitimate military objective, an Afghan National Directorate of Security facility, under the control of Taliban forces. It was only due to a series of cascading, and wholly unforeseeable, breakdowns in US communications, equipment, and procedure, that the aircrew inadvertently selected the hospital — located approximately 1,500 feet away from the intended target — as the location to be struck. To conclude that one or more Afghan officials cunningly manipulated the aircrew into attacking the wrong target based on a deliberate misdescription in the fog of a multi-party (and presumably multi-lingual) relay of information at oh-dark thirty in the midst of a multi-day battle in order to have the MSF facility struck simply defies logic. Particularly given that they’d be diverting the fire away from the site that they were tasked to assault, significantly increasing the risk to their own lives by failing to “prepare the battlefield.”

But while the investigation seems to do a decent job of developing the facts, as others have already touched upon (here, here, and here, for example), its handling of the relevant law is much less credible, particularly its consideration of the international law of armed conflict. Continue Reading »

Moves toward greater transparency on the use of lethal force [UPDATED]

Unless I’m overlooking something, this weekend’s strike directed at Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, in the province of Baluchistan, was only the second time that the United States has publicly acknowledged a particular use of force in Pakistan — the first occasion being the operation against Osama bin Laden. (The U.S. also acknowledged the strike that killed hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto in January 2015, but did not acknowledge that it occurred in Pakistan.) Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook issued a statement (the link to which unfortunately appears to be broken) in which he called Mansur “a threat to Afghan civilians and security forces, our personnel and coalition partners,” because he was “actively involved with planning attacks against facilities in Kabul and across Afghanistan.” [UPDATE: In his press conference in Vietnam yesterday, the President added that Mansur “is an individual who, as head of the Taliban, was specifically targeting U.S. personnel and troops inside of Afghanistan who were there as part of the mission that I’ve set to be able to maintain a counterterrorism platform and provide assistance and training to the Afghan military forces there.”]

Besides the public acknowledgement, it is also noteworthy that this strike was undertaken by the Department of Defense (which might have much to do with the acknowledgement); was reportedly the first U.S. strike to occur in Baluchistan; and, according to “a senior American official, who spoke [to the New York Times] on the condition of anonymity,” it was done without Pakistani consent. In the latter respect, it joins the bin Laden operation and the current operations against ISIL in Syria as the only publicly confirmed cases in which the Obama Administration has used force without the consent of the host state. Like those other two cases, it thus raises the legal question of why the strike did not violate Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter. (There is little question of domestic law authority, which the 2001 AUMF undoubtedly provided.) [UPDATE: Pakistan’s Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Syed Tariq Fatemi, summoned U.S. Ambassador David Hale on Monday “to express concern over the drone strike on Pakistani territory on Saturday, 21 May 2016.” In the meeting, Fatemi “pointed out that the drone strike was a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and a breach of the United Nation’s Charter that guarantees the inviolability of the territorial integrity of its member states.”]

Press Secretary Cook’s statement [and President Obama’s subsequent statement that Mansur was was “specifically targeting U.S. personnel and troops inside of Afghanistan”] suggests that the strike was deemed an exercise of the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” against “armed attack[s]” by the Taliban, which Article 51 of the Charter preserves.  Continue Reading »

The Early Edition: May 24, 2016

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.


The death of the Taliban’s leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a US drone strike on Saturday was approved because he was planning new attacks on US targets in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, Pentagon spokesperson Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said yesterday. [Reuters’ Jibran Ahmad and Jonathan Landay]

Mansour’s killing has caused a rift between the US military and the White House over what action to take next: the military wants to use its aircraft to prevent the Taliban’s advance this summer – which would require an overhaul of the rules of engagement, amended last January as part of President Obama’s plan to reduce US involvement – while the White House wants to wait to see what effect Mansour’s death has on the Taliban. Gordon Lubold et al report. [Wall Street Journal]

The Wall Street Journal editorial board calls on the Obama administration to “hit the Taliban harder” in the wake of the drone strike that killed the group’s leader, suggesting that if US bombing to prevent Taliban gains is not escalated, “that could leave [Obama’s] successor with another security crisis to clean up.”

The US “crossed a red line” when it ordered the drone strike in Pakistan, according to Pakistan’s politicians, who are worried that it is a signal that the US is readying itself to bring the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan. [Washington Post’s Tim Craig and Greg Miller]

Iran’s involvement with the Taliban is also exposed by Mansour’s death, write Jon Boone and Saeed Kamali Dehghan. It is known that Iran provides “weapons, cash and sanctuary” to the Taliban, despite “deep ideological antipathy.” Lending support to this, Mansour died on the main highway leading from the Iran border; Mansour’s passport shows he had only just returned from crossing the border between Iran and Pakistan when he was killed. [The Guardian] Continue Reading »

National Security-Related Congressional Hearings, May 23–27

Below is a calendar of congressional hearings on national security matters for this week.

Monday, May 23

5:30pm – Senate Foreign Relations – The Open Skies Treaty: Managing Russia’s Request to Upgrade Sensors – closed hearing (here)

Tuesday, May 24

10:00am – House Homeland Security – Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications – Enhancing Preparedness and Response Capabilities to Address Cyber Threats (here)

10:00am – Senate Appropriations – Subcommittee on Defense – Markup: FY2017 Defense Appropriations Bill (here)

11:00am – Senate Appropriations – Subcommittee on Homeland Security – Markup: FY2017 Homeland Security Appropriations Bill (here) Continue Reading »