Training abusive militaries

September 02, 1998

An excerpt of a Monday New York Times editorial: FOR DECADES, Congress has tried to ensure that U.S. military aid and training does not go to foreign soldiers who use it to kill and torture their own people. But a 1991 law allowed training by special forces units free of many congressional restrictions.

As a result, such trainers have been in more than 100 countries and have worked with some of the world's most abusive and brutal militaries. In some cases, their training works at cross purposes with U.S. foreign policy.

An amendment to the defense appropriations bill that will face House and Senate conferees as Congress comes back would close this training loophole. But the Pentagon needs to stop pursuing close relations with militaries that repress their own people.

The bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, would block U.S. special forces from training foreign units if the State Department had credible information that a member of the unit had committed a gross violation of human rights. An exception could be made if steps were taken to prevent further abuses. The Pentagon, stung by scandals over training of repressive troops, does not oppose the legislation.

The 1991 law did not put limits on special forces training ostensibly because it was for the benefit of U.S. soldiers. In a nifty bit of circular reasoning, the Pentagon says special forces learn how to carry out one of their most important jobs -- training.

In 1992, Congress banned Indonesian military officers from receiving training. Yet a notorious unit linked to massacres of civilians and countless other abuses was a prime recipient of special forces training until this year. Skills taught to the unit, known as Kopassus, included psychological operations and lethal tactics like sniping.

The Washington Post reported in July that special forces are working with every Latin American military, including those with records of human rights violations, and with no requirement to screen out abusive trainees. U.S. special forces train Colombian army officials in counterterrorism and intelligence gathering -- even though Congress voted to limit regular training to counternarcotics. In Turkey, where units fighting Kurdish guerrillas have a history of killing civilians, Americans have trained anti-guerrilla forces.

Such training is often at odds with U.S. policy goals. While U.S. foreign policy tries to strengthen democracy, the special forces training, coupled with a decline in civilian foreign aid, means foreign contacts are now more often military-to-military. Though trainers might theoretically serve as role models demonstrating respect for civilian control and human rights, the main message they convey is that those being trained have the extra powers that come from being special friends of the United States.

Pub Date: 9/02/98

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