Friends, not Foes

- There is an ancient pearl of wisdom, “Know Your Enemy”, which is attributed to the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu.

The Post-Standard Editorial Board

By Brig. Gen. David Phillips, Col. Wesley Martin and Lt. Col. Leo McCloskey

There is an ancient pearl of wisdom, “Know Your Enemy”, which is attributed to the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu. This simple statement has two meanings. The first and most common interpretation is the need for leaders to understand the plans, intentions, and motives of an avowed adversary. The second meaning is more fundamental, and in many ways more crucial: know who is in fact your enemy – and who isn’t. The failure to detect a real enemy means not only diverting precious resources and attention from dealing with a threat; it can also mean mistaking a friend for a foe.

This is precisely the error America is committing with Iran and an opposition movement we should be embracing, but instead are exposing to deadly harm.

Take for example, the city of Ashraf in Iraq, the home of the main Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MeK). In 1997, the United States designated the MeK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The Clinton Administration did so as a confidence-building gesture toward the new Iranian President, Mohammed Khatami, who was presented to the West as a moderate and someone willing to negotiate.

Unfortunately, he was neither. Bilateral negotiations went nowhere; Iran continued its race to develop a nuclear weapon, while the MeK, an avowed enemy of the theocratic regime, languished on a list of global pariahs.

In 2003, during the initial stages of the Iraq war, the MeK surrendered its weapons to the American Army and accepted consolidation in a desert outpost they would soon turn into a vibrant self-sufficient, campus-like community providing for their own clean water, power generation, sustenance, along with building a library, two hospitals and a mosque. Following a thorough individual background investigation on each member, they were given “Protected Persons Status” under the 4th Geneva Convention. U.S. and Coalition military personnel were assigned the mission to protect the 3,800 people of the MeK, a democratic resistance group that our government classified as a terrorist organization.

During the period from 2003 until December 2008, the American military was in daily contact with the residents of Ashraf on various issues, including subjects related to the insurgency in Iraq and combating terrorism. Such cooperation helped reveal the location of Iran’s clandestine nuclear facilities; the location of deadly IED manufacturing sites in Baghdad and potential ambush sites on the routes around Camp Ashraf. The tactical information on the IEDs undoubtedly saved the lives of American and Coalition forces in Iraq.

In 2009, oversight of Ashraf, along with the remaining 3,400 residents, was turned over to the pro-Iranian al-Maliki government. Since then, its people have been repeatedly attacked and many massacred by Iraqi troops under the command of a government increasingly subservient to Tehran. From April 2003 until February 2009, each one of us was responsible for the protection of Ashraf. We repeatedly searched and conducted investigations throughout Ashraf for weapons, explosives and any human rights violations. No weapons, explosives or other offensive and defensive implements were ever found. As recently as April 2009, following several days of inspections including the use of explosive detection dogs, the Iraqi Interior Ministry reaffirmed that no weapons or explosives were at Ashraf.

The Ashraf residents continue to passionately and publicly dedicate themselves to a democratic, secular, and non-nuclear Iran. These are among the many reasons that numerous retired three- and four-star generals (including three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs), intelligence, law enforcement officials, dozens of former political leaders and over 100 sitting members of Congress have called for the removal of the MeK from the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list. Instead, the people of Ashraf are under attack by the very people who are responsible for their protection, the Iraqi government. The Iraqis are breaking up Camp Ashraf and have sent some 1,600 residents to a prison-like environment in the former U.S. base Camp Liberty. The Iraqi government justifies its actions by citing America’s s terrorist designation of the group. We believe the designation is based on old intelligence and outdated information. The group currently meets none of the Congressional statutory criteria for what constitutes a foreign terrorist organization.

On May 8, during an oral hearing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the lawyer representing the State Department repeated the false representations made by the department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism in testimony before Congress in April on the status of the MeK. When asked if the group has “the capability today, 2012, to engage in some terrorist act against the United States,” Ambassador Benjamin responded, “We have not come to a conclusion on that.” When further pressed, Benjamin responded, “ no one has been in to inspect or otherwise investigate what is in Camp Ashraf right now.” State’s lawyer went even a step further, claiming that the U.S. military has never been allowed to inspect Camp Ashraf, a statement which is patently incorrect.

These inaccurate statements ignore the extensive work of the U.S. Army, other federal agencies and the thousands of men and women who risked their lives protecting Camp Ashraf and MeK members for six years. As noted above, we routinely inspected the camp and chased every string of rumor that the residents were developing terrorist capabilities. Time and again, these Iranian dissidents proved to be our allies, not our enemies. Thirteen U.S. soldiers lost their lives and another 20 sustained serious injuries protecting them.

Poignantly, video footage of the residents being attacked on April 8, 2011, by Iraqi soldiers with automatic weapons and armored vehicles shows their bravery and their peaceful defiance – and the fact they were unarmed. Thirty-six men and women died that day.

It is hard to understand how and why the U.S. State Department has put the only viable Iranian opposition group, one that is unarmed and committed to democratic values, so firmly in its crosshairs. Is this a bureaucratic inability to admit and correct a wrong or an attempt to still use the MeK as leverage with the Iranian regime that fears and hates them? Confronting America’s greatest strategic challenge requires us to know who is and is not our enemy. It is now time to recognize that the MeK are our friends and we must save them. The first step is for the State Department to de-list the MeK from the terrorist list. Lastly, our country must continue to oversee the Iraqi government, and ensure that the MeK is safely relocated to other countries.

Col. Wesley Martin (ret.) a resident of Buffalo, served as the senior antiterrorism/force protection officer for all Coalition forces in Iraq, and was the first colonel in charge of Camp Ashraf, Iraq . Brig. Gen. David Phillips (ret.) , of Missouri and Washington, D.C., is the former chief of the Military Policy School at Fort Leonard Wood and former commander of all police operations in Iraq, which included the protection of Camp Ashraf. Lt. Col. Leo McCloskey (ret.) was the commander of the Joint Interagency Task Force at Camp Ashraf until January 2009.


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