|Because of its FTO status and its history of military service to Saddam, the MeK had been designated a hostile target prior to the OIF invasion.|
Unexpected Challenges, Unintended Consequences, and Lessons Learned
In the big OIF picture, the MeK had a small role. Where detainee operations are concerned, however, it loomed much larger—not only in the early days of the conflict, when MeK members being held at Camp Ashraf comprised a large percentage of the detained population—but also after the group was granted protected-persons status and thus became a longer-term DoD responsibility.
Clearly, the MeK has an unusual history, but its apparent uniqueness does not mean that the U.S. military will never encounter its like again. In the course of future combat operations—and particularly in counterinsurgency actions—other special populations will undoubtedly emerge. In such a context, the missteps made in the course of the MeK experience and the lessons learned from them can help improve the way in which the United States approaches and conducts future detainee operations. Both of these aspects are discussed in this chapter.
OIF Planners Did Not Adequately Define a Military Mission Regarding the MeK
Because of its FTO status and its history of military service to Saddam, the MeK had been designated a hostile target prior to the OIF invasion. Beyond that, however, coalition forces were given no military objectives regarding the group except to secure its surrender, and that outcome was never achieved.
Many strategic questions ought to have been addressed in advance: What did field-level officers need to know about the MeK’s history? What action was to be taken after its capitulation? Under what terms were its members to be held? Where? For how long? What might be the terms of their release? What would be their destination?1
These were predictable and practical concerns, but there is no evidence that they were given serious consideration, and no guidance on these issues was provided to either the combatant commanders or the commanders of detainee operations. This may reflect larger planning failures in OIF. As a result, without a clear goal, the coalition’s activities at Camp Ashraf began, and largely remained, ad hoc.2
The only directions that the JIATF received related to tactical matters. Although DOS reported that U.S. policy was “to eliminate the MeK’s... intent to engage in terrorist activity and to prevent its reconstitution as a terrorist organization,” JIATF officers were initially given such routine assignments as disarming and consolidating the MeK, helping the FBI compile a biometric census of the MeK population and conduct intelligence interrogations, supporting DOS efforts to collect biographical information on the population, and carrying out the MeK Review Board process. Later on, JIATF leaders were required to simply maintain the status quo and preserve calm.
1 Given that the MeK was listed as a hostile force due to its service to Saddam, which included helping him suppress the Shia and Kurdish uprisings in 1991, it should have been evident that Iraqi antipathy toward the MeK would complicate release or transfer to Iraqi authorities. This complication could have been avoided by repatriating the MeK to Iran, but DoD had foreclosed that option. Therefore, OIF planners should have predicted that coalition forces would be burdened with the MeK problem for some time.
2 Several policies were proposed in 2003 and 2004, but none was adopted. Proposals included disbanding and repatriating the MeK, securing Iraqi rights of residence and integrating the MeK into Iraqi society, obtaining refugee status and resettling members in third countries, and actively encouraging defections (interviews with JIATF and DOS officials, October 2007 and February 2008).