U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has asked for a review of rules covering the responsibility of U.S. troops to stop abuse by other armed forces, when they see it or hear about it. There has been some controversy about the issue in Washington this month, following the discovery of a secret prison in Baghdad, where Iraqi security forces were allegedly starving and torturing detainees. U.S. forces closed the prison and moved the prisoners to more humane facilities. But questions are being asked about exactly how far the responsibility of the U.S. troops goes.
At a news conference last week, it seemed that even Secretary Rumsfeld was confused about the issue. When the senior U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace, said U.S. troops in Iraq have the responsibility to stop abuse when they see it, the secretary interjected to correct the general, but General Pace stood his ground.
RUMSFELD: "But I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it. It's to report it."
PACE: "If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it."
That policy was confirmed by Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman, who read the official directive issued by the U.S. commander of all multi-national forces in Iraq.
"It's the responsibility of all MNF-I [Multi-national Forces-Iraq] units and personnel to take all reasonable action, in accordance with the rules of engagement, to stop or prevent any observed or suspected incidences of physical or mental abuse that could lead to serious injury or death of a detained person in Iraqi custody, and to properly report the details through the chain of command so that those acts can be appropriately addressed with Iraqi government officials," said Mr. Whitman.
On Thursday, the coalition commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, indicated he has issued a similar order covering that country.
"I do have instructions that stand with our forces with regard to any of our soldiers in the coalition that were to see abuse by Afghan national security forces, an obligation to stop those and an obligation to report those to our chain of command," said Mr. Eikenberry.
That covers the two major combat areas where U.S. troops are now operating. But what about the rest of the world? Secretary Rumsfeld has asked for clarification about the responsibilities of U.S. forces worldwide, and he says the answer is not as simple as it might seem.
"It sounds like a simple thing," said Mr. Rumsfeld. "Obviously you should stop it. That's not a good thing, abuse of somebody. Another question is, well, how do you stop it?"
Secretary Rumsfeld told students at a university in Washington that it's one thing to try to convince a soldier in another army to stop abusing a prisoner. But it's another thing to use force to stop the abuse. He said it is difficult for an ordinary U.S. soldier to know how much force is allowed, in what situation, in what country, and that is what he wants key people in his department to clarify for him, and for the troops.
"Orally trying to stop something that looks amiss to me sounds very reasonable," he explained. "Then the next question is, what level of force should they use to try to stop it if they see it happening in a country where they don't know the laws, they don't know the culture, and it could vary depending on whether it was being performed, the abusive act or the seemingly inhumane act, or possibly illegal act, whether it's being performed by an official of that government, a policeman or a soldier, or just by someone else."
The issue got extra attention because several U.S. soldiers have been convicted of abusing prisoners in Iraq, and there have been allegations of abuse at U.S. detention facilities in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and elsewhere. U.S. officials say such conduct violates U.S. laws and regulations, that all such allegations are investigated and that military personnel are prosecuted when evidence is found.
But dealing with abuse by troops from another country takes the issue one step further. According to experts on military ethics and procedures, a key factor is whether the U.S. forces are in a position of authority, as they are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, in both countries U.S. forces are training new armies and police forces, and human rights and proper treatment of detainees are important parts of that training.
"We have a particular responsibility in Iraq precisely because of our history of involvement there," said Lawrence Hinman, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Values Institute at the University of San Diego in California.
He says, ideally, abuse should be prevented everywhere, but he also acknowledges that is more easily said than done in situations where U.S. forces are not in command.
"This is a complex matter, you know. I mean, one wants to say, sure, they ought to step in and prevent abuse where they see it. But I think that has to be, sort of, a measured judgment," he noted.
At Rutgers University in New Jersey, Religion Professor James Turner Johnson agrees. He specializes in studying the moral aspects of warfare, and is the co-editor of a publication called the Journal of Military Ethics.
"They [U.S. troops] always have the responsibility to stand up for American values, to work within the frame of the code of military discipline," said Mr. Johnson. "But it seems to me that in cases where there is no clear line of authority, there are limits on what any uniformed person can do in trying to restrain somebody who wears another uniform, even if they're members of a common coalition."
But Professor Johnson says where there is a clear line of authority, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops do have a responsibility to stop abuse by the local forces.
"The soldier who sees this [abuse], in a situation in which he has some degree of authority, in my judgment, has the obligation to try to stop actions that he considers that he himself would not do or would not be allowed to do," added Mr. Johnson.
And the experts note that U.S. troops also have an obligation to report abuse, or suspected abuse, even when they're not in a position of authority, so it can be dealt with through the government and command structure of the force committing the abuse.
One of the concerns Secretary Rumsfeld expressed this week is the need to articulate a clear policy so that U.S. troops at all levels, and in all places, know what their responsibilities are. He says that will be difficult, but he has told officials and senior officers to get to work on it.