Editor’s note: Charles Mink is a former U.S. Army sergeant who spent 15 months in Iraq as an human intelligence collector. He is currently the coordinator for Project GO at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona and is working towards his masters at the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at ASU.
In 2007, our unit officially received orders to Iraq for a 15-month “surge” deployment. I was an enlisted 27-year-old sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, “home of the Special Forces.”
It was a good time for military careers, especially at a high-deployment duty station like Fort Bragg. I was sad to leave the United States for so long. In fact, what makes it so hard for people to deploy is knowing beforehand all the events they’ll miss — weddings, birthdays, etc. — but in reality, I was very excited to do the job I’d been trained to do.
“Interrogators don’t have much of a role when they’re stateside,” I heard our instructors tell us back at Fort Huachuca in 2004.
That is very true. And by 2007, I was tired of the life in garrison at Bragg. It was tense, uncertain, and I was impatient. I wanted to find out if the interrogation and Arabic language training would work outside the confines of exercise and role play.
It was about a month before the ship-out date that the Special Forces Command came calling from their compound less than a mile from my barracks. They were looking for a few “augmentees” from intelligence units on Bragg to fill critical interrogator positions. Adding to the pressure, I now found out that the soldiers reading and acting on my interrogation reports would be America’s most elite units, many of which shall remain nameless.
I worked in a prison on Iraq’s most operative air base. The reason, of course, was so that U.S. Air Force planes could bring us detainees every night. Often the detainees were suspected of possessing time-sensitive information, like knowledge of pending attacks or the whereabouts of al-Qaeda’s most high-ranking members. Getting the information quickly, in either case, was imperative. So we knew that the moment the Air Force planes landed, it was time to go to work.
All in all, I conducted over 1,200 interrogations — a lot but still far less than some of the veteran interrogators with whom I had the privilege of working. And yes, we did obtain the kind of information to keep our troops safe, and to disrupt the organization determined to do them harm.
Our Special Forces eliminated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on June 7, 2006, and then his successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, on April 20, 2010.
My time in the interrogation booth for 15 months was – and in my memory still is – colored by a relentless fixation on the bad guys. Knowing them better than they knew themselves was what allowed us to destroy them.
“Don’t they just appoint a new leader every time one gets killed… like a snake growing a new head?” I’m often asked this question, and it’s a good one. “True,” I tell them, “but the new head is weaker every time it has to regrow.” And as I write this, 10 years after our invasion began, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq is pretty well-beaten.
I am not blind to the follies of our invasion. I’m unconditionally patriotic, but I’m not gullible. If asked whether or not “we won” the Iraq War, I have to respond that we didn’t, and we never could have.
The mission, as my colleagues and I understood it, was to find and remove weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda from Saddam’s Iraq. Like many, we believed he was harboring both. But as we all found out, the former never existed. And as I found out many times over in the interrogation booth, the latter only came to Iraq in response to our invasion.
Sure, we eliminated a lot of bad guys, but only after our invasion brought them to us. In the end, our counterinsurgency strategy was a success, although it was successful primarily in countering an insurgency we created.
This short narrative is a testament to the resolve and professionalism of our troops, especially the elites who faithfully acted on the intelligence we interrogators generated through tried-and-true, non-coercive interrogation techniques. As for those who strategized the war, I feel we could rightly question their wisdom: Is it wise, after all, to invent a problem just because we’re capable of solving it?