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Rebrander in Chief

The Defense Department’s new man at Gitmo hits the reset button.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By WILLY STERN
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"M" sent in James Bond. MacArthur ordered in the 1st Marine Division. Today, when the Department of Defense has a complex crisis requiring brawn and brains, Brigadier General Mark Martins gets the call. His latest job: Hit the reset button at Gitmo. 

Photo of General Mark Martins

Holder of the Gitmo portfolio: General Mark Martins

The actual job title is “chief prosecutor, Office of Military Commissions.” Martins is the legal stud who will oversee the prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his fellow apparent jihadists. Martins will also sell the world​—​our allies, enemies, even the Washington Post​—​on the legitimacy of these military tribunals.

And why not? Martins’s last two assignments were also reset jobs. 

For years, U.S. military detention and interrogation policy in Afghanistan had been an awful mess. Ugly politics at home. Tensions with allies. And we were losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghans. Then David Petraeus slapped a star on Col. Martins’s chest in 2009 and effectively said, “Now you’re a general: Go fix the darn thing.” And, with help, Martins did just that, instituting new policies based on joint mantras of transparency and accountability. (Actually, with a lot of help. Martins worked under a hard-charging, no-nonsense Navy SEAL named Vice Admiral Robert Harward, leader of the detentions task force.)

When did you last read a New York Times screed detailing abuses in a coalition prison? Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith, a terrorism expert, terms the determined effort to overhaul and rebrand detention policy in Afghanistan “an unqualified success.” Detentions were detoxified. 

Then last September, Martins set up his own command, the Rule of Law Field Force-Afghanistan (ROLFF). It’s another reset job. In a vacuum of law and order, the Taliban had put in place a brutal legal system, mostly in southern and southeastern Afghanistan. You know the drill: A hungry shepherd steals a slice of bread to feed his family and, chop, off comes his hand.

Martins’s assignment was to promote the rule of law in these disputed areas where bullets were often still flying. The legal system must be one that the Afghans both used and trusted, a core tenet of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy. Martins’s ultimate aim was to set up local detainee, judicial, and criminal structures within which the Afghans themselves would do the work.

The jury’s out on whether these rule-of-law initiatives will take and last. Martins lists among accomplishments to date the new national security Justice Center in Parwan Province, where, quite remarkably, 253 trials have been held since May 2010. Martins and colleagues have gone to great lengths to build up Afghan forensic-evidence capacity, including testing for residues of explosives. Martins says, quite proudly, that his team has “assisted the Afghan government in positioning officials in 23 key districts recently cleared of Taliban and in competing with so-called Taliban justice.”

Who is this General Martins who thinks he can go head-to-head with Taliban justice and win? Think 6′4″, 185 lean pounds with an imposing schnoz and even more impressive résumé: valedictorian at West Point, a first at Oxford on his Rhodes Scholarship, magna cum laude graduate of Har-vard Law (a relatively obscure second-year student named Barack Obama joined him on Law Review and was later voted its first black president). Martins married his West Point sweetheart (now a retired Army helicopter pilot); their two kids attend Princeton and​—​where else?​—​the Point. He hasn’t seen much of his family in the last five years, which clearly wears at his soul. He doesn’t complain, at least not much. 

Martins officially started his new gig at Guantánamo on September 15. He is effectively running an 80-attorney law firm. In an interview from Kandahar, he said this of the Military Commissions: “I believe that within the space defined by our values, we must be relentlessly empirical and pragmatic in the means that we use to protect our people and our national security interests. While this new assignment has significant challenges, I am a soldier and will certainly do my best to prosecute these cases in a manner that contributes to the legitimacy of all that we undertake in opposing terror networks of global reach.”

A soldier, indeed. Martins, 51, has humped it as an Army commander and attorney for getting on 25 years now, often working directly under Petraeus. The two are good buddies. In fact, I first met Martins when I was in Iraq in 2007 to go running with Petraeus for a Runner’s World story. Martins came along and is, like Petraeus, a gifted harrier; they finished the 5.7-mile run stride-for-stride in the stifling desert heat at the pace of 6-minutes-per-mile. 

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