Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Guantanamo Millstone

By Saeed Qureshi

That first mistake that the United States made was to send her army to Afghanistan to punish the Taliban for hosting the terrorist outfit Al-Qaida and its leaders. In the 80’s, Al-Qaida boss Osama was one of the leading crusaders fighting against the Soviet Communist army in Afghanistan on behalf of the free world led by the United States.

On October 14, 2001, seven days after the U.S.-British/NATO incessant bombing, the Taliban offered to surrender Osama Bin Laden to a third country for trial, if the bombing halted and they were shown evidence of his involvement in the September 11 terrorist attacks. This offer was rejected by U.S. President Bush, who declared "There's no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he's guilty.”

The United States and her allies played havoc in Afghanistan and finally dismantled the Taliban government and dispersed them. But the war didn’t end there. Ever since, the American forces along with NATO counterparts are bogged down in a kind of interminable conflict with the enemy combatants. Since then the US backed protégé Northern Alliance is governing the war torn Afghanistan. There was no peace under Taliban’s rule and the situation is far from stable under Northern Alliance and despite heavy presence of the occupation forces.

In the wake of the final decisive battle with the Taliban, the United States made second fatal mistake of rounding up several hundred fighters and lodging them partly in Afghanistan and partly in Guantanamo Detention Center to try them for war crimes and give them the punishment to those who deserved. The Same year, “President George W. Bush signed an executive order stating that the US military could indefinitely detain any non-citizen who was believed to be involved in international terrorism. On the advice of the Justice Department that the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp could be considered outside US legal jurisdiction, prisoners captured in Afghanistan were moved there beginning in early 2002.

It should be remembered that in the second and the first world wars, countless soldiers were lodged in huge concentration camps. The Japanese and the Germans did this in the Second World War against the enemy forces and so did the allied forces against the captured Germans and the Japanese. The Germans ran the gas chambers and concentration camps where millions Jews had been tortured and killed. But these colliding armies were all trained and regular forces.However, the nature of Taliban’s combat with US and vice versa was not of a world war level. Taliban never postured themselves as the enemy of United States and it is believable that they could have been finally prevailed upon to surrender Osama and his ilk to America. There was no cogent or compelling justification to wage an all out war in such an indecent haste and with huge military paraphernalia against these fierce radical Muslims. Still to this extent America could have found some plausible grounds to annihilate the Taliban fighting force. But to bring the captured Taliban close to United States mainland for trials was a big blunder. Taliban were neither Japanese nor Germans or Russians who could be categorized as elephantine contenders or who could be held responsible for 9/11 catastrophe.

Guantanamo Detention Center and its inmates have turned out to be a millstone around the neck of the United States. It’s like a bone stuck up in the food pipe that neither can be swallowed nor taken out. The Guantanamo prison has raised many a moral and legal question for the United States. As earlier stated, these inmates who were rounded up and brought to this dreaded and tightly guarded prison were not all regular fighters or trained soldiers of a regular army. They were rag tag, unorganized, religiously brainwashed stray fighters who could have been ignored like other Taliban who fled from the battleground. Some of the civilians were just caught in the cross fire and were not actual combatants.Since 2002, the trial of the incarcerated persons has remained a non starter. There was either a willful evasion on the part of the Bush administration to keep these hapless prisoners in a state of limbo and without trial or there was an inherent lacuna in the legal system of military commissions to try these people. These prisoners were subjected to the most degrading living conditions that human beings could be exposed to. There was more of revenge, rancor and sadism in dealing with these warriors who were less brutal and callous than the Japanese who bombed the Pearl Harbor or the Nazi tormentors who roasted the Jews in gas chambers. But still the Japanese and Germans were treated under Geneva Convention framework while these guys with less severe crimes were brutalized and tortured as if they were worst than animals.

Such an abnormal and freakish behavior that barred all legal and human avenues for justice to these people would remain as indelible scars on the collective conscience of the rational Americans forever. It is a stigma that tars the bright image of American as a country run on rule of law, equality, freedom, integrity and fairness derived from the Bill of Rights, Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It has been already quite late to get rid of this onerous burden and come out of this quagmire that is swallowing the moral standing of United States.

Undeniably, President Obama’s approach and the policy on Guantanamo, enunciated on May 21, is clearly the first honest and well defined attempt to cut this ‘Gordian Knot’. Guantanamo is not only a moral hang up for America but is also a huge wasteful financial undertaking. His emphasis on evolving a legitimate legal framework to deal with the remaining Guantanamo detainees whose number is around 240 is a measure that is not only overdue but absolutely called for and righteous. He echoed the sentiments of the truth loving Americans when he said that, “There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world”…”the problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place”He further expressed his resolve to address this paramount problem in these words, “As President, I refuse to allow this problem to fester”….. “Instead of using the flawed commissions of the last seven years, my administration is bringing our commissions in line with the rule of law. …… “In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man.”

President Obama divides the Guantanamo inmates in five categories and has decided to deal with them in accordance with the nature of their involvement in war against the United States. And that is a pragmatic plan which should be endorsed and appreciated by even his opponents. The Republicans and the neocons would bend heavily over backward to stall his plan aimed at resolving the Guantanamo imbroglio. The first indication is the blocking by Democratic Senate of $80 million appropriation to close the prison camp in eight months.It would bring no harm to America if the bona fides of the remaining prisoners are sifted and those who are absolved must be set free. A state of indecision and procrastination is certainly impairing the American reputation as a country where rule of law prevails. Moreover, it is inhuman and illegal to deny giving a chance to these hapless guys even after 8 years of detention to establish whether they were criminals or not. The former administration released 525 detainees which means a precedent was already there to review the cases of the remaining detainees.

But hopefully with the courage and conviction and honesty of the purpose that he is equipped with, President Obama would finally prevail and would close the Guantanamo center with the establishment of a proper legal framework for trial of the left out prisoners. President is right when he maintains that the American nation could no more afford the luxury of relitigating the cases of 240 remaining inmates while in seven years the military commissions could convict only three prisoners. He builds up a strong moral and legal case when he says that “these 240 people have now spent years in legal limbo. We're cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess.”

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