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It's safe to assume that the 150 or so Al Qaeda and Taliban militiamen now occupying those 6-by-8-foot cages in Guantánamo Bay are not sympathetic characters. It's also reasonable, and important, to say that they are in less danger to life and limb than their comrades handed over by the United States to the Northern Alliance. While the Western press has focused almost exclusively on Camp X-Ray, Amnesty International reported on February 1 that "the lives of thousands of prisoners in Afghanistan are at risk" from hunger and "rampant" dysentery, pneumonia and hepatitis, in overcrowded prison camps where inmates suffer shortages of food and medical supplies and "are not sheltered from severe winter conditions."
The fact that Camp X-Ray comes out ahead of the dreadful prevailing POW standard in postwar Afghanistan does the United States no credit. The image of prisoners shipped hooded, shackled and sedated to an unknown location was a foreign-policy disaster: in Europe, the Mideast and Asia alike, conjuring raw memories of the most vicious hostage-takings. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's insistence that X-Ray's prisoners fall outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions and the US Constitution only furthered the impression of an Administration descending to the brutal law-enforcement benchmark of an authoritarian regime like Saudi Arabia. (Evidently the Administration just wants its guests to feel at home: Saudis count for at least 100 of the Guantánamo prisoners.) The White House's February 7 turnabout, declaring that Geneva Convention rules apply to Taliban captives but not Al Qaeda, amounts to a fig leaf satisfying neither the specific requirements of the accords nor the broader sense of alarm worldwide.
In part the shock expressed by US allies at the method of transport and incarceration at Guantánamo shows the huge gap between Europe and the United States on prisons and punishment. Western European prisons, for the most part, come nowhere near the degrading and isolating inmate-control regimens in many US facilities. Camp X-Ray is a close cousin to supermax penitentiaries with their psychically debilitating twenty-three-hour-a-day solitary confinement and twenty-four-hour cell lighting.
But comparing X-Ray to conventional prisons, and Afghanistan militia to conventional prisoners, only forces the questions Rumsfeld and the White House have tried so hard to obfuscate: Are the prisoners POWs or criminals? Just what rights should these international brigades of clerical fascism retain, as the losing side in a war backed by the United States but fought largely by proxy forces? Rumsfeld and the White House insist that neither Taliban nor Al Qaeda are prisoners of war but instead "unlawful combatants," suggesting that they don't deserve the numerous protections afforded POWs, most famously the right to respond to questions with name, rank and serial number but also including rights to representation, repatriation and due process. The Administration is now willing to admit that Taliban militia, as the former army of Afghanistan, are at least covered by the accords' broader humanitarian provisions; but the majority of Guantánamo prisoners--those Al Qaeda "Arab Afghans" who fought as allies of the Taliban regime--the White House still casts completely outside the protection of the Geneva Conventions.
A press outspun by Rumsfeld's daily patter has missed the simple fact that, as law, this argument has more holes than a Tora Bora cave after US bombardment. "Unlawful combatants" is a phrase found nowhere in the Geneva accords. Here is how Human Rights Watch summarizes it: "Under international humanitarian law, combatants captured during an international armed conflict should be presumed to be POWs until determined otherwise." Only a court or other "competent tribunal"--not the Defense Secretary or the President--can make that determination. In fact, the Pentagon's own Judge Advocate General Handbook declares that "when doubt exists" about a prisoner's status, "tribunals must be convened"--as they were for Iraqi prisoners in the Gulf War.
The United States has good reason to care about these procedures. During the Vietnam War, Hanoi declared captured US fliers "unlawful combatants." It was Washington that insisted otherwise; in 1977 the United States made sure that the Geneva protocols were revised to insure that anyone captured in war is protected by the treaty whether civilian, military or in between, whether or not they technically meet the POW definition. Simply put, when President Bush unilaterally declares the majority of its prisoners outside the penumbra of the Geneva convention, he is still flouting both international law and international sensibility.
The trouble with placing Guantánamo's prisoners in a legal no man's land doesn't end there. If captured militia are not POWs then they can continue to be held only if they're individually charged with war crimes or other specific offenses. If that should happen to the Guantánamo prisoners, they're entitled to a "fair and regular trial" (a standard that almost certainly cannot be met by the drumhead courts authorized by Bush).
Bush's latest policy turn amounts to internment without trial for alleged Al Qaeda. It's entirely appropriate to want to question the Al Qaeda mafia's foot soldiers, and there are plenty of legitimate claims on the prosecution of Al Qaeda, from citizens in Kabul and New York and points between. But the way to go about both is through existing criminal and international laws--an approach that gets results, as the victims of Gen. Augusto Pinochet proved in courts on two continents. The Rumsfeld-Bush strategy, on the other hand, undermines the idea of cooperative transnational prosecution and representation of victims, replacing evolving international law with an autocratic extension of this Administration's foreign-policy unilateralism: If we can live without the ABM treaty, why not pitch those troublesome Geneva accords over the side as well?
In the Administration only Colin Powell understands how profoundly this shortsighted approach runs counter to the national interest. Powell is no friend of human rights. But he pushed so hard--winning the compromise of Geneva Convention recongition for Taliban prisoners--because as a former military man he knows that the United States, the world's number-one projector of force, has its own reasons to seek universal respect for the Geneva Conventions--conventions we instantly invoked when American pilots were shot down in the Persian Gulf, and again in the Balkans. Powell knows, too, that the whole logic of the Geneva accords--those special POW protections--is to entice losing combatants into pragmatic and dignified surrender. By making a transnational mockery of the Geneva protocols, Rumsfeld and Bush are inviting future enemies to conclude that suicidal escalation, rather than surrender, is the only sensible closing chapter of their jihad.
Rumsfeld is hell-bent on turning the prisoners of Camp X-Ray into legal nonpersons--essentially stateless, without the safe harbor of either international law or the US Constitution, granted status and rights only at the whim of the Defense Secretary. That may seem to serve the short-term goals of Al Qaeda interrogation, but the picture it presents to the world--a superpower playing semantic games with the most basic wartime covenants, setting back the evolving machinery for transnational justice--will generate its own unhappy blowback.
We have reached the point that the idea of liberty, an idea relatively recent and new, is already in the process of fading from our consciences and our standards of morality, the point that neoliberal globalization is in the process of assuming its opposite: that of a global police state, of a terror of security. Deregulation has ended in maximum security, in a level of restriction and constraint equivalent to that found in fundamentalist societies.--Jean Baudrillard, "L'Esprit du Terrorisme,"
reprinted in Harper's Magazine, February 2002
Sorry to have missed my column deadline. I got delayed at the airport. I was intending to write about the progress of the war on war. I wanted to write about how similar are the wars of words being used in the war on terrorism, the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy and the war on hunger. I had intended to explore the ramifications of terms like "axis of evil," "triumvirate of terror," "parasites" and the concept of "taking no prisoners" (just detainees).
If I hadn't been delayed, I meant to talk about the war stories we're telling ourselves. That the Geneva Conventions aren't such a big thing. There's just no time for Miranda rights. Civil rights are just not needed. Got to break a few rules to enforce the law.
I was thinking that maybe I am just behind the times. While I wasn't looking, we moved on to less law, more New World Order. It's sort of a military order, as it turns out. It's a religious order too, what with our taxes becoming tithes for Faith Based Initiatives, Soldiers of Fortune and born-again Armies of Compassion.
But order it is, and you've got to admit, an ordered society is a nice and tidy one. Enemies are secretly and sanitarily disposed of. The media are controlled to provide only uplifting images of clean conquest and happy, grateful multitudes. Noisy protesters are swept into neat piles, like leaves. The government encourages village snoops and urban gossips to volunteer their infinite time and darkest thoughts as a way of keeping the rest of us in line. And I don't know much about Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, but you've got to say this for him: that bias-cut green silk tunic worn over relaxed-fit, wool/linen blend trousers has become "le must" of the fashion world. No wonder Bush is up for that Nobel Peace Prize.
Anyway, that's what I was going to write about, but I didn't have time because I had to take a flight to Philadelphia and I was late because the old man who lives on the next block put his head in my car window as I was about to drive off and he wouldn't remove it while he told me all about how he's our new neighborhood volunteer-for-victory monitor or some such, and he wanted to take an inventory right there and then of any supplies I might have in my house that would be useful in case of national emergency. Any gas masks? Generators? Cell phones? Cudgels? Axes? Prescription drugs?
"Band-Aids," I offered politely. "And could we possibly do this another time?"
"How many people live in your house?" he persisted. "And didn't I see you pushing a baby carriage the other day?"
"Not in many years," I say.
"But I'm sure it was you," he pressed. At that instant I was visited by a very clear image of him on the witness stand. He is white-haired and gentle-eyed, firm-voiced and credible. Even I wanted to believe him so much that I forgot that I had not yet been charged with anything.
When I finally got to the airport I went through the abasements of security, a ritual cleansing of the sort practiced at maximum security prisons: I removed my shoes. I took off my coat. I held out my arms. A guard in a rakish blue beret bestowed apologies like a rain of blessings as she wanded my armpits. "You have an underwire in your bra?" she asked. "You mind if I feel?"
It is hard to be responsive to such a prayer with any degree of grace. It is ceremonial, I know, a warding off of strip-search hell. "Not at all," I intoned, as though singing in Latin.
Another agent was going through my bags. He removed my nail clippers from the intimacy of my makeup pouch and discarded them in a large vat filled with hundreds of nail clippers. A proper sacrifice, I think. I imagine they will distribute them to the poor.
The agent put on rubber gloves and opened my thermos and swirled the coffee around. He removed the contents of my purse and spread it out. When he picked up my leatherbound diary and flipped slowly through the pages, a balloon of irreligiosity exploded at the back of my head, and I could feel the hair rise up, as it does sometimes, getting all militant despite my best prostrations of mousse.
"My diary?" I said as evenly as I could. "This is getting like the old Soviet Union."
"So, you visited the Soviet Union...?" he asked, a glinty new interest hardening what had been his prior languor.
Anyway, I finally got to where I was going. And on my way back from Philadelphia, I wasn't searched at all. They stopped the woman just in front of me, though, and there she stood, shoeless and coatless, with the tampons from her purse emptied upon the altar of a plastic tray. Once on the plane, she and I commiserated, and then the oddest thing happened. Others around us joined in about how invaded and humiliated they felt when searched. The conversation spread across the aisle, then to the seat in front, the row in back. It grew to about five rows of people, all angry at the overseers, all suspicious, all disgruntled and afraid. I was, I admit, strangely relieved to see that we were not only black or brown; we were men and women, white and Asian, young kids, old designer suits. There was a weird, sad kind of unity in our vulnerability, this helplessness of ours. But there was a scary emotional edge to the complaining, a kind of heresy that flickered through it too. What a baffled little coterie we were. Equal opportunity at last.
Anyway, dear editor, that, in short, is why this is not a column. I was having a really bad hair day.
To the January ritual of reflecting on the old year and looking to the new, add the "top five" list of various 2001 nuclear events put together by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
"I stand before you today as a citizen of a country that has had nothing but disaster, war, brutality and deprivation against its people for many years," Hamid Karzai, leader of the interim government in Afghanistan, told the conference of international donors in Tokyo. The representatives responded with pledges totaling more than $4.7 billion, over time spans ranging from a year to the next three to five years. That's a start, but much more will be needed--the United Nations estimates $15 billion over the next ten years--and we can only wait and see whether these promissory notes to a battered but resilient people will be redeemed in full.
The war, now winding down, that resulted in the ouster of the Taliban regime and the smashing of Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan can be called a success in terms of the US-led coalition's initial goals, although Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar have eluded capture. But the war's effects on the Afghan people have not begun to be dealt with, and US strategies and objectives in the fight against terrorism it claims to lead remain ambiguous.
The US bombing campaign was ferociously effective against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the field, but was the civilian toll excessive? Official information is scanty, and independent investigations by human rights groups have not yet been made, but the question has to be asked: Was the utmost effort made to avoid civilian suffering, and was the cost in lives excessive in proportion to the goals of the war (see Howard Zinn on page 16)?
The tempest of high-tech ordnance loosed on the land drove thousands of Afghans from their homes, and many of them languish in refugee camps on the brink of starvation. The bombs halted humanitarian food deliveries, and only now are stockpiles being restored to normal levels. In the countryside and in cities like Kandahar and Jalalabad, deliveries of food, shelter and medicine are being stolen by resurgent warlords or armed gangs.
And then there is the deadly legacy of mines and unexploded bombs from years of warfare. According to a UN report, "Afghanistan is the most mine- and unexploded ordnance (UXO) affected country in the world." A massive cleanup effort is under way, but it will be months or years before roads and fields will be cleared for normal agriculture and commerce.
Much of Afghanistan's plight is the culmination of twenty years of war, three years of drought and the destructive policies of the Taliban's repressive theocracy. The cold statistics give a bare sketch of a nation in ruins: Life expectancy, forty-four years; one in four children dies before age 5; one in twelve women dies in childbirth; only 38 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls are in school; scarcely a quarter of the population has access to potable water and one in eight to sanitation; electricity consumption is about the lowest in the world; there are two telephones per 1,000 people (compared with twenty-four per 1,000 in Pakistan and sixty-eight per 1,000 in Uzbekistan).
The interim government desperately needs immediate infusions of cash to pay civil servants, who have gone unpaid for months, and to recruit more teachers and police. Kabul has only 100 trained policemen, and the rate of murder and theft is on the rise. Daily life in the capital has returned to a semblance of normality, but armed Northern Alliance fighters commit theft and extortion, while other cities and large stretches of the countryside are ruled by bandits and warlords. Some 700,000 fighters are at large.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has reiterated the US commitment to remain engaged with Afghanistan, but as UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's spokesman said in response to Powell's speech in Kabul, "Reassurance is good. Cash is better." Aid funds pledged must be delivered quickly; beyond that, a rich country like America should be providing leadership in the financial arena. A dependable flow of money and technical assistance must last for the next decade.
The mission of the US military in Afghanistan should expand to include shoring up the frail Karzai government, helping it to restore security, to provide for the welfare of the people and to enlist the support of the fractious ethnic groups for the Loya Jirga to convene in June to set up a provisional government. Largely at US behest, the role of the international security force has been confined to Kabul. But if the interim government and its successor are to extend their writ over the entire country, they'll need a strong army and a police force. In this effort the international security force will be an essential player, and the United States should give it robust support.
The work in Afghanistan won't be finished until the international community is fully engaged in helping Afghanistan build a government that can provide the security the people crave. Immediate steps that need to be taken include integrating idle armed fighters into a national army and disarming and providing work for the rest of the 700,000 armed men who have no jobs and who are rapidly becoming part of the security problem. (And jobs must be created for millions of newly liberated women.) The country is awash in guns, and the UN Development Program has launched a campaign to reduce their number. The United States could help by supplying money to buy these weapons and even to bribe warlords and would-be drug lords into supporting the government.
Of course, the flow of aid money must be monitored to avoid corrupt diversions. And as Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation has recently pointed out, competition among international donor groups should be curbed; money should be channeled through representatives of the Afghan people so that it does not become, as Rubin writes, "simply a new political currency to be fought over by warlords, who will play one aid agency against another and all of them against the central government."
Achieving stability--preventing Afghanistan from reverting to anarchy, violence, terrorism and drug running--must be the top priority of the US government. The war in Afghanistan should not be adopted as a template for future military actions elsewhere, as the right-wing warriors in Rumsfeld's Defense Department contemplate. The conditions that brought military success in Afghanistan cannot be replicated in countries like Iraq, Somalia, Indonesia or the Philippines. Nor should they be. And rather than base-building in neighboring countries--where US support for dictators could breed even more anti-American resentment--Washington should focus on nation-building in Afghanistan.
For the terrorist threat must not be considered solely a military problem. The "enemy" is too scattered, too amorphous. The struggle against terrorism must become a cooperative global intelligence and law-enforcement campaign, with a strong UN presence. Rather than being a pretext for an expensive military buildup that wastes funds better spent on social welfare, this campaign should incorporate international economic development efforts aimed at killing the roots of terrorism--poverty and alienation. It must also include diplomatic outreach that rises above realpolitik and economic interest to oppose obsolete oligarchies and support democratic movements worldwide. And Washington must work through international bodies so that legitimate self-defense is not seen as a US war on the Arab world.
The Bush Administration's policies have been less than heartening thus far. Despite a few humanitarian commitments of hard cash, this Administration is congenitally skewed toward nationalism and unilateralism. Its inclination is to withdraw into fortress America, the latest example being the cruel treatment of the Al Qaeda prisoners now caged at Guantánamo naval base, which has set off a furor abroad and further alienates the Arab world. The Pentagon categorizes them as "unlawful combatants" so they can be sequestered, interrogated and possibly tried before military tribunals. According to the Third Geneva Convention, if there is a dispute about soldiers' prisoner-of-war status, a "competent tribunal" should determine it.
America's most effective weapon in the fight against terrorism is our democratic and juridical ideals. Our foreign policy should, above all, be grounded in those ideals and be a bedrock for human rights.
What if we could see the Afghan dead as we've seen the September 11 victims?
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