In September an Afghan journalist, Jawed Ahmad, was released from a US military prison in Afghanistan where his jailers ” broke two of my ribs during the beatings.” He worked for Canadian TV and the BBC, among other media outlets, and he had done nothing wrong. That is obvious, because he was freed without charge after a year of hellish treatment at the hands of uniformed filth whose claim to being human is at best feeble. If there had been the slightest genuine suspicion that he had committed a crime he should have been put on trial, but that is not the way the US system works, in these horrible days. Bush policy in Iraq and Afghanistan is never to admit that anyone can be innocent because everyone arrested is automatically guilty. But will it get any better under Obama? Can he alter what has become normal behavior on the part of the robotic minions of the commander-in-chief?
In February Jawed Ahmad was declared an “enemy combatant,” which is a glib catch-all description used by Washington’s foulest to describe any foreigner who, in shades of the horrible McCarthy years, they suspect of possibly being involved in what they term anti-American activities. These victim of hysteria, of whom there are countless thousands around the world, are locked up in prisons where their treatment varies from casual brutality to hideous torture. From the British-owned, US-leased island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to the US colonial enclave at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, by way of Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan and equally horrible prisons in Iraq, the misery of innocent – or even guilty – detainees casts a dreadful blot on what the world used to think was a fair and free democracy.
Two Afghans were beaten to death by American soldiers in Bagram in 2002 (and these are the ones we know about). As recorded by McClatchy Newspapers “Spc. Jeremy Callaway, who admitted to striking about 12 detainees at Bagram, told military investigators in sworn testimony that he was uncomfortable following orders to “mentally and physically break the detainees.” He didn’t go into detail. “I guess you can call it torture,” said Callaway.” The maximum punishment awarded to the killers was three months in confinement. Imagine the penalty that would have been meted out if an American had been beaten to death by an Afghan. Imagine the sentence if an American in America had been murdered in this fashion : the death penalty, automatically. But Afghans don’t matter. Nor do Iraqis.
Anyone unfortunate enough to be taken captive by US forces or intelligence people can expect nothing but the direst conditions, indefinite confinement without charge and without legal representation, and – oh joy – methods of interrogation that “have been deemed not to cause significant physical or psychological harm.”
That quotation is from one of the worst Secretaries of State the US has suffered, the Bush protégé Condoleezza Rice, who wrote to Congress on 12 September that the “simulated torture techniques” administered to would-be members of US special forces during their training, would not harm them.
Right. Of course it wouldn’t harm them : because these volunteers knew that the ‘torture’ would end immediately if they just once shouted Stop, Please Stop It. And they knew, also, that it would certainly end, sometime. Maybe in an hour or two; maybe longer. But they knew it would not go on indefinitely. And when it ended they would be free to boast that they got through it without any problem.
But real prisoners, held in filthy primitive conditions, beaten by vicious barbaric laughing guards and interrogated by demented sadists, have no idea when their torture is going to end. They can’t hold up a hand and say “Stop.” It is absurdly naive – or despicably pitiless – for Rice to claim that their treatment does not cause “significant physical or psychological harm;” but that’s the way things are in psycholand.
Detention without charge, denial of access to a lawyer and refusal of trial have become normal in the US justice system as practiced by the US military. They arrested a Reuters’ photographer, Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed, in September, and the Iraqi Central Criminal Court ruled on 30 November that there was no evidence against him and that he should be released from US military custody. In a staggering display of contempt for democracy, decency and the constitutions of Iraq and America the military refused to comply. He’s still in jail; without justice, without hope. So much for democracy, US-style, in Iraq.
And contempt for democracy doesn’t stop with sadism in prisons. Afghanistan, like Iraq, is supposed to have an independent government. This means that foreign activity in these countries should be subject to domestic laws and that there should be total cooperation between foreign armed forces and those of the country on which they are inflicted. When military operations are mounted, the authorities of the ‘host’ countries, appointed by democratically-elected governments, should be informed. Does this happen? Almost never. In a recent display of ignorance and criminal arrogance, US special forces attacked a police station in the town of Qalat in south eastern Afghanistan on December 10, imagining it to be a “militant hideout.” The policemen thought the special forces were militants and opened fire.
The police were in their own country ; they were in a police post whose location should be known to foreign troops operating in their country ; they were not told that there would be any foreign operations in their area. So of course they opened fire. And what did the gallant special forces do? Did they “close with and kill the enemy, in any terrain, in any weather, by day or by night”? (This used to be the way we were taught but it seems to have gone out of fashion a bit.) Don’t be silly: they called in airstrikes that killed the police commander, five of his men, and, inevitably, a civilian whose house they destroyed. Oh; and wounded “at least 13 others.”
119 Afghan civilians (including policemen) were killed by US airstrikes in January to July 2008, The figure for the whole year will be much higher. The effect on Afghans cannot be measured accurately, but it is unlikely that their regard for foreign troops will be high. In fact it is inevitable that there will be much hatred engendered by these cowboy catastrophes, concerning which the first option is to lie if it is considered the truth is unlikely to surface.
Take the case of the killing of 90 people by US airstrikes in August in the Afghan village of Azizabad. The immediate reaction by the US military was to flatly deny that any civilians had been killed. An inquiry by the UN which confirmed the scores of civilian deaths was scorned by the military. Unfortunately for them, a local doctor had taken photographs showing 40 bodies, mostly children and young women. Many of them had been his patients.
After the slaughter, the Afghan Women’s Association recorded a 25 year-old woman as saying that when she regained consciousness “I was in hospital, and they told me that all of my family were dead and already buried. Was my two-year-old child a terrorist? Then am I not also a terrorist? Why did they let me live?” And “Ghulam Azrat, 50, director of the middle school in Azizabad, said he collected 60 bodies after the bombing. “We put the bodies in the main mosque. Most of these dead bodies were children and women. It took all morning to collect them” [he told Associated Press].”
But even then, even after they had been forced to hold an inquiry that eventually had to admit that civilians were killed, the US military stated “US and Afghan forces did not commit any violations of the law of war or rules of engagement.” This was because there were supposedly “22 anti-coalition militants” killed. In fact, of the fifteen males killed, only seven were under 40; the others were ancients.
One survivor said he heard shooting and was just coming out of his house when he saw his neighbor’s sons running across. “They were killed right here; they were 10 and 7 years old.” In the compound next to his, he said, four whole families, including those of his two brothers, were killed. “They bombard us, they hate us, they kill us,” he said. “God will punish them.”
Well, God might punish them, eventually. But they seem safe enough from justice while on earth. The sadistic torturers; the incompetent arrogant oafs who killed the policemen ; the gung-ho gangsters who murdered the children in Azizabad; the liars who tried to cover up – all will go unpunished.
Will there be change under Obama? Will he order a case review of the 15,000 people held without charge or trial, without legal advice, in hellish conditions, without hope, by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will he be able to release from captivity the unknown number of people kept in foreign jails by arrangement with US intelligence operatives? Will he make it his business to ensure that the demented out-of-control special forces be reined in? Will he order inquiries into torture? Will he, above all, insist on the truth being told? Watch this space.
BRIAN CLOUGHLEY’s book about the Pakistan army, War, Coups and Terror, has just been published by Pen & Sword Books (UK) and will be published in the US in May by Skyhorse (New York).