Back during World War II — a bitterly fought, bloody conflict that lasted seven years (four years for the US) — many German prisoners of war were held in camps in the US. Others held by US forces, French forces and British forces were held in camps in Britain and France. Most were released fairly quickly after the war ended, unless they were suspected of war crimes, in which case they were held for more questioning and investigation. By the end of 1948, virtually all German prisoners captured by the US, British and French had been released and repatriated to Germany. (The fate for German POWs in the Soviet Union was much worse, largely because of German brutality on the Eastern Front during the war there.)
It’s worth recalling this history as we look at the hysteria that is erupting now over the release of five Taliban fighters from long captivity in the US concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
These men, who are prisoners of war, captured in Afghanistan where they were fighting the US invading army, were released in a prisoner swap that freed Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier captured by the Taliban five years ago when he strayed from his base in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.
To hear the howls from Republicans and even some Democrats like California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, you’d think these five prisoners, who have been put under the jurisdiction of officials in Qatar, which promises to hold them in that country and to monitor their activities for a year, pose a mortal threat to the US, and to every American living here.
It’s the same hysteria that has prevented the Obama administration from simply closing down the Guantanamo concentration camp and either freeing or moving its remaining prisoners to federal prisons in the US.
And this hysteria is only going to get worse as the war in Afghanistan, America’s longest military conflict, finally winds down. That’s because as illegal as the detention center at Guantanamo has been from day one, when it was set up under the legal dodge that since it was on leased Cuban soil, it was not a US jurisdiction and thus not subject to US laws concerning the right to a trial, the right of the accused to hear evidence presented against himself, the right not to be tortured, etc., once that war ends there will be absolutely no justification, however baroque, to justify holding Afghan fighters.
The Obama, or some successor administration, will almost certainly continue to try and argue that “Al Qaeda” fighters held at Guantanamo are not POWs, but rather are “terrorists,” and thus can be held indefinitely. They are wrong under international law, and by any honest reading of the US constitution, but they will probably continue, with the blessing of our thoroughly corrupted Supreme Court, to claim that the so-called “War on Terror” gives them the right to hold “terrorists” indefinitely without trial. But that still does not apply to the Taliban, who have not committed acts of terror against the US, but merely have been fighting to defend their own country from the US invader.
Once that Afghan War is over, and the US is gone from the scene, the POWs held from that war must be repatriated.
Most Americans don’t get this. Like the Ukrainian government in Kiev, which calls all pro-Russian separatist fighters in Eastern Ukraine “terrorists,” the US has been calling all those it is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan “terrorists,” deliberately conflating alleged Al Qaeda terrorists with the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The US has also conflated the Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners it holds in Guantanamo as all being “terrorists.”
They are not. There is not one instance on record in which an Afghan fighter has engaged in an act of terrorism against a person or even a physical location in the US (although it should also be noted that with the US conducting military attacks in Afghanistan, the Taliban would be within their legal rights under the rules of war to attack targets inside the US.) That has been true all through this interminable war, and was true before the war too.
Certainly Taliban fighters have engaged in actions that the US calls “terrorism” inside Afghanistan, such as bombing street markets and hotels where westerners (often US-hired mercenary forces and support personnel for the US war effort) dwell, but this is a dirty war. The US military has likewise been engaging in what any honest observer would call terrorism in Afghanistan all along: night raids on homes in which women and children are gunned down, air assaults and drone attacks on wedding parties and the notorious policy of “double taps,” in which a suspected Taliban leader is hit with an air strike, and then a second missile is fired at those who rush to help the wounded, or at the subsequent funeral. These are the actions of a rogue, terrorist state.
In any event, it is absurd, and really pathetic, to see Americans and their smarmy elected officials, quailing at and denouncing the freeing of Taliban prisoners, or expressing horror and outrage any suggestion that such prisoners be transferred to US prisons.
If the Allied Forces in World War II could confidently and securely hold thousands of hardened German soldiers as POWs in US camps while the war was on, and could let them go when the war ended, surely this country can survive the repatriation or release of a few dozen remaining suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners from Guantanamo (remember, none of these guys has even been tried!).
If we can’t handle that, we need to change the last line of the national anthem to: “Oh say does that Star-Spangled Banner look nice, o’er the land of the meek, and the home of the mice.”
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).