Omar Khadr, Bradley Manning and Our National Psyche

At present there are two men sitting in prison who have never met but are nonetheless intimately connected. One is 23 year old Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was with a group of Afghan resistance fighters attacked by U.S. troops in 2002 (when he was 15). The second is PFC Bradley Manning, the man who blew the whistle on the barbaric tactics used by the U.S. in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is their different forms of resistance to a war sold to the U.S. public as “necessary” and defensive that binds their fate.

Omar Khadr was taken prisoner in 2002. The United States claimed he was a member of al-Qaida and said he met Osama bin Laden when he was 10. This made him an “intelligence treasure trove.” Al-Qaeda obliged the U.S. by describing Omar as a “lion cub” defender of the faith. In truth neither claim is real evidence of any definite organizational connection. The number of distinct resistence groups in Afghanistan runs into the dozens and al-Qaeda will breezily claim every one of them. According to General James Jones, who served as Obama’s National Security Adviser, the number of actual al-Qaeda operatives at any one time in Afghanistan is under 100 individuals. The assertion that 15 year old Omar was one them is problematic. But it was enough for the American government that he was with the resistance. Having complete power over both him and his media image, he could be made into anything the American government wanted. For instance, he is accused of throwing a grenade at American troops despite the fact that the reports of the 2002 action are confused and contradictory. There is no eye-witness evidence of Khadir actions during the fighting. Nonetheless, one American soldier died at the time and Omar Khadr has been charged with his “murder.”

I think it is safe to say that Omar Khadr was a participant in the resistance to American invaders in Afghanistan. However, and this is the seminal point, no one contests the fact that he was 15 years old at the time of his capture. That made him legally a child and international law requires that child soldiers be treated as victims of an environment beyond their control, and not as an adult making a conscious choice to participate in a war. In other words, using a phrase that President Obama is fond of, according to international law this was not a “war of choice” for Omar. The Bush administration did not care for international law in general and so to get around this particular one, among others, it quite arbitrarily proclaimed that the fighters resisting U.S. troops in Afghanistan were not part of an “real” army and therefore not “real” soldiers. As nonsensical as this was, it allowed the U.S. military to deny Omar Khadr all legal rights and lock him away for eight years while they interrogated, threatened, tortured and abused him incessantly. Not surprisingly they got a “confession” out of Omar using these tactics and a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay decided that the “confession” is admissible as evidence. President Obama has made no objection to this situation. Nor, for that matter, has the Canadian government, whose conservative majority has essentially abandoned one of its own citizens to his fate within a lawless system. In this case, at least, the old saying that military justice is a contradiction in terms is certainly correct.

Bradley Manning was an army intelligence analyst with U.S. forces in the Middle East who became deeply disturbed by what his job revealed to him. Essentially, it made him a front row witness to what he described as “incredible things, awful things.” This primarily entailed the careless killing of innocent civilians. As an act of conscience he gave the website Wikileaks over 200,000 classified documents and a number of videos showing attacks on Iraqi and Afghan civilians. Unfortunately, he confided in another American hacker who turned him into the government. He is presently in solitary confinement at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia and charged with, among other things, “transmitting classified information to an unauthorized third party.” If convicted, and there seems little doubt that the military will have it any other way, he faces 52 years in prison.

The breech of security in this case was significant enough to draw comment from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who asserted that what Manning had done was “grievously harmful.” Why so? Because, “the battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous to our troops, our allies and Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that part of the world.” This was followed up by at least one Republican Congressman, Mike Rogers of Michigan, asserting that Manning is traitor and should be executed. On the other hand, Defense Department and administration spokesmen have been trying to minimize the effect of Manning’s action by asserting that the information he made public was “nothing new.” Just old data. It is hard to see how the government can have it both ways. But there can be little doubt that Gates was right about one thing. The information will “damage…our reputation in that part of the world” and elsewhere too. Those who have only now learned what the U.S. is doing should be appalled . Those who knew all along ought to have already been appalled.

Some Observations

The government leaders who have accused both Omar Khadr and Bradley Manning of egregious crimes would themselves be judged criminal in a world where they did not control the flow of information. As the human rights lawyer Francis Boyle has pointed out, the war in Afghanistan, as the one in Iraq, is illegal under international law. “Congress never declared war. The UN Security Council never authorized it under Article 51. And the Taliban never attacked the United States or authorized or approved such an attack.”

As Stephen Lendman tells us in a fine piece on Manning published on August 7, 2010, “FBI Director Robert Mueller, and CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin admitted finding no link between the Taliban and 9/11.”

So what the heck are we doing in Afghanistan? What national interest is so mortally important that it has brought Khadr and Manning to the brink of destruction for resisting and exposing the actions of the United States? What is it that makes this a “war of necessity” according to President Obama? Here are some of the reasons that are tossed around:

1. Somehow, despite having nothing to do with the 9/11 attack, the Taliban are now among those “who are plotting to do so again.” According to the president, “if left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.” Yet, after 9/11, the Taliban proved willing to negotiate the removal of Bin Laden from its territory. It was Bush Jr. who rejected that process. The present connection between the Taliban (which is not a monolithic organization) and al-Qaeda is often tenuous. Yet surely the present war with the Taliban only encourages what connection these fighters might have with al-Qaeda. Thus, a good argument can be made that al-Qaeda can be more readily combated by negotiating with the Taliban rather than trying, futilely, to destroy what is essentially an Afghan liberation movement.

2. It is all about oil and control of pipelines, etc. No doubt this has something to do with our actions, but one can compete for control of these things through commercial channels which is cheaper and far less lethal than making war in a country that has never been truly conquered and controlled.

3. It is those meddling pro-Israeli lobbies stirring up the pot. This too has some credence especially given our special interest politics. But the Zionists are probably only minor players in the formulation of policy for Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq is another issue altogether.

Having thought about this, it seems to me that the process of policy formulation that landed us up to our necks in both the Afghan and Iraq quagmires was much more improvised than carefully thought through. My feeling is that you had people, none of whom gave a fig for international law, running around Washington for decades making policy in the Middle East from multiple angles: Cold War ideology, economic advantage, pro-Israeli enthusiasm, and religiously driven anti-Muslim fanaticism as well. Collectively, this produced a sixty plus year pattern of policies that put us in bed with multiple dictators and earned us the enmity of increasingly determined resistance movements. Finally, we got the 9/11 attacks. This, however, did not lead to any rethinking of our behavior in the Middle East. Rather, it led to a feeling of release. The U.S. was now justified in what almost appeared to be (at least for those in the White House) a joyful lashing out. This was accompanied by an exercise in sheer fantasy about what military might could accomplish in that part of the world.

If this is accurate, it is a mistake to believe that decisions made about policy in the Middle East are coherent, logical, and long term. They are more improvised and opportunistic. They are most often made by people who know nothing about the region and do not care about justice, rights and law either domestic or international. In short, the entire process which has brought the United States to its present plight is horribly short term, myopic and certainly unprincipled.

Does the Public Care?

Both Omar Khadr and Bradley Manning, as well as those who have rallied to their support, are betting that they can arouse public sentiment in their favor. In a letter to his Canadian lawyer, Khadr said that he wants to “show the world how unfair the system is…and show that the U.S. will eventually convict child soldiers.” Manning’s supporters have created a “Bradley Manning Support Network” to “Harness the outrage felt by millions” and to “raise awareness about his arrest, charges and court-martial.” The key question is, do most Americans, much less the world, really care?

The answer to this question is almost certainly a combination of a) no, most Americans do not care and b) yes, they do care but want these two men either put against the wall and shot or sent to prison for the rest of their lives. On the assumption that most people are locally focused and apolitical I conclude that all but a minority are unaware or unconcerned about these cases because they do not seem to touch their lives. And, on the assumption that the government and its allied mass media control the information flow, I conclude that most of the minority who are aware and concerned share the official view that these men are dangerous enemies.

That leaves a minority of the minority who are aware of the greater implications for justice and rights involved in both cases; who are aware of the broader contextual circumstances that led to each man’s actions and the implications for future U.S. security implicit in those circumstances. That minority of a minority might total “millions” as Lendman suggests but it is probably still far less than is needed to either obtain justice for Khadr and Manning or save the U.S. from its own blundering and criminal policies.






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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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