As the war in Afghanistan begins its second decade, the reasons for it to be brought to an end are compelling — the ruinous financial cost ($460 billion and counting), the ruinous human cost (over 1,400 US military deaths, and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians killed), and the utter pointlessness of the occupation itself. Having driven out al-Qaeda and the Taliban within a few months of the invasion, the US military, has, for most of the last ten years, been bogged down fighting a regrouped Taliban and an array of other Afghan “insurgents,” fighting to free their country from foreign occupation.
A fourth reason, less generally noticed, is that the Afghan war led to the creation of Guantánamo, a prison touted by the Bush administration as a facility for holding “the worst of the worst,” but in reality a brutal and failed experiment, which never held more than a small number of genuine terror suspects, but, which, nonetheless, has proved resistant to calls for its closure.
Around three-quarters of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo were seized as a result of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, either in Afghanistan itself, or after crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan after the US-led invasion, where the authorities (up to and including President Pervez Musharraf) were particularly interested in the bounty payments offered by the US military for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects. As President Musharraf admitted in his 2006 autobiography, In the Line of Fire, in return for handing over 369 terror suspects to the US, “We have earned bounty payments totaling millions of dollars.”
Because of the Bush administration’s arrogance and incompetence, which also involved a refusal to screen the prisoners to ascertain whether they were actually combatants or not, many completely innocent people ended up at Guantánamo, as did hundreds of Taliban foot soldiers — whether volunteers or conscripts — who were dressed up as part of a “terrorist threat,” deprived of their rights and subjected to abusive, arbitrary detention, even though they should have been held as prisoners of war, protected from torture and abuse by the Geneva Conventions.
171 prisoners are still held, and only a few dozen of them are actually accused of any involvement in terrorism. The breakdown of those held is as follows:
- 30 of the prisoners are still held because they are cleared for release (“approved for transfer” in Guantánamo-speak) but cannot return safely to their home countries and no other country — including the US — has been found that will take them.
- 58 of the prisoners are still held because they are Yemenis, whose transfer was approved by a Presidential Task Force, but then blocked because of fears about the security situation in Yemen.
- 46 others are held because they are regarded as a threat but the evidence against them is too compromised to be used in a trial (in other words, the alleged evidence is unreliable, and tainted by torture or abuse).
- 36 others were recommended for trial by the President’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, and three of these have been tried, and reached plea deals (one other prisoner was tried and sentenced under George W. Bush).
Ten years on from the start of the Afghan war, those held in Guantánamo have been largely forgotten, as President Obama ran up against stiff opposition in Congress over his promise to close the prison by January 2010, and then failed to stand up for himself, allowing cynical lawmakers to step in. In the last year, lawmakers have included outrageous provisions in various pieces of legislation preventing the use of funds to purchase a replacement prison on the US mainland, preventing any prisoner from being brought to the US mainland for any reason, and preventing the President from releasing anyone without Congressional scrutiny.
An end to the Afghan occupation would not bring about the immediate closure of Guantánamo. Nor would it provide a new home for its 30 refugees (in the US, if no other country can be found), or lead to the release of the Yemenis, or to the release of those held despite the lack of evidence against them. That, it seems, will only happen when there is sufficient political will, both at home and abroad, to put pressure on the President to fight back against his critics and to do what he promised on his second day on office — to close Guantánamo and bring this sordid chapter of modern American history to an end.
In spite of these considerable obstacles to justice, which still present a major challenge to the American people, the end of the Afghan war would, if nothing else, erode the basis on which the 171 men still at Guantánamo are held — the Authorization for Use of Military Force. The founding document of the “war on terror,” passed by Congress the week after the 9/11 attacks, the AUMF authorized, and still authorizes the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001,” or those who harbored them.
The bedrock of the occupation of Afghanistan, of warrantless wiretapping, and of the alleged right to assassinate US citizens abroad, without any kind of due process, the AUMF has also specifically been used to justify detention in the “war on terror” since June 2004, when the Supreme Court ruled, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, that “Congress has clearly and unmistakably authorized detention” of individuals covered by the AUMF.
I have written about the AUMF extensively — most recently a month ago, in my article, “After Ten Years of the ‘War on Terror,’ It’s Time to Scrap the Authorization for Use of Military Force” — in which I noted that Rep. Barbara Lee, who was the only member of Congress to oppose the AUMF in September 2001, is opposing it again, trying to persuade her fellow lawmakers to scrap it.
That may be a lost cause, but as the 10th anniversary of the start of the Afghan war passes, and the endless cycle of news rolls on, relentlessly seeking to give us all attention deficit disorder, those of us who want to see the closure of Guantánamo — and also want the war to end — need to keep pushing for this dangerously open-ended piece of legislation to be repealed.
As a final reminder of the importance of this particular cause, remember that when we think of Guantánamo, and when we think of all the permutations of America’s current wars — the “war on terror,” the “long war,” the war in Afghanistan, detentions at Bagram and elsewhere, the undeclared wars in other countries, and the drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere — they all rely for their existence on the Authorization for Use of Military Force.