Obama's Secret Prisons in Afghanistan Endanger Us All

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The Independent/UK

Obama's Secret Prisons in Afghanistan Endanger Us All

He was elected in part to drag us out of this trap. Instead, he's dragging us further in

by
Johann Hari

Obama was elected in part to drag us out of this trap. Instead, he's dragging us further in. Whenever Obama acts like Bush, listen carefully - you will hear the distant, delighted chuckle of Osama bin Laden, and the needless stomp of fresh recruits heading his way. (CHRIS COADY/ NB ILLUSTRATIONS)

Osama bin Laden's favourite son, Omar, recently
abandoned his father's cave in favour of spending his time dancing and
drooling in the nightclubs of Damascus. The tang of freedom almost
always trumps Islamist fanaticism in the end: three million people
abandoned the Puritan hell of Taliban Afghanistan for freer countries,
while only a few thousand faith-addled fanatics ever travelled the
other way. Osama's vision can't even inspire his own kids. But Omar bin
Laden says his father is banking on one thing to shore up his flailing,
failing cause - and we are giving it to him.

The
day George W Bush was elected, Omar says, "my father was so happy. This
is the kind of president he needs - one who will attack and spend money
and break [his own] country". Osama wanted the US and Europe to make
his story about the world ring true in every mosque and every
mountain-top and every souq. He said our countries were bent on looting
Muslim countries of their resources, and any talk of civil liberties or
democracy was a hypocritical facade. The jihadis I have interviewed -
from London to Gaza to Syria - said their ranks swelled with each new
whiff of Bushism as more and more were persuaded. It was like trying to
extinguish fire with a blowtorch.

The
revelations this week about how the CIA and British authorities handed
over a suspected jihadi to torturers in Pakistan may sound at first
glance like a hangover from the Bush years. Barack Obama was elected,
in part, to drag us out of this trap - but in practice he is dragging
us further in. He is escalating the war in Afghanistan, and has taken
the war to another Muslim country. The CIA and hired mercenaries are
now operating on Obama's orders inside Pakistan, where they are sending
unarmed drones to drop bombs and sending secret agents to snatch
suspects. The casualties are overwhelmingly civilians. We may not have
noticed, but the Muslim world has: check out Al Jazeera any night.

Obama ran on an inspiring promise to shut down
Bush's network of kidnappings and secret prisons. He said bluntly: "I
do not want to hear this is a new world and we face a new kind of
enemy. I know that... but as a parent I can also imagine the terror I
would feel if one of my family members were rounded up in the middle of
the night and sent to Guantanamo without even getting one chance to ask
why they were being held and being able to prove their innocence." He
said it made the US "less safe" because any gain in safety by Gitmo-ing
one suspected jihadi - along with dozens of innocents - is wiped out by
the huge number of young men tipped over into the vile madness of
jihadism by seeing their brothers disappear into a vast military
machine where they may never be heard from again. Indeed, following the
failed attack in Detroit, Obama pointed out the wannabe-murderer named
Guantanamo as the reason he signed up for the jihad.

Yet
a string of recent exposes has shown that Obama is in fact maintaining
a battery of secret prisons where people are held without charge
indefinitely - and he is even expanding them. The Kabul-based
journalist Anand Gopal has written a remarkable expose for The Nation
magazine. His story begins in the Afghan village of Zaiwalat at 3.15am
on the night of November 19th 2009. A platoon of US soldiers blasted
their way into a house in search of Habib ur-Rahman, a young computer
programmer and government employee who they had been told by someone,
somewhere was a secret Talibanist. His two cousins came out to see what
the noise was - and they were shot to death. As the children of the
house screamed, Habib was bundled into a helicopter and whisked away.
He has never been seen since. His family do not know if he is alive or
dead.

This is not an unusual event in
Afghanistan today. In this small village of 300 people, some 16 men
have been "disappeared" by the US and 10 killed in night raids in the
past two years. The locals believe people are simply settling old clan
feuds by telling the Americans their rivals are jihadists. Habib's
cousin Qarar, who works for the Afghan government, says: "I used to go
on TV and argue that people should support the government and the
foreigners. But I was wrong. Why should anyone do so?"

Where
are all these men vanishing to? Obama ordered the closing of the CIA's
secret prisons, but not those run by Joint Special Operations. They
maintain a Bermuda Triangle of jails with the notorious Bagram Air Base
at its centre. One of the few outsiders has been into this ex-Soviet
air-hangar is the military prosecutor Stuart Couch. He says: "In my
view, having visited Guantanamo several times, the Bagram facility made
Guantanamo look like a nice hotel. The men did not appear to be able to
move around at will, they mostly sat in rows on the floor. It smelled
like the monkey house at the zoo."

We know that
at least two innocent young men were tortured to death in Bagram. Der
Spiegel has documented how some "inmates were raped with sticks or
threatened with anal sex". The accounts of released prisoners suggest
the very worst abuses stopped in the last few years of the Bush
administration, and Obama is supposed to have forbidden torture, but
it's hard to tell. We do know Obama has permitted the use of solitary
confinement lasting for years - a process that often drives people
insane. The International Red Cross has been allowed to visit some of
them, but in highly restricted circumstances, and their reports remain
confidential. In this darkness, abuse becomes far more likely.

The
Obama administration is appealing against US court rulings insisting
the detainees have the right to make a legal case against their
arbitrary imprisonment. And the White House is insisting they can
forcibly snatch anyone they suspect from anywhere in the world - with
no legal process - and take them there. Yes: Obama is fighting for the
principles behind Guantanamo Bay. The frenzied debate about whether the
actual camp in Cuba is closed is a distraction, since he is proposing
to simply relocate it to less sunny climes.

Once
you vanish into this system, you have no way to get yourself out. The
New York lawyer Tina Foster represents three men who were kidnapped by
US forces in Thailand, Pakistan and Dubai and bundled to Bagram, where
they have been held without charge for seven years now. She tells me
there have been "shockingly few improvements" under Obama. "The Bush
administration rubbed our faces in it, while Obama's much smoother. But
the reality is still indefinite detention without charge for people who
are judged guilty simply by association. It's contrary to everything we
stand for as a country... I know there are children [in there] from
personal experience. I have interviewed dozens of children who were
detained in Bagram, some as young as 10."

Today,
Bagram is being given a $60m expansion, allowing it to hold five times
as many prisoners as Guantanamo Bay currently does. Gopal reports that
the abuse is leaking out to other, more secretive sites across
Afghanistan. They are so underground they are known only by the names
given to them by released inmates - the Salt Pit, the Prison of
Darkness. Obama also asserts his right to hand over the prisoners to
countries that commit torture, provided they give a written "assurance"
they won't be "abused" - assurances that have proved worthless in the
past. The British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith estimates there are
18,000 people trapped in these "legal black holes" by the US.

As
Obama warned in the distant days of the election campaign, these
policies place us all in greater danger. Matthew Alexander, the senior
interrogator in Iraq who tracked down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, says: "I
listened time and time again to captured foreign fighters cite Abu
Ghraib and Guantanamo as their main reason for coming to Iraq to
fight... We have lost hundreds if not thousands of American lives
because of our policy." The increased risk bleeds out onto the London
Underground and the nightclubs of Bali. I oppose these policies
precisely because I want to be safe, and I loathe jihadism.

President
Obama has been tossing aside the calm jihad-draining insights of
candidate Obama for a year now. Whenever Obama acts like Bush, listen
carefully - you will hear the distant, delighted chuckle of Osama bin
Laden, and the needless stomp of fresh recruits heading his way.

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