Sunday, January 29, 2012

Is this any way to run an empire?

It's gotten harder and harder for even its advocates to explain a purpose or rationale for the continuing U.S. war in Afghanistan. As with the festering sore of our gulag-that-can't-be-closed at Guantanamo, it seems one reason U.S. troops are still mired over there is that we have a lot of prisoners we can't figure out what to do with.

Under George W. Bush, the prison at Bagram was a central node in the network of "black sites" where U.S. intelligence personnel held suspected terrorists. Obama came into office calling for closure of such secret prisons where both the local Afghan authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross were excluded -- and where abuse, murder and torture have been documented. NATO allies with forces in Afghanistan also called for the closing of Bagram. And Afghans demanded that they should take over the prisoners. But the Afghan prison system is notoriously corrupt and also itself a site of torture. So U.S. hold on the Bagram prison and the prisoners continues.

The Obama administration did proscribe a procedure -- it can hardly be called a hearing or a court-- for determining which prisoners should remain locked away.

Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group described actual workings of this legal mirage recently.

As part of its new detainee policy, the Obama administration launched a process in which a review board of three military officers hears evidence to determine whether a Bagram detainee is a supporter or member of the Taliban, al Qaeda, or another insurgent group. Detainees are allowed to attend unclassified portions of their hearings. They are also assigned personal representatives, U.S. military officials who are responsible for assisting detainees with presenting their cases.

When I visited Bagram last November, Colonel Peter Masciola, head of the legal operations directorate there, described this to me as a “meaningful opportunity to counter claims in an administrative procedure.” The hearings, however, fall far short of international legal standards. Detainees are still barred from reviewing classified evidence or from listening to classified testimony in their cases, which largely consists of hearsay evidence of the detainee’s alleged terrorist connections. Personal representatives assigned to detainees are allowed to see the classified evidence but not share it, and since these representatives are not lawyers, there is no way for detainees to challenge their inability to review classified evidence. This is a clear violation of international law on fair trial standards. But by providing a hearing that mimics a regular court procedure, the White House has been able to airbrush these concerns out of the picture.

In the classification-obsessed culture of the U.S. military, the simplest details about a detainee’s capture are often classified. Since the U.S. military also limits the information it shares with the Afghan government, Afghan judges and prosecutors are also barred from reviewing all the evidence in cases that are transferred to them under the Bagram transition agreement.

[The military] has generally solved this problem by either delaying the transfer of detainee cases or, sometimes, by handing over virtually empty case files to Afghan authorities. As a result, Afghan judges have thrown out dozens of cases because of a lack of evidence.

That's not satisfactory to the U.S. Therefore our military won't hand over many of the prisoners to the Afghans. Therefore Bagram must remain a U.S.-run prison for the foreseeable future. Therefore the war must go on. And therefore proud Afghans fume and individual prisoners are denied any resolution of their status.

Is this any way to run an empire?

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