Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Monday 13 March 2006

Guantanamo - it needs to be closed fast!

There was a series of extraordinary articles in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday concerning Britain's involvement in Iraq as a partner with the US. I am tired of repeating it, but I will repeat it once more just for clarity; I completely supported the invasion of Iraq for the purpose of removing Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath Party from power there. The plans were very quickly successful, but it began to be clear within a few weeks of the 'conclusion' of this phase that the follow-on rebuilding of Iraq as a successful democracy was not going in any way according to plan - largely because it became clear rapidly that there was no detailed planning for how this was to be carried out and those 'plans' which did exist, and which were seemingly improvised at short notice, seemed to be unravelling before our very eyes. For example, the person first named to head the Coalition Provisional Authority (the website now advises that link will remain valid only until 30JUN06 and has not been updated since the CPA was dissolved and people are being referred to the US Embassy website in Baghdad), when he had to be withdrawn very rapidly and replaced by another nominee, because it was quite clear his ideas on how to run the CPA did not accord with those of the US Administration.

Basically, far too few military personnel were 'on the ground', post-conflict, to ensure that law and order was rigorously maintained and many of those that were there seemed neither to have the training, skills or inclination to provide the support necessary to the Iraqis to help them build a stable democracy, the stated aim of the whole exercise. Whatever the faults that may be attributed to the military, largely American although the other military forces there are not immune from all criticism of course, the basic error has clearly been at a political level - and this is largely attributable to Washington because the Americans, quite simply, 'called all the shots' by virtue of their overwhelming power; the British government has largely, and necessarily, followed the American lead.

Anyway, after that lengthy and somewhat rambling preamble, I started to write about the Sunday Telegraph articles which appeared yesterday. Two of the reports were by Sean Rayment and related the story of a British SAS soldier, Ben Griffin, who refused to fight in Iraq and has left the Army over what he termed the "illegal" tactics of United States troops and the policies of coalition forces and in the main article inside the newspaper he related how Ben Griffin said, after having served alongside US troops in Baghdad during a three month spell there that: 'I didn't join the British Army to conduct American foreign policy'. Amongst the direct quotations attributed to Mr Griffin:

"I saw a lot of things in Baghdad that were illegal or just wrong. I knew, so others must have known, that this was not the way to conduct operations if you wanted to win the hearts and minds of the local population. And if you don't win the hearts and minds of the people, you can't win the war.

"If we were on a joint counter-terrorist operation, for example, we would radio back to our headquarters that we were not going to detain certain people because, as far as we were concerned, they were not a threat because they were old men or obviously farmers, but the Americans would say 'no, bring them back'.

"The Americans had this catch-all approach to lifting suspects. The tactics were draconian and completely ineffective. The Americans were doing things like chucking farmers into Abu Ghraib [the notorious prison in Baghdad where US troops abused and tortured Iraqi detainees] or handing them over to the Iraqi authorities, knowing full well they were going to be tortured.

"The Americans had a well-deserved reputation for being trigger happy. In the three months that I was in Iraq, the soldiers I served with never shot anybody. When you asked the Americans why they killed people, they would say 'we were up against the tough foreign fighters'. I didn't see any foreign fighters in the time I was over there.

"I can remember coming in off one operation which took place outside Baghdad, where we had detained some civilians who were clearly not insurgents, they were innocent people. I couldn't understand why we had done this, so I said to my troop commander 'would we have behaved in the same way in the Balkans or Northern Ireland?' He shrugged his shoulders and said 'this is Iraq', and I thought 'and that makes it all right?'

"As far as I was concerned that meant that because these people were a different colour or a different religion, they didn't count as much. You can not invade a country pretending to promote democracy and behave like that."

There is much more in the article. He says he expected to be 'placed under arrest, labelled a coward, court-martialed and imprisoned for daring to air such views', but instead was allowed to 'leave the Army with his exemplary military record intact and with a glowing testimonial from his commanding officer, who described him as a "balanced and honest soldier who possesses the strength and character to genuinely have the courage of his convictions".'

Max Hastings, a noted British military historian and generally a strong supporter of Britain's foreign policy under whichever Party is in power, in his comment article in the Sunday Telegraph, reaches broadly the same conclusion as Mr Griffin about the wisdom of British involvement, alongside the US, in Iraq.

We have all learned what happened at the detention centre in Baghdad at Abu Ghraib and the more recent stories of the activities of some British soldiers in al-Basrah, so it is pretty remarkable that, having voiced the comments he has that Mr Griffin has been treated so fairly by the Army. In reality I expect his exemplary record made it impossible to do anything else - and more pertinently probably because others in the British military hierarchy share his views about the way operations are being conducted in Iraq and are every bit as appalled as he is.

Now, you may be wondering, just what has this to do with Guantanamo? In a way, nothing at all. After all it is a 'fact' that Saddam Hussein, whatever his many faults, had absolutely nothing to do with the Taleban regime in Afghanistan, with Osama bin Laden or with al-qa'ida, even though many Americans, from President Bush on down, often seem to give the strong impression they believe otherwise. Most of those detained in Guantanamo were as a result of the confict in Afghanistan to get rid of the Taleban administration there and, after the horrific events of 11th September 2001, attempts to capture Osama bin Laden and to reduce the influence of al-qa'ida, so the connection with Iraq is practically non-existent. Except that the inept policies in Iraq appear to have allowed and attracted a whole coterie of al-qa'ida and other terrorist fellow-travelers to that country and led inexorably to the current parlous security situation there, particularly in the central areas of the country dominated by Sunni Moslems.

The same bizarre thinking on the part of the current US Administration led to the setting-up of a detention centre for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - deliberately chosen, it would appear, as a place outside the direct control of the US judicial system. The three young men, collectively known as the 'Tipton three' who appeared in Channel4's feature length documentary-drama , 'The Road to Guantanamo', shown for the first time in the UK last week - and repeated this evening at 9pm on 'Channel4 More Four', are hardly a good advertisement for Islam or indeed for British youth. Even so, it was still a shock to me, despite having heard many reports of alleged practices there, mainly from lawyers acting on behalf of the detainees or their families and occasional reports originating from the Red Cross, to see the reality of the treatment meted out to the suspects both in Afghanistan and, at least in the intial stages, at Guantanamo. The film was first released at the Berlin International Film Festival in mid-February and there was an online report about it in the Der Speigel website, which covered it at the time. I have not heard anyone from the US Administration denouncing the Channel4 film as some kind of exaggeration, far less a complete fabrication.

However, what the US Administration has done is to mount a renewed effort to try and convince us in Britain that its policies in Guantanamo, whilst a 'difficult sell', are sound - this task has fallen to Colleen Graffy, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (and I can't help wondering if the length of her job title is in inverse ratio to her importance in the State Department decision-making hierarchy). I heard her being interviewed by John Humphrys on BBC Radio4 'Today' last week and wrote about that here. The surreal arguments she deployed on behalf of the US Administration did not convince me and I gained the distinct impression that she was not entirely convinced either, intellectually or morally. The good lady appeared again yesterday in a subsequent interview with Colin Marr on 'Sunday AM' - you can watch the video stream of the whole programme until next weekend; it lasts an hour and the introductory segment on Guantanamo starts about 27 minutes in, with the interview with Ms Graffy starting roughly 29 minutes in - link to it from the interview report above, or click here. The interview link above has a full transcipt of the interview; my impression when I heard the whole thing yesterday and when I re-read it now is that Ms Graffy's arguments are somewhat tortuous and, after a lot of thought, in very many ways lacking in credibility.

What it all boils down to, in my humble opinion, is that whilst I share the aim of the US Administration, and our own government, that it is necessary to combat terrorism strenuously, we are undermining our own democratic societies by some of the methods being employed in these efforts. Guantanamo is a prime example of this. If everything is so 'hunky-dory' there, and detainees are being treated so well, then why not transfer them all to a detention centre within the United States of America, subject ultimately to the normal US judicial system? Even more, why not bring any chanrges against the suspects that the US administration feels are justified, in a regular military or civilan court within the US? It is striking that the British suspects were all released by the British authorities within hours of their repatriation to this country because there were simply no credible charges against them - ironically, one of the three made the unarguable comment toward the end of the film that he could prove he was not in Afghanistan during much of the period his American interrogators insisted he had been because he was on paole from prison here in the UK at the time, and reporting to a police station every day, whilst one of the others stated he had been working at a branch of electrical store 'Curry's' - really, you couln't make these stories up! I am left with the distinct impression that many of the others still detained have as little real connection with 'terrorism' as the three naive young British Muslims - but they don't have the eyes of the western world upon them as the three young Britons did because of their nationality. Yes, the programme left many things unsaid - there was no mention of the atrocities in New York and elsewhere in the north-eastern US on 11th September 2001, just a few days before the three left for Pakistan and subsequently for Afghanistan, for example.

However, the US Administration's policy of holding people for indefinite periods, without charge, at Guantanamo is wildly counter-productive if the aim is to win the hearts and minds of moderate Moslems in the US, Europe the Middle East and the rest of the Islamic world. Guantanamo needs to be closed without delay in our own self-interest! Oh, and I may as well repeat it here yet again - President Bush needs to replace his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, as he is one of the prime architects of this whole idiotic policy; I would ideally advocate replacing Vice-President Dick Cheney for similar reasons, but he holds a key constitutional role within the US political system so cannot so easily, or practically, be got rid of unless his reported health problems [fortuitously?] intervene, as they have apparently done in the case of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

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