The Bagram Bait and Switch

February 23, 2009

The aftermath of a drone attack in Pakistan

The aftermath of a drone attack in Pakistan

Despite the cuddly platitudes about renouncing the Bush administration that many well-wishers swallowed during the 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama is embracing much of his predecessor’s legacy.

Although Obama will be closing the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where over 200 prisoners have languished without charge or prospect of release for over seven years, the torture/detention nexus is set to expand elsewhere.

Bagram airbase, long cited as a “black site” used by U.S. agencies and its military to “process” detainees (sometimes stretching to murders that have been documented), is to receive a $60 million stimulus.

This comes as Obama seeks to fast-track 17,000 American troops into the Afghan theatre, in time for a burst of drama as winter abates and fighting is predicted to resume between occupation troops, government forces and insurgents.

From Alternet/The Independent:

Clive Stafford Smith, head of a legal charity called Reprieve, called President Obama’s strategy “the Bagram bait and switch,” where the administration was trumpeting the closure of a camp housing 242 prisoners, while scaling up the Bagram base to house 1,100 more.

“Guantanamo Bay was a diversionary tactic in the ‘War on Terror’,” said the lawyer. “Totting up the prisoners around the world — held by the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, the prison ships and Diego Garcia, or held by U.S. proxies in Jordan, Egypt and Morocco — the numbers dwarf Guantanamo. There are still perhaps as many as 18,000 people in legal black holes. Mr. Obama should perhaps be offered more than a month to get the American house in order. However, this early sally from the administration underlines another message: it is far too early for human rights advocates to stand on the USS Abraham Lincoln and announce, ‘Mission Accomplished.'”

While the downsizing Guantanamo has hit the headlines, detainees at Bagram have lost a case that might have secured them access to the U.S. courts system.

This will lead the cynics amongst us to view Obama’s closure of the more famous prison as nothing more than a public relations gesture designed to, as the Independent notes, restore American “moral standing” in preparation for renewed imperial assaults.

America has currently committed 17,000 new troops to Afghanistan, along with 120 helicopters. The troops will operate in the south of the country, where the insurgency is at its fiercest, and their deployment is being spun as an attempt to ensure freedom of movement and security around the Afghan elections, scheduled for August.

According to analyst Gareth Porter, writing for the Asia Times, Obama has come under strong pressure to commit almost double that number of troops to the warzone.  Porter reports that General David McKiernan, commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan, is pushing for 30,000 troops – a number that had been OK’d by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, General David Petraeus (head of CENTCOM) and, reportedly, Obama himself as recently as January 2009.

According to Porter, “What had changed in the nine days between those two statements…was that Obama had called McKiernan directly and asked how he planned to use the 30,000 troops, but got no coherent answer to the question” citing a “White House source.”

Obama had also reportedly been told by Gates that there is no military “end game” in Afghanistan, a reflection of how deep within the quagmire the NATO coalition has found itself.

The decision of the Kyrgyz government not to renew the U.S. lease of Manas air base, stripping Obama of a key element of the war effort, only deepened this crisis.

This has led to overtures to Iran, which has been invited to a special meeting at the G20 summit to be held in London in early April. Iran has been stepping up its involvement in Afghanistan since Obama’s accession, the latest development being a joint accord signed last week by Iran’s vice-president Parviz Davoudi and Afghan president Hamid Karzai to boost trade.

With the Khyber Pass (linking Afghanistan to Pakistan) now a warzone, and the Kyrgyz air route soon to be staunched, the Obama administration is seeking to gain Iranian assistance in pacifying the Afghan south and to supply American troops.

As the San Francisco Chronicle has reported, “One of the best alternatives is relatively new: a road India built between the Afghan towns of Delaram and Zaranj, which are linked by road with the Arabian Sea – through Iran.”

As if on queue, NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has told reporters that “I could imagine that at a certain stage, not overnight, Iran would also be involved in a regional approach for Afghanistan.”

Simultaneously, Pakistan has decided to shift its policy in the frontier regions, having announced today the adoption of a strategy of co-opting local insurgents, somewhat along the lines of the “Awakening” militias operating in Sunni areas of Iraq.

This comes after Pakistan signed a peace deal with militants in the Swat region, ending (for now) a civil war that has sapped the Pakistan army and resulted in thousands of deaths since its eruption in January 2007.

The deal was arranged through local leaders, chief among them Maulana Sufi Mohammad who, as Al Jazeera reports, “served six years in prison for leading thousands of local men across the border into Afghanistan to fight US-backed foreign forces there.”

Whether Mohammad can bring insurgents under his wing and promote the peace that he claims to desire is an open question. The Swat Taliban, loosely led by Maulana Fazlullah, are in open revolt against both the Pakistani state and its U.S. overlords.

For its part the U.S. government seems to have rejected the deal, with a “senior Defense Department official” telling MSNBC that “it is hard to view this as anything other than a negative development.”

The NATO position has so far been to disparage the deal, calling Swat a “safe haven” for “extremists.”

This reflects the maximalist goals of the U.S. led coalition in the region. That is, the Bush administration would not accept any peace deals arranged between Islamabad and insurgent groups – preferring ongoing conflict within Pakistan to compromises with “extremism.” So far, Obama seems little different.

This means that as Pakistan attempts to tackle its internal crises, tension is rising with the imperial power. This week, Pakistani officials told ABC News of their suspicions that the U.S. is mounting attacks on targets within their country via unmanned aerial drones from facilities within Pakistan.

Military agreements allow the U.S. to fly surveillance missions from such bases, but not to attack targets. Shamsi, a base in Baluchistan, has been cited as operational, despite assurances from the Americans that they had left it in 2006.

Such attacks may be the major reason for ongoing conflict between Pakistan’s army and the “Taliban” in frontier areas.

As Faqir Mohammad, a Taliban leader in the Bajaur region of Pakistan, told reporters today “We don’t want to fight the army, but some elements have been creating misunderstandings between us.”

According to the BBC, “He warned that if drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas continued “we will avenge them by attacking Western troops inside Afghanistan”.

Faqir was speaking to announce a unilateral ceasefire in Bajaur, to follow the peace deal signed in Swat.

This is potentially wonderful news. Peace is possible in Pakistan’s border regions and, through them, in Afghanistan too. But the U.S. has shown no interest in working with local forces, and has shown no signs of recognizing the instrumental role that drone attacks have played in stimulating them.

This represents a dilemma and a challenge for Obama.

In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama is faced with grassroots, nationalist (largely Pashtun) insurgencies inflected by Islamic ideals but not determined by them. The devastation wrought upon villages, families and fields by bombs, drones, executions and black sites, has generated sustained resistance to the U.S. imperial project.

The pretense of “nation building” has been a fig-leaf for immense corruption, resulting in the impoverishment of the Afghan people and a crumbling infrastructure.

Despite this, the U.S. has rejected peace overtures from insurgent groups and cajoled Pakistan’s government into confronting its internal enemies. As Gates admitted to Obama, there is no “end game” just a lot of innocent lives and a lot of “ends.”

The only way for Obama to embrace peace is to withdraw from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to accept that peace deals are essential. Compromise is unavoidable, but tragically, it is apparently utterly unacceptable.

Instead, the U.S. government seems to be trying to make up for the loss of its base in Kyrgyzstan and the problems in supplying through Pakistan by bringing a new route via Iran online. Iran seems happy to oblige, gaining traction in Central Asia and allowing it to crack down on unrest in its eastern provinces, while making U.S. opposition to its nuclear reactors even less credible.

All of this means that U.S. Afghan policy is hardly changing. So more torture chambers, detention without charge or trial and drone attacks it is then.

Real change.

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