They say journalists provide the first draft of history. With the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, that draft led to an almost universal consensus, at least among Americans, that the attack was a justifiable act of self-defense. The Afghanistan action is commonly viewed as a “clean” conflict as well — a war prosecuted with minimal loss of life, and one that didn’t bring the kind of international opprobrium onto the United States that the invasion of Iraq would lead to a year later.
Those views are also held by many Americans who are critical of the excesses of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” But there’s a disconnect there. Everything that followed — secret detentions, torture, the invasion of Iraq, the assault on domestic dissent — flowed inevitably from the failure to challenge Bush’s claim that an act of terror required a military response. The United States has a rich history of abandoning its purported liberal values during times of war, and it was our acceptance of Bush’s war narrative that led to the abuses that have shattered America’s moral standing before the world.
In his book, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, historian and journalist Andy Worthington offers a much-needed corrective to the draft of the Afghanistan conflict that most Americans saw on their nightly newscasts. Worthington is the first to detail the histories of all 774 prisoners who have passed through the Bush administration’s “legal black hole” at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But his history starts in Afghanistan, and makes it abundantly clear that the road to Guantánamo — not to mention Abu Ghraib — began in places like Kandahar.
AlterNet recently asked Worthington what that road looked like at its point of origin.
Joshua Holland: You’ve written the first book that really digs into the stories of all the prisoners who have passed through or remain in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay. But what struck me the most was your study of the context of their capture — the conflict in Afghanistan before and after 9/11.
I think most Americans believe that we went into Afghanistan to rout anti-American or anti-Western “jihadi,” but you really capture the fact that the U.S. entered on one side of a long-standing civil war that had nothing to do with any sort of “Clash of Civilizations” between East and West. Can you give us some sense of what that conflict was about?
Andy Worthington: Sure, it’s a very good question, actually. Briefly, the roots of the conflict lie in the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, when the United States (via Pakistani intermediaries) and the Saudis vied to fund the mujahideen — Afghan warlords and their soldiers, backed up by a rather smaller number of Arab recruits.
At the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union withdrew, the country was plunged into a civil war, as the various warlords, pumped up with billions of dollars of US and Saudi aid, fought each other to gain control of the country. Tens of thousands of civilians died, and crime and human rights abuses were rife.
Largely in response to this lawlessness, the Taliban — initially a group of ultra-orthodox religious students from the south of the country — rose up to cleanse the country by creating a pure Islamic state. Their project, too, was soon derailed by brutality, and by a religious fundamentalism that shocked the West, but it was the struggle between the Taliban and the warlords of the Northern Alliance that attracted thousands of foreign foot soldiers to Afghanistan in the 1990s, summoned by fatwas issued by radical sheikhs in their homelands, which required them to help the Taliban in their struggle against the Northern Alliance.
Osama Bin Laden, who had been living in Saudi Arabia and Sudan in the post-Soviet period, returned to Afghanistan in 1996, and became involved in funding military training camps, and building up his plans for a global, anti-American jihad, but although there was some overlap between Al Qaeda and parts of the Taliban leadership, the vast majority of the recruits, as I’ve indicated, were involved not in a grand “Clash of Civilizations,” but in a provincial inter-Muslim civil war.
Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s, during the U.S.-backed mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation.
Joshua Holland: That’s an important point. Most Americans believe that there was a seamless integration between the Taliban and Bin Laden’s group, and that justified our attacking a nation-state in “self-defense,” when in reality, the Taliban was busy fighting this inter-Muslim civil war and had little or no role in Al Qaeda. Let’s go a bit further: how much overlap was there?
Andy Worthington: According to a senior intelligence official interviewed by the journalist David Rose in 2004, the overlap was very small. Rose was told, “In 1996 it was non-existent, and by 2001, no more than 50 people.” Now this official was referring to an overlap of fairly high-level people in both organizations, and certain commentators have pointed out that Al Qaeda’s “Arab Brigade” of around 500 soldiers contributed to the Taliban’s military strength, but, to return to what we discussed before, this was in the context of an inter-Muslim civil war, and not a war against the United States.
There were certainly major divisions within the Taliban leadership regarding Bin Laden, and even Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, was apparently unimpressed by Bin Laden in the years after his return to Afghanistan. In 1998, Omar had even been planning to betray Bin Laden to the Saudis, but when Al Qaeda attacked the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the U.S. retaliated by launching cruise missile attacks on training camps in Afghanistan, Omar drew closer to Bin laden. Even so, the Taliban offered to hand over Bin laden after 9/11 if proof was offered of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
One clear sign of the lies involved in the “seamless integration” you refer to, however, occurred on October 7, 2001, the first night of “Operation Enduring Freedom,” when the U.S. military announced that it had bombed 23 Al Qaeda training camps. As I mention in the book, of the dozens of training camps established in Afghanistan from the 1980s onwards, most were funded by Pakistan and wealthy donors in the Gulf countries. Some were run by Afghan warlords, others by Pakistani groups and others by militant groups from other countries. Although bin Laden had a few camps of his own, it was inappropriate to describe all the training camps in Afghanistan as “Al Qaeda camps.”
Joshua Holland: OK, let me go back briefly to an earlier point. Supporters of Bush’s global network of “black” prisons downplay their significance by asserting that those who ended up in them were “unlawful combatants.” And you said that a lot of people from around the Muslim world were drawn to serve as foot soldiers in Afghanistan’s civil war, but in the book, you make it clear that many were not even foot-soldiers — not combatants at all — but religious students, aid workers and other adventurous young people, and many of them would later get caught up in the chaos that followed the invasion and end up at Gitmo.
Andy Worthington: Yes, that’s right. I’d say that between 70 and 100 of the foreign (i.e. non-Afghan) detainees had traveled to Afghanistan to provide humanitarian aid to the Afghan people, to teach or study the Koran, as economic migrants, or even because they were curious about the “pure Islamic state” that, in some quarters, the Taliban was alleged to have established. A similar number were captured in Pakistan. Charity workers were captured near the border, where they had traveled to provide assistance at refugee camps, and others — including missionaries, entrepreneurs, economic migrants, refugees and students — were actually captured elsewhere in Pakistan, in towns and cities far from the “battlefields” of Afghanistan.
And then, of course, there are the Afghan detainees, who made up over a quarter of Guantánamo’s total population. Many of these were unwilling conscripts, who were forced to serve the Taliban, and most of the rest were picked up either on the basis of false intelligence — because the U.S. forces did not know who to trust — or were handed over by their rivals, in business or in politics, who told false stories to the Americans.
Joshua Holland: And what was the process by which the U.S. military sorted out one from the other — how did they distinguish between “enemy combatants” and the poor suckers that were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Andy Worthington: There was no process. In all previous wars, the U.S. military has followed the Geneva Conventions, and, in accordance with Article 5 of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, has held battlefield tribunals to separate the wheat from the chaff — or the fighters from the farmers. In the first Gulf War, for example, the military held 1,196 battlefield tribunals, and nearly three-quarters of the prisoners were subsequently released.
In Afghanistan, however, not only were there no battlefield tribunals, but Chris Mackey, who worked as a senior interrogator in the prisons at the airbases in Kandahar and Bagram, where the Guantánamo prisoners were processed, noted in his book The Interrogators that every single Arab who ended up in U.S. custody was sent to Guantánamo, on the orders of senior figures in the military and the intelligence services, who received the lists of prisoners at their base in Kuwait.
Although only Afghans with “considerable intelligence value” were supposed to be sent to Guantánamo, Mackey also made it clear that it was not until June 2002, when around 600 detainees were already in Guantánamo, that those in charge on the ground in Afghanistan came up with a category of temporary prisoner — “persons under U.S. control” — who could be held for 14 days without being assigned a number that entered the system overseen in Kuwait (and, by extension, the Pentagon). It was the only way that they could deal with at least some of the many innocent Afghans who ended up in their custody.
Joshua Holland: A few of the stories you tell in the book really drive these points home, so I’d like to just ask you to briefly tell us the stories of a couple of detainees. According to the U.S. military, there were three juveniles under 16 years of age who were held at Guantánamo. Choose any of the three, and tell us how he ended up at Gitmo.
Andy Worthington: Well, first of all, there were actually far more than three detainees who were under 16 years of age, and all of these detainees should have counted as juveniles — and have been treated accordingly — in any civilized society.
The three you’re talking about, however, are three Afghan boys who were aged 12, 13 and 14 at the time of their capture. Two were captured in a raid on the compound of a minor Afghan warlord named Samoud, whose many enemies seem to have included the Taliban, and the other — 14-year-old Mohammed Ismael Agha — was actually delivered to U.S. forces by the Taliban. He’d been looking for work with a friend, and had been obliged to spend the night at a Taliban outpost. In the morning, the Taliban soldiers asked them to join them, and when they refused they were delivered to the nearest U.S. base.
Asadullah Rahman, Guantánamo’s youngest detainee (released in January 2004), who was just 12 years old when he was captured.
Joshua Holland: The military says that efforts were made to provide “for their special physical and emotional care,” that they were housed “in a separate detention facility modified to meet the special needs of juveniles” and “were not restricted in the same manner as adult detainees.” Is that what you found?
Andy Worthington: Up to a point, yes. These three were, at some point, housed separately in a block called Camp Iguana, and they were released in January 2004, although they should have been released much earlier. They were the lucky ones, however. To give just one example, Agha’s companion, Abdul Qudus, who was also 14 years old, was not released until 2005 or 2006, and there is no evidence that he — or any of the other juveniles — was held separately from the rest of the adult population, or, for that matter, treated any differently.
The most notorious case of a juvenile in Guantánamo is, of course, the Canadian Omar Khadr, who was 15 years old when he was captured after a firefight in July 2002, in which he allegedly killed a U.S. soldier. Khadr was treated appallingly in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, and is currently on trial in one of the administration’s contentious Military Commissions, in which it has recently been revealed that he might not even have been responsible for the death of the U.S. soldier in the first place.
Joshua Holland: Who is Mohammed Sadiq?
Andy Worthington: Mohammed Sadiq was Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner. 88 years old at the time of his capture, Sadiq was apparently seized because his nephew had worked for the Taliban. U.S. forces bombed his house, took all his belongings, and delivered him to the prison at Kandahar airbase. He was one of the first detainees to be released, in October 2002, but the fact that he was sent to Guantánamo at all was a disgrace, and it was reported, after his release, that he was unable to come to terms with what had happened to him.
Joshua Holland: And, finally, tell me who Abdul Razeq was?
Andy Worthington: Abdul Razeq was a severely disturbed schizophrenic, who was kept isolated in Kandahar, because, amongst other things, he had a tendency to eat his own excrement. In a dehumanizing touch, the soldiers referred to all the detainees as “Bob,” and Razeq was known as “Crazy Bob.” He too was sent to Guantánamo, but was flown back to Afghanistan in May 2002. Chris Mackey noted that he arrived “strapped down in the center of the plane like Hannibal Lecter.” He was then placed in a maximum security cell in a hospital, where a journalist interviewed him. He was so disturbed that he described the prison at Kandahar as a “hotel,” and said that the Americans had taken him to Guantánamo “to treat my mental problems.”
Joshua Holland: And the U.S. thought these people were …
Andy Worthington: “Enemy combatants.” That’s how it worked. Everyone who ended up in U.S. custody was an “enemy combatant.” Essentially, when you look at the lack of screening in Afghanistan, and the failures of the tribunal process that took place in Guantánamo from 2004 onwards — which Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who worked on them, described in an explosive statement last year as reliant upon generalized and often generic “evidence,” that had nothing to do with the detainees in question, and was designed merely to rubber-stamp their prior designation as “enemy combatants” — you realize that, in connection with the “War on Terror,” the presumption of innocence has been done away with completely.
For the first four and a half years after 9/11, every prisoner was effectively regarded as guilty until proved guilty. After the tribunals, 38 detainees were cleared for release — although the administration, denying the concepts of innocence and wrongful arrest, referred to them as “No Longer Enemy Combatants” — and many more have been cleared in the review boards that have taken place every year since then, but for the 281 detainees who remain, it’s apparent that the “evidence” against them has never really been tested at all.
Joshua Holland: As I was reading the book, it struck me that not only did the American public — not to mention the military and intelligence establishments — have a totally false view of who the “enemy” was, but also that there was a widespread belief that the Northern Alliance were the “good guys.” I didn’t really sense any “good guys” in your book — who were we allying ourselves with?
Andy Worthington: The short answer is that, to topple the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the U.S. intervened on one side in a long-running civil war, and that, in an attempt not to get bogged down like the Soviet Union did, the invasion involved just a few hundred Special Forces operatives, who hooked up with various Northern Alliance leaders in northern Afghanistan and supported them with money, arms and air power.
There were some principled military commanders in the Northern Alliance — not least Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Alliance’s charismatic leader, who was killed by Al Qaeda assassins just two days before 9/11 — but even Massoud’s men had been accused of atrocities over the years, and what we should perhaps consider is that, at the base of everything, Afghanistan is a disproportionately well-armed country that has been psychologically brutalized by what is now nearly 30 years of war.
Nevertheless, the invasion led to some horrific events, in which the U.S. military was at least partly complicit. In November 2001, after the surrender of the city of Kunduz, General Rashid Dostum, one of the Alliance leaders, slaughtered hundreds, if not thousands of native and foreign Taliban fighters by suffocating them in container trucks en route to his prison at Sheberghan (death by container being a fairly recent innovation that was practiced by both sides). There appears to be evidence that U.S. forces were not unduly put out by this turn of events, and that, moreover, they were involved in the particularly brutal treatment of some of the survivors at Dostum’s prison.
In one sense, of course, all of this could be regarded as part and parcel of the horrific reality of warfare, but the U.S. record is no better in the south of the country, where, in an attempt to foster support in the Taliban’s Pashtun heartlands, U.S. forces entered into numerous dubious deals with various untrustworthy warlords, which, in turn, led to many innocent Afghans being sent to Guantánamo.
Joshua Holland: Now, in the book you describe a scene of total chaos in the aftermath of the invasion, and one of the common claims among so many of the detainees who would end up at Gitmo was that they had been sold to U.S. troops by these same allies — or tribal leaders or Taliban units or whoever encountered them — for as much as $5,000 per head. Essentially, there were real financial incentives for falsely claiming that some unlucky foot soldier or Koranic student was a high-level Al Qaeda operative.
Andy Worthington: Oh, absolutely. The military’s PsyOps teams came up with over a hundred different leaflets, and dropped millions of them all over Afghanistan. Most of them fruitlessly offered rewards of $25 million for the capture of Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri and Mullah Omar, but one in particular featured the following message: “You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch Al Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life — pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.”
The PsyOps leaflet offering untold riches in exchange for handing over Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects (which for some reason features a photo of the Alhamabra palace in Granada, Spain).
And in Pakistan, the situation was arguably even more corrupt. In his 2006 autobiography, In the Line of Fire, President Musharraf boasted that, in return for handing over 369 terror suspects (including many transferred to Guantánamo), “We have earned bounty payments totaling millions of dollars.”
Joshua Holland: And those that were turned over to the U.S. by various factions weren’t lucky. I think most Americans would be shocked at how abusive and violent U.S. troops were towards the prisoners they held in Afghanistan.
Andy Worthington: I think you’re right to raise that point, because Kandahar and Bagram were really the front line in the “War on Terror,” where conditions were, I think it would be fair to say, primitive, brutal and terrifying. In the early months, prisoners were beaten, humiliated, and prevented from speaking to one another. The worst abuses, however, happened in Bagram from July 2002 onwards. That was when at least two prisoners were murdered — including one, an innocent taxi driver named Dilawar, who is featured in my book and is also the focus of Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.
And there were even worse prisons in Afghanistan — a number of secret, CIA-run prisons (to this day no one knows exactly how many), including two near Kabul. The “Dark Prison” was like a medieval torture dungeon, but with 24-hour music and noise, and the other was the “Salt Pit.” Dozens of Guantánamo detainees passed through these facilities, as well as other “ghost prisoners” who have subsequently disappeared.
The Salt Pit. Photo by Trevor Paglen, co-author, with A. C. Thompson, of Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights.
Joshua Holland: And that was a model that was then taken to Abu Ghraib, as well as Gitmo?
Andy Worthington: Sadly, yes. The team responsible for the worst violence at Bagram — at the time of the murders — was actually transferred to Abu Ghraib, and much of the institutionalized violence at Guantánamo was inspired by the Afghan prisons. It’s also worth noting, however, what happened at Guantánamo in the fall of 2002. The administration was disappointed by the quality of the intelligence obtained from the detainees, and decided that it was because they had been trained by Al Qaeda to resist interrogation, whereas in fact they were mostly innocent men or foot soldiers, and had no worthwhile intelligence to give. In an attempt to “break” the detainees, the Pentagon authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including prolonged solitary confinement, forced nudity, the use of extreme heat and cold, sexual humiliation, and the prolonged use of painful stress positions. The commander at the time was Geoffrey Miller, and he was later sent to Abu Ghraib to “Gitmo-ize” the Iraqi operations, with the results that horrified the world when the scandal broke in April 2004.
Joshua Holland: On that point, I want to discuss two brief anecdotes from the book, and ask you for a bit of speculation based on your knowledge of the conflict. You describe a prisoner being held in Afghanistan by American troops who was confused by an unfamiliar word his captors yelled at him: “nigger.” And in another passage, you talk about an American intelligence analyst who pointed out that “Jihad” wasn’t necessarily a violent activity, and you described her as being especially insightful, despite the fact that anyone who reads the Wikipedia entry for Jihad knows that to be true. So I wonder: to what extent do you think cultural ignorance, ignorance of the context of Afghanistan’s civil war or even outright racism played in the conflict? Either in terms of the overall strategy, or in explaining the really shocking level of brutality that U.S. forces displayed towards their captives.
Andy Worthington: Well, I think it’s clear that war in general encourages the dehumanization of the enemy on the part of the military, but what has happened in the “War on Terror” — particularly in reference to those held as prisoners — is that soldiers and other operatives have persistently been given almost limitless latitude to break free of any restraints. In Afghanistan and Guantánamo (and Iraq) there were numerous stories of soldiers being told that the detainees were to be considered terrorists until proved otherwise, and that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to them. So although the specific violence, abuse and even torture seems often to have been left to the discretion of individuals, the policy that encouraged it came from the highest levels of the government.
Joshua Holland: Let me shift gears here for a moment. Bush’s apologists often excuse the kinds of abuses you describe by claiming that the prisoners held in Gitmo were “captured on the field of battle.” Was that always the case?
Andy Worthington: No, not at all. The overwhelming majority were not captured on any kind of battlefield at all, and, as proved in an analysis of Pentagon documents by the Seton Hall Law School (PDF), were not captured by U.S. forces either. Eighty-six percent were captured by the Americans’ allies, who then handed them over, or sold them, as discussed above. It’s also worth noting that several dozen detainees were captured in 17 other countries, including Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Egypt, the Gambia, Georgia, Indonesia, Iran, Mauritania, Thailand and Zambia.
After 9/11, many countries were willing to cooperate with the U.S. in an attempt to track down potential terrorists, but it’s also important to understand that the administration put enormous pressure on these countries. For example, this is what happened to the six Algerian-born Bosnians who are still in Guantánamo. The U.S. government accused them of planning to blow up the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. The Bosnians then imprisoned them, and investigated them for three months, but found no incriminating evidence whatsoever. As soon as they were released, however, they were seized by U.S. agents and taken to Guantánamo. The Bosnians were powerless to prevent it.
Joshua Holland: I think we’ve come to the heart of your book. The administration says that those housed in Gitmo are “the worst of the worst.” But you claim that of the nearly 800 human beings who the U.S. kidnapped, held incognito without any legal rights, regularly beat and on a few occasions allegedly murdered, only about forty were die-hard anti-U.S. terrorists. How do you arrive at that? Wouldn’t legitimate terrorists claim that they were just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Andy Worthington: My claim is based firstly on statements made by dozens of high-level military and intelligence sources cited by the New York Times in June 2004, when 749 detainees had been held at Guantánamo. These officials said that none of the prisoners “ranked as leaders or senior operatives of Al Qaeda,” and “only a relative handful — some put the number at about a dozen, others more than two dozen — were sworn Qaeda members or other militants able to elucidate the organization’s inner workings.”
Ten more detainees were transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2004 — although I have no doubt that they were not all terrorists — and another 14 “high-value” detainees — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four of the other men charged last week in connection with the 9/11 attacks — were transferred in September 2006.
Forty might therefore be too low a figure, but I’m confident that it’s no more than 50. As a percentage of Guantánamo’s total population, that’s just six percent, which, as a success rate, is both disappointing and disgraceful.
Joshua Holland: Finally, you argue that all of these policies were dictated by the highest levels of the U.S. government. Can you explain briefly what makes you think that?
Andy Worthington: Sure. Dick Cheney and his advisors — especially David Addington, his legal counsel (and now Chief of Staff) — came up with the military order in November 2001 that authorized the President to capture anyone he regarded as a terrorist anywhere in the world, declare them an “enemy combatant” and hold them without charge or trial. That same document also established the Military Commissions. Then Cheney and his cabal persuaded the President to accept that the prisoners were not protected by the Geneva Conventions, and in August 2002’s “Torture Memo” sought to establish that interrogations constituted torture only if the pain endured was “of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” This in turn encouraged the widespread use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which, at Guantánamo, were explicitly approved by Donald Rumsfeld.
There are many fine, principled Americans who attempted to resist these innovations, or spoke out against them, but the most insightful quote I found about the implications of these policies came from Milton Bearden, a former CIA bureau chief, who told David Rose, “It doesn’t matter what distribution that memo had or how tightly it was controlled. That kind of thinking will permeate the system by word of mouth. Anyone who suggests that this and other official memos on this subject didn’t have an impact, doesn’t know how these things work on the ground.”
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
A version of this interview, entitled “Shocking Stories About the Forgotten War in Afghanistan” (later retitled, “Afghanistan: The Brutal and Unnecessary War The Media Aren’t Telling You About”), was published as the lead story on AlterNet on February 26. It was also posted on Truthout.
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