As the war in Afghanistan begins its second decade, the reasons for it to be brought to an end are compelling: the ruinous financial cost ($460 billion and counting), the ruinous human cost (over 1,400 U.S. military deaths [PDF], and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians killed), and the utter pointlessness of the occupation itself. Having driven out al-Qaeda and the Taliban within a few months of the invasion, the U.S. military has, for most of the last ten years, been bogged down fighting a regrouped Taliban and an array of other Afghan “insurgents,” fighting to free their country from foreign occupation.
A fourth reason, less generally noticed, is that the Afghan war led to the creation of Guantánamo, a prison touted by the Bush administration as a facility for holding “the worst of the worst.” In reality, Guantánamo is a brutal and failed experiment, which never held more than a small number of genuine terror suspects, but which, nonetheless, has proved resistant to calls for its closure.
Around three-quarters of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo were seized as a result of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. They were captured either in Afghanistan itself or after they crossed from Afghanistan into Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion. In Pakistan, the authorities (up to and including President Pervez Musharraf) were particularly interested in the bounty payments offered by the U.S. military for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects. As President Musharraf admitted in his 2006 autobiography, In the Line of Fire, in return for handing over 369 terror suspects to the United States, “Various Pakistani individuals have earned bounties totaling millions of dollars.”
Because of the Bush administration’s arrogance and incompetence, which involved a refusal to screen the prisoners to ascertain whether they were actually combatants or not, many completely innocent people ended up at Guantánamo, as did hundreds of Taliban foot soldiers — whether volunteers or conscripts — who were dressed up as part of a “terrorist threat,” deprived of their rights, and subjected to abusive, arbitrary detention, even though they should have been held as prisoners of war and protected from torture and abuse by the Geneva Conventions.
Currently, 171 prisoners are still held, and only a few dozen of them are actually accused of any involvement in terrorism. The breakdown of those held is as follows:
- 30 of the prisoners are still held because they are cleared for release (“approved for transfer” in Guantánamo-speak) but cannot return safely to their home countries, and no other country — including the United States — has been found that will take them.
- 58 of the prisoners are still held because they are Yemenis, whose transfer was approved by a presidential task force but then blocked because of fears about the security situation in Yemen.
- 46 others are held because they are regarded as a threat, but the evidence against them is too compromised to be used in a trial (in other words, the alleged evidence is unreliable, being tainted by torture or abuse).
- 36 others were recommended for trial by the president’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, and 3 of these have been tried and reached plea deals. (1 additional prisoner was tried and sentenced under George W. Bush.)
Ten years on from the start of the Afghan war, those held in Guantánamo have largely been forgotten. In the last year, lawmakers have included outrageous provisions in various pieces of legislation preventing the use of funds to purchase a replacement prison on the U.S. mainland, preventing any prisoner from being brought to the U.S. mainland for any reason, and preventing the president from releasing anyone without Congressional scrutiny.
An end to the Afghan occupation would not bring about the immediate closure of Guantánamo. Nor would it provide a new home for its 30 refugees (in the United States, if no other country can be found), nor lead to the release of the Yemenis, nor lead to the release of those held despite the lack of evidence against them. That, it seems, will only happen when there is sufficient political will, both at home and abroad, to put pressure on the president to do what he promised on his second day in office — close Guantánamo and bring this sordid chapter of modern American history to an end.