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     Volume 4 Issue 51 | June 17, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Terror Tactics

Farah Ghuznavi

Since September 2001, the language and tactics employed as part of the so-called "war on terror" have become an inescapable and sinister subtext to the global geo-political landscape. This "war" affects every one of us: because of the colour of our passports, our names, our beliefs or our politics. All these fundamental things have become imbued with an additional (and for those with the wrong credentials, sometimes threatening) significance.

Apart from the individual impact, this has implications for developing countries like Bangladesh. A report, recently published, discusses bringing security "more squarely" into the provision of aid and development, citing (correctly) that development cannot progress where there is instability. However, this does raise major concerns that donor governments may ultimately use (or misuse) this argument to link aid provision to global anti-terrorism goals.

This would mean that the security interests of the world powers would again be a major (as opposed to merely an additional) determinant of aid flows - as during the Cold War. To some extent, this is already happening. Note the strong support being provided to countries which (to put it mildly!), have a complicated - and possibly contradictory - relationship to the "war on terror" e.g. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

But the potential for abuse is not limited to the direction of aid flows. Stories emerging about the tactics justified in the name of the "war on terror" are truly chilling. Somehow - whether carried out openly or covertly (the latter being preferable) - torture is becoming increasingly accepted, if not quite - as yet - respectable.

The allegations of serious misconduct and cover-up by senior officials over the shocking incidents of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq persist. Although it is a year since the pictures were first published, recent events seem merely to confirm the covert and sordid aspects of the occupation hinted at by those pictures. The US military and civilian authorities' multiple inquiries have only led to low-ranking soldiers being penalised (usually inadequately). Perhaps that too, primarily because of the photographic evidence of their guilt!

Of the five officers in charge, only the most junior and latest arrival, General Janis Karpinski, was found in any way culpable (i.e. relieved of her command and given a written reprimand). She continues to insist that the torture tactics were carried out without her knowledge, on the basis of orders from above, which "leapfrogged" over her, down to more junior officers. She has also implied that the fact that she is a woman and a reservist (therefore not seen as a "real soldier"), is why she was scapegoated i.e. she was expendable.

She has a point. The Pentagon inquiry cleared the senior officer at Abu Ghraib jail (Ricardo Sanchez) of blame for abuses. Yet the official commission chaired by James Schlesinger (former Defence Secretary) in 2004, had placed the responsibility squarely on Sanchez, because he called on intelligence officers to work with military police to "manipulate internees' emotions and weaknesses", creating the moral climate that allowed the abuses to occur.

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to believe the argument that the abuse was the work of "a few bad apples" (conveniently located at the bottom of the chain of command). No one in the Pentagon or the White House has been held to account. The White House counsel who reportedly advised on the legality of a tougher interrogation regime for prisoners has been promoted to attorney general, and even President Bush's promise to have the prison torn down has not been honoured as yet! Abu Ghraib now symbolises the "whole complex pattern of cruelty, humiliation and torture that the agents of the US administration had visited upon their captives", according to the Independent.

And it is not only Iraqi prisoners who are on the receiving end of such treatment. President Karzai of Afghanistan has finally spoken out against the shocking abuse of Afghan prisoners. And the Britons freed from Guantanamo Bay had already described incidents of torture and degradation, allegedly carried out on a routine basis.

US soldiers themselves have increasingly been speaking out against army practices in a number of high-profile cases. Kevin Benderman joined the Army in 1987, serving in the first Gulf War. But he was unwilling to return for a second term of duty after his first term in Iraq; he said what he had seen made him morally opposed to returning to war, declaring himself a conscientious objector. Unsurprisingly, the army sees it differently, charging him with desertion.

Yet the testimony of soldiers like Benderman and others speaks volumes about attitudes and indoctrination. They have described experiences in the US army as follows: "I met a lot of people who want to kill Arabs" (Jeremiah Adler), and "We were told that we would be going to Iraq…a new kind of war…these were evil people… We were told to consider all Arabs as potential terrorists… to foster an attitude of hatred…"(Jeremy Hinzman). This context makes the events at Abu Ghraib all too easy to understand.

On a related point, I have long been puzzled as to why the US has been so insistent in obtaining exemption from prosecution for its soldiers at the International Criminal Court. I wondered why, unlike so many other Western countries, they were so worried about being prosecuted by the ICC. Now, understanding more clearly how US soldiers may behave in war (indeed, how they may be instructed to behave, in contravention of international human rights law), the need for them to obtain pre-emptive protection is much clearer!

And yet, as the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has pointed out, it is the senior leadership who should be called to account. HRW has called for a criminal investigation of the Defence Secretary (Rumsfeld), and the former head of the CIA (Tenet), for torture and abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and "secret locations" abroad. The HRW report argues that Mr Rumsfeld's inaction should be investigated under the doctrine of "command responsibility", whereby a superior is responsible for crimes committed by his subordinates when he knew or should have known that they were being committed, but failed to take reasonable measures to stop them. It further states that Mr Rumsfeld approved interrogation techniques violating the Geneva Convention and Convention against Torture e.g. the use of guard-dogs to frighten prisoners, and painful "stress positions".

The report highlights that although President Bush vowed that "wrongdoers will be brought to justice", only low-ranking personnel have been called to account and the high-level US investigation that cleared four key officers in charge of Iraq operations of responsibility for abuse, has contributed to a "wall of impunity" surrounding the leadership, despite mounting evidence that mistreatment of prisoners resulted from their decisions to "end, ignore, or cast rules aside".

These serious accusations, made by a highly- respected human rights organisation, echo the suspicions of many others still awaiting answers from the US government. The fact remains that if America is to be truly credible as a global campaigner for democracy, transparency and accountability, it must apply these standards to its own behaviour. Until then, the rest of the world will undoubtedly continue to view such claims with a degree of cynicism.

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