Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 March 2009
Issue No. 937
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The war that cannot speak its name

Despite pre-election promises of change, the Obama administration is continuing the security policies of the discredited Bush presidency, writes Abdus Sattar Ghazali*

The war that cannot speak its name

Since his inauguration earlier this year, US President Barack Obama has virtually embraced his predecessor George Bush's "war on terror" policies without mentioning them by name. Asked in a CNN interview why he had not used the oft-repeated "war on terror" phrase coined by the Bush administration, Obama said he believed that the US could win over moderate Muslims if the correct language were used.

"Words matter in this situation because one of the ways we're going to win this struggle is through the battle of hearts and minds," Obama said. It seems that the "war on terror" catchphrase, burned into the American lexicon soon after the 9/11 attacks, is now being deliberately replaced by the Obama administration in a bid to repair America's negative image in the Muslim world.

Obama's executive orders on his first day in office on 22 January 2009 closing the infamous Guantanamo Bay military detention camp and outlawing torture have been interpreted in some circles as closing the door on Bush's so-called "war on terror". However, on the same day that Obama signed the orders he also appointed Richard Holbrooke as his special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke is the man who, after 9/11, championed military action against Afghanistan, ruled out any role for diplomacy to deal with the Taliban, labelled all the Taliban as extremists, and viewed the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as one and the same entity.

One day later on 23 January, Obama also gave the green light to missile attacks from Pakistan-based and CIA-operated unmanned drone aircraft on targets in Pakistan's tribal areas. About 20 civilians were killed in two missile attacks. Tellingly, the new White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, then declined to answer questions about the air strikes, saying "I'm not going to get into these matters."

On 14 February, at least 28 people were killed in two drone attacks in the Waziristan region. And two days later, on 16 February, a US drone fired three missiles at a target in the Kurram Agency, killing 30 people. As usual, the attacks were said to be against Taliban targets, but not a single body of a local or foreign militant, who were claimed to be in the area by Pakistani or American officials, was produced. Instead, it was claimed that the militants had cordoned off the area after the attack and taken away their dead and wounded. Ironically, these two US missile attacks within three days of each other came as Holbrooke was visiting the region.

The US and the Afghan government both blame Pakistan's NWFP region for the surge in Afghan Taliban operations in different parts of Afghanistan, including in the capital, Kabul. In an interview aired on CNN on 13 February, the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose writ does not extend much beyond his presidential palace, claimed that the Taliban had no hiding places in Afghan villages, asserting that "the war on terrorism is not in Afghan villages and Al-Qaeda will not have and does not have a hiding place in Afghanistan since the Taliban were driven out in 2001."

However, a recent report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), a European think-tank, refutes Karzai's assertion. According to the report, released on 8 December, the Taliban now have a presence in 72 per cent of Afghanistan, up from 54 per cent a year ago. According to the ICOS, Taliban forces have advanced from their southern heartlands, where they are now the de facto governing power in a number of towns and villages, to Afghanistan's western and north-western provinces, as well as to provinces north of Kabul. Within a year, the Taliban's presence in the country has increased by a startling 18 per cent, according to ICOS research on the ground.

The ICOS report also documents the advance of the Taliban on Kabul, where three out of the four main highways into the city are now affected by Taliban activity. Security in the capital has plummeted to minimum levels, with the Taliban and criminal elements infiltrating the city at will. In short "the Taliban now control the political and military dynamic in Afghanistan," according to Norine McDonald, president and lead field researcher of ICOS.

As if to underline their strength in the city, just one day ahead of Holbrooke's visit to Kabul the Taliban made their presence felt in the Afghan capital with a daring attack that claimed the lives of at least 26 people and injured dozens more. The insurgents stormed heavily guarded ministries near the presidential palace, including the Ministry of Justice building in a crowded downtown area, the Education Ministry and a prison affairs office.

Three decades of war have apparently hardened the Afghan militant groups, putting them in a better position than the US-led foreign occupying forces. With organic social links to society, the insurgents are seen by the Afghan people as a real power and one that is fighting for a cause: the liberation of their country, once again, from foreign occupation. This belief is strengthened by the presence of torture cells in the country and the massive civilian casualties inflicted by US and other foreign forces. According to the latest UN report, a record 2,118 civilians were killed last year, with more than 500 deaths blamed on air strikes.

To borrow from the words of Paul Craig Roberts, former assistant secretary of the treasury in the Reagan administration, the Taliban is not a terrorist organisation, but rather is a movement that is attempting to unify Afghanistan. In this context, the US-led "war on terror" is a front for American control of the oil pipelines in neighbouring Central Asia and is supported by profits from the military-security complex, by the fomenters of a police state, and by those supporting Israel's territorial expansion.

As a result, the US-led war in Afghanistan is more than just a "war on terrorism". Beneath the rhetoric of US officials about their intention of smashing the so-called Al-Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden in the name of "freedom and civilisation" there lies a deeper reason: Central Asia's oil and gas reserves and other natural resources. Afghanistan, which has virtually no oil reserves, nevertheless has long held a key place in US plans to secure control of the vast but landlocked oil and gas reserves of Central Asia, which has the second largest proven reserves of petroleum and natural gas in the world. The US has been endeavouring to fill the power vacuum in Central Asia created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, in order to assert its domination over the region.

As the Afghan war has continued for the last seven years without success, the US Army in Afghanistan has asked for 30,000 more troops, and in February Obama authorised the deployment of an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. This surge in US troops will bring the total to 60,000, while the combined forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), including troops from Germany, Canada, Britain and the Netherlands, amount to over 32,000. When in full strength, US-NATO forces in Afghanistan could reach close to 100,000 by the end of this year.

The US is currently building eight new military bases in southern Afghanistan for a prolonged war, one which has already been dubbed "a long war" by experts from the Rand Corporation, a semi-official US think-tank. It seems that Obama's promises of change will not bring anything positive for the people of Afghanistan or for those in the border regions of neighbouring Pakistan, where missile attacks from US drones continue to kill, causing more anti- American sentiment and weakening the civilian government in Islamabad.

SIMILARLY, IN THE MIDDLE EAST the US has branded Hamas and Hizbullah "terrorist organisations" for no other reason than that the US is on Israel's side in the conflict. Hizbullah represents the Shias of southern Lebanon, another area in the Middle East that Israel seeks for territorial expansion.

Hamas, on the other hand, is the democratically elected government of Gaza. In an effort to bring Hamas under Israeli hegemony, Israel has been employing terror bombing and assassination against Palestinians. The US-backed the 22-day Israeli carnage in Gaza late last year and earlier this massacred about 1,400 Palestinians, of whom 412 were children and 100 were women. More than 5,000 people were injured, 1,855 of whom were children and 795 were women, according to UN sources.

Hamas replied to the Israeli terror with homemade and ineffectual rockets, these being little more than a sign of defiance. If Hamas had been armed by Iran, as Israel claims, its assault on Gaza would have cost Israel its helicopter gunships, its tanks, and hundreds of its soldiers' lives. But Hamas is a small organisation armed only with small calibre rifles that are incapable of penetrating body armour. It has been unable to stop bands of Israeli settlers from descending on West Bank Palestinian villages, driving out the inhabitants, and appropriating their land.

To quote again from Paul Craig Roberts, the unsupported assertion that Iran is supplying sophisticated arms to the Palestinians is like the earlier assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. "These assertions are propagandistic justifications for killing Arab civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure, in order to secure US and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East."

These developments mean that US policy will continue in the direction indicated by the Bush-era "war on terror" even after Bush's own departure. In fact, according to the US Attorney-General Eric Holder, not only is the US at war now, it was at war even before the September 2001 attacks, as is evidenced by the earlier attacks on the USS Cole and on American embassies abroad. The US just "did not realise we were at war", Holder told a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on 5 January.

As a further indication of this continuity, the US Justice Department has embraced Bush administration policy on detainees in Afghanistan, with the Obama administration contending on 20 February this year that detainees in Afghanistan have no constitutional rights. In a two-sentence court filing, the department said it agreed that detainees at the Bagram airforce base in Afghanistan cannot use the US courts to challenge their detention.

While the US Supreme Court last summer gave Al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects held at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay the right to challenge their detention, no similar rights were given to the some 600 detainees at the Bagram airforce base in Afghanistan, or to the thousands more held in Iraq, and the courts have been grappling with the question of whether they, too, can challenge their detention. Three months after the Supreme Court's ruling on Guantanamo, four Afghan citizens detained at the Bagram base tried to challenge their detention in the US District Court in Washington. Court filings made by the defendants alleged that they had been held without charge and repeatedly interrogated without access to a lawyer.

The Obama administration has also maintained the Bush position on "extraordinary rendition", whereby citizens of various countries could be flown to third countries where, it is alleged, they could be tortured. On 9 February, the Obama administration announced that it would maintain the Bush administration position in the case of Mohamed et al v. Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., which involves five men who claim to have been the victims of extraordinary rendition, including the current Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed, another plaintiff in jail in Egypt, one in jail in Morocco, and two who are now free.

The men are suing a subsidiary of Boeing, Jeppesen Dataplan, accusing the flight-planning company of aiding the CIA in flying them to other countries where, it is alleged, they were tortured. The case was thrown out last year on the basis of national security, but on 9 February this year the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals heard an appeal, with the US network ABC News quoting a court source as saying that a representative of the justice department had stood up to say that its position had not changed and that the new administration stood behind the arguments of the previous administration.

Under executive orders issued by Obama, the CIA still has the authority to carry out such renditions, a programme that has attracted international condemnation as details have emerged of botched captures, mistaken identity and allegations of torture. The European parliament, for example, has condemned the US policy of extraordinary renditions, and an investigation by the European Union concluded that the CIA had operated more than 1,200 flights in European airspace after the 11 September attacks.

In one of the most notorious instances, a German citizen named Khaled Al-Masri was arrested in Macedonia in 2003 and whisked away by the CIA to a secret prison in Afghanistan. He was quietly released in Albania five months later after the agency determined it had mistaken Al-Masri for an associate of the 11 September hijackers. Al-Masri later described being abducted by "seven or eight men dressed in black and wearing black ski masks". He said he was stripped of his clothes, placed in a diaper and blindfolded before being taken aboard a plane in shackles -- an account that matches other descriptions of prisoners captured in the renditions programme.

In another prominent case, an Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar was abducted in Italy in 2003 and secretly flown to an Egyptian jail, where he said he was tortured. The incident became a major source of embarrassment to the CIA when Italian authorities, using mobile-phone records, identified agency operatives involved in the abduction and sought to prosecute them.

TO THE DISAPPOINTMENT of US civil right groups, the Obama administration is also defending Bush administration decisions to keep secret many documents about US domestic wiretapping, data collection on travellers and US citizens, and the interrogation of suspected terrorists. According to the Associated Press, in half a dozen lawsuits Justice Department lawyers have opposed formal motions or spurned out-of-court offers to delay court action until the new administration rewrites Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) guidelines.

In only one case has the department agreed to suspend a FOIA lawsuit until the disputed documents can be evaluated under the yet-to-be-rewritten guidelines. That case involves negotiations on an anti- counterfeiting treaty, not the more controversial, secret anti-terrorism tactics that spawned the other lawsuits as well as Obama's promises of greater openness.

Civil rights groups that advocate open government, civil liberties and privacy were overjoyed that Obama on his first day in office reversed the FOIA policy imposed by Bush's first attorney-general, John Ashcroft, pledging "an unprecedented level of openness in government" and ordering new FOIA guidelines to be written with a "presumption in favour of disclosure". However, since then the Justice Department's actions have cast doubt on the administration's intentions.

According to Jonathan Turley, professor of law at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, the Obama administration appears to be trying to dispel the notion that Obama will fight for civil liberties or war crimes investigations. "After Eric Holder allegedly assured a senator that there would be no war crimes investigation and seemed to defend Bush policies, Harvard University Law School Dean Elena Kagan, Obama's solicitor- general nominee, reportedly told a Republican senator that the administration agreed with Bush that we are at war and therefore can hold enemy combatants indefinitely."

"Since the solicitor-general is required to apply the law, Kagan's reply is extremely alarming," Turley said.

When asked if someone captured in the Philippines and suspected of helping to finance Al-Qaeda would be considered to have been captured on the battlefield, Kagan also replied that she agreed with the Bush administration that such a person could be considered an enemy combatant.

With Kagan's response, the identification of the Obama administration with Bush-era policies was complete, Turley commented.

* The writer is executive editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective (

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