The Dragnet at Bagram

Despite the claims of the US State Department, the US military and US administration, the majority of the men being held in America’s detention centers are innocent of the suspicions that got them trapped there. Though we have no statistics for the prisoners held at Bagram, or even of those released over the years, a close examination of the Pentagon’s own data from Guantanamo paints a sad picture. A 2006 Seton Hall Law School study of 517 released prisoners revealed that (quoting from the report itself):

  • Fifty-five percent (55%) of the detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition allies.

  • Only 8% of the detainees were characterized as al Qaeda fighters. Of the remaining detainees, 40% have no definitive connection with al Qaeda at all and 18% are have no definitive affiliation with either al Qaeda or the Taliban.

  • The Government has detained many persons based on mere affiliations with a large number of groups that in fact, are not on the Department of Homeland Security terrorist watch list. Moreover, the nexus between such a detainee and such organizations varies considerably.

  • Eight percent are detained because they are deemed “fighters for;” 30% considered “members of;” a large majority – 60% — are detained merely because they are “associated with” a group or groups the Government asserts are terrorist organizations.

  • Only 5% of the detainees were captured by United States forces. 86% of the detainees were arrested by either Pakistan or the Northern Alliance and turned over to United States custody. This 86% of the detainees captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance were handed over to the United States at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for capture of suspected enemies.

How did this happen? There are a number of different reason for why so many innocent men got trapped in the American drag-net. First, the US offered bounties – anywhere from $5000 to a few millions of dollars – to anyone who would hand-over Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters into US custody. Millions of leaf-lets were dropped from the air all over Afghanistan promising people a life-time of wealth and security as a result of the money being offered. Donald Rumsfeld bragged that the leaflets were dropping like ‘…snow in Chicago in December’. One leaflet, quoted in the Seton Hall study mentioned above, read:

Get wealth and power beyond your dreams….You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taliban forces catch al-Qaida and Taliban murders. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life. Pay for live stock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.

Promises of immediate riches created a healthy human trafficking industry, with bounty-hunters trapping unsuspecting men and handing them over to the Americans. In fact, the then military dictator Pervez Musharraf bragged in his biography about selling hundreds of men into US custody. The English edition of the biography states:

Since shortly after 9/11, when many members of Al-Qaeda fled Afghanistan and crossed the border into Pakistan, we have played cat and mouse with them…but we have caught many, many…We have captured 689 and handed over 369 to the United States. We have earned bounties totaling millions of dollars. Those who habitually accuse us of “not doing enough” in the war on terror should simply ask the CIA how much prize money it has paid to the government of Pakistan. (Musharraf, P In The Line Of Fire, Page 357)

With an ineffective evaluation and verification system in place at Bagram, it was not surprising that many innocents were fooled and sold. The report also shows that the definition of ‘enemy combatant’ or ‘fighter’ was always rather loose. Nearly 39% of the prisoners were ‘accused’ of possessing a Kalashnikov rifle, a not very uncommon possession in a nation torn by continuous war for over 35 years.

Furthermore, all ‘foreign’ men came under suspicion and the Pentagon issued orders to pick up all men of non-Afghani background. The assumption was precisely which the anthropologist Daryl Li has labeled as ‘muslims-out-of-place’ – the tendency to assume that an Arab or Pakistani man in Afghanistan could only be there as part of a fighting force, or as ‘enemy combatants. Similarly, nearly 27% of the men were picked up for being ‘present’ in a ‘guest house’, which was seen as evidence of their being ‘foreign fighters’.

In a paper titled A Universal Enemy?: ‘Foreign Fighters’ and Legal Regimes of Exclusion and Exemption Under the ‘Global War on Terror, Daryl Li argued that:

Just as the standard refrain that one must distinguish between “moderate” and “radical” Muslims presupposes the need to know all Muslims, the concern over foreign (Muslim) fighters necessarily renders Muslim foreigners into a categorical object that must be known and appropriately dealt with. This category can be referred to as “Muslims out of place. Since the early 1990s, the U.S. government and its allies have pursued various campaigns against out-of-place Muslims… [one] approach is not to erase out-of-placeness, but to perpetuate it by detaining such individuals in third countries with which they have no apparent relationship.

After the 9/11 attacks, the United States developed mechanisms for direct control over out-of-place Muslims through indefinite extra-territorial detention and interrogation, either openly at Guantánamo or the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan, or covertly in “black sites” in Afghanistan, eastern Europe, or southeast Asia…

In fact, a few men were even ‘accused’ of possessing a Casio watch, or wearing olive drab clothing – both seen as marks of their being ‘enemy combatants’!

Finally, the US never instituted a competent evaluation and verification system to decide if the men captured and handed-over really were ‘enemy combatants’ as their handler claimed or merely innocents caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions requires establishing a competent tribunal to confirm prisoner-of-war status of those bought in. The US did not have on. Prisoner claims were summarily rejected, and many simply sent onwards to Guantanamo. 

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