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):
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:
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:
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:
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.