Tag Archives: Taliban

Disappearing the Middle East

December 3, 2016

An Afghan policeman patrols next to a burning vehicle in the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Related story: Security Chief: Europe Must Brace for New Extremist Attacks Above, an Afghan policeman patrols next to a burning vehicle in the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Strangely enough, I don’t want to start this column by talking about the Middle East. I start  instead in Afghanistan in Southeast Asia, because its case is a microcosm of what’s happening throughout the Middle East, and a valuable lesson in the way most media covers what’s happening there or — to put it bluntly — doesn’t cover it.

Are you aware that little more than a week ago, the top commander of the US and allied forces in Afghanistan said the Afghan government only controls about 60 per cent of the country? The rest is controlled by insurgent Taliban forces, which are getting stronger and are likely to take over even more territory. This despite the fact that the United States alone has spent billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan (as of January 1, 2015, the total was $685.6 billion, making it one of the two most expensive wars in American history – the more expensive one is Iraq). This includes training Afghan troops to fight the Taliban, supplying hardware and troops and drones attacks to wipe out Taliban commanders, yet it appears the Taliban is poised to recapture Afghanistan once again.

Do you remember reading about any of this? Or seeing it on America’s nightly news? Or hearing it being discussed on CNN or Fox News or MSNBC? The chances are highly unlikely. While the story was certainly covered by wire services like Associated Press, almost none of the major media outlets in America carried it for longer than about 10 minutes. It probably didn’t appear on cable news at all, a medium that is more fascinated by Donald Trump’s tweets than by America’s longest and second-most costly war.

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Migrants, hoping to cross into Hungary, walk along a railway track outside the village of Horgos in Serbia, towards the border it shares with Hungary, August 31, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Migrants, hoping to cross into Hungary, walk along a railway track outside the village of Horgos in Serbia, towards the border it shares with Hungary, August 31, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Now let’s look at the Middle East. Are you aware that over 600 car-bombs have been used against Iraqi security forces in their attempt to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (IS)? Are you aware that the battle of Mosul is still happening? Do you know that Lebanon has a new president who is closely aligned with the terrorist group Hezbollah and Iran? Do you know that Libyan forces have almost wiped out IS forces in Libya, isolating the remainder in the Libyan town of Sirte? (The Pentagon claims IS forces now control only about two blocks and 50 buildings in Sirte itself.) Or that the biggest problem may come after the IS forces have been wiped out, because the various groups who came together to fight them don’t get along and could fall to fighting amongst themselves for control of the country? What about accusations that Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia has committed war crimes against its battles against Shia Muslim Houti forces in Yemen? Did you even know Saudi forces were fighting in Yemen? Or that many experts have said the US and the UK may be complicit in some of these war crimes because of their support of Saudi Arabia? How about the recent success of Islamist, nationalist and liberal (strange bedfellows indeed) opposition forces in Kuwaiti parliamentary elections that may throw the country into complete chaos?

The answer to all these questions is … probably not. Because, to all intents and purposes, the Middle East has disappeared from American media. Americans have moved on: the recent presidential elections hardly focused on questions of foreign policy outside President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to block illegal Hispanic, and most Muslim, immigrants, and his claim that China is trying to destroy jobs in the US and so invented the climate-change “hoax” as a way to accomplish that goal.

Since covering Trump generated much, much more money for the news media —  in particular the cable news networks — these very important developments in the Middle East, which have serious implications for the United States and the world, were barely mentioned. Some were not mentioned at all.

The disappearance of the Middle East from American newspapers, radios and TV screens probably has several causes: President Obama’s attempted pivot away from the Middle East to focus on relations with Pacific nations; the non-stop Trump-fest coverage of the presidential election; media fatigue after almost 14 years of covering conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan; dwindling resources that force many outlets to focus on coverage of the Syria conflict (and even that is increasingly dropping off the media radar); and the fact that Americans are just bored and want the whole thing to go away.

But there’s the rub — it won’t just go away. The issue of millions of people displaced by war in the region isn’t going away; it played a role in both Brexit and the US election, and will likely also do so in Italian, Austrian, Dutch, and France elections in the coming months. While the Islamic State has been weakened, it isn’t going away. Iran’s presence in a divided Syria isn’t going away. The Palestinian issue is likely only to get worse under a Trump administration.

The Middle East is still the other elephant in America’s living room (the bigger one is racism). Despite the best efforts of the American media and the US public in general, the Middle East will continue to be a cause for concern. No matter how hard they try to ignore it.

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com


You might also wish to read:

Security Chief: Europe Must Brace for New Extremist Attacks, by Alastair Macdonald

 Islamic State will attack Europe again, security chiefs warned Dec. 2, and may add car bombs, cyber and chemical warfare to its local arsenal as European militants drift home after reverses in Syria and Iraq.

Related in F&O’s Archives:

Turkey’s Shock Waves Slam Middle EastJONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs, July 30, 2016

The Middle East: Meltdowns, Crises and DaeshBy Simon Mabon, January, 2015  

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Afghanistan http://www.unocha.org/afghanistan

Further information:

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Conflict Induced Displacements graphic as of Nov. 27, 2016: http://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/afghanistan-conflict-induced-displacements-27-november-2016




Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 



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Pakistan’s long road to the Lahore bombing

The Easter Sunday suicide bombing in Lahore is a gruesome metaphor for the religious madness that has consumed Pakistan


JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 2, 2016

The Easter Sunday suicide bombing in Lahore, which was aimed at Christians but killed and maimed mostly Muslims, is a gruesome metaphor for the religious madness that has consumed Pakistan since the country’s creation in 1947.

From the start, Pakistan has been a crippled state and no one seems able or willing to fashion a prosthetic that will allow it to function.

Added to the religious turmoil, which is as bloody inside Islamic communities as outside, the political class is overpopulated with craven self-servers, bereft of courage or vision.

Standing back from the cacophonous political marketplace is Pakistan’s only fully-functional institution: the army. But the army, from its base in Rawalpindi, an easy drive from the capital Islamabad when need be, has its own prerogatives. It regards itself as the guardian of the sanctity of the state. The army makes and applies its own policies on Pakistan’s internal and external security.

On three occasions since Pakistan was created out of the British Indian Empire in 1947, the army has elbowed aside the politicians and taken power directly. But for the most part, the senior officer corps doesn’t have to interfere overtly. The political classes are so fearful of a coup that they always keep in mind the reaction of the army before making decisions.

A Sunni extremist group called Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has claimed responsibility for the Lahore atrocity. The group is either a splinter group or a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, and has also claimed responsibility for two suicide bomber attacks on Christian churches in Lahore in March 2015, in which 15 people were killed.

The Lahore police have arrested about 17 people after a series of raids. But the Pakistani police in general are a dud force, and for political reasons there will be no serious attempt to root out either Jamaat-ul-Ahrar or the Pakistani Taliban in Punjab state, of which Lahore is the capital.

That would require loosing the military in a fully-fledged counterinsurgency campaign in Punjab. But that would mean admitting that there is a home-grown security problem in Punjab, the core political stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim Leagure-Nawaz (PML-N) party.

There are three main reasons why Nawaz wants to avoid that.

First, his PML-N party has more than a nudge-nudge-wink-wink relationship with Sunni religious extremists. Indeed, secondly, some of Nawaz’ colleagues are not above enrolling extremists to intimidate their opponents during election campaign. And third, allowing military operations in his political core base of Punjab would make Nawaz look weak to his supporters.

So Nawaz has gone out of his way not to offend his supporters. His response to the Easter Sunday and other terrorist attacks is to suggest that insecurity in Punjab is the work of terrorists from other provinces. A counterinsurgency operation by police and the Rangers, a paramilitary organization commanded by army officers, ordered by Nawaz after the latest attack has concentrated on the state’s border regions, even though the suicide bomber has been identified as a Punjab state resident.

This dangerous habit of trying to make events fit political imperatives has a long history in Pakistan and only serves to ensure the survival of the terrorist groups.

The government’s political response to the Lahore attack ignores the fact that the aim of most if not all the militant groups based in Punjab is to attack minority religious groups whom they despise. These groups consider their enemies to be the Christians, Shia Muslims and the Ahmadi Muslims, who believe themselves to be devout followers of Islam, but who are dismissed as heretics by Sunnis and even the Pakistani government.

Nawaz and his government are trying to suggest the insecurity in Punjab flows from the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This inhospitable western region bordering Afghanistan is where there are havens for the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaida, and, increasingly, groups vowing loyalty to the Islamic State group and its “Caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.

In so far as there is any Pakistani security force in the FATA, it is the army. However, the army has its own ideas about who are the good guys and who the bad. The Pakistani Taliban are definitely bad, and the army sometimes goes on sweeps to attack its bases. The relation ship with al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban is a different matter. It will be recalled that when United States Special Forces found al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden he had been living for some time in a large compound in the heart of Abbottabad. The centre-piece of this town is its military academy. Claims that the Pakistani army – or senior members of it at the very least — did not know bin Laden was hiding in their midst defy common sense.

And it must always be remembered that Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the Inter-Service Intelligence agency, created the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan in the chaos that followed the departure of the Soviet Union invasion forces in 1989. The Taliban fighters were recruited from among the Afghan refugee students in camps in Pakistan. They were then trained and armed by ISI with the blessing of then Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto before being dispatched into Afghanistan.

The close relationship between ISI and the Afghan Taliban has continued despite efforts by the U.S. and others to convince the Pakistan army to end its support. The reason for the ISI’s persistence stems from why it created the Taliban in the first place. For the army and ISI the great threat to Pakistan’s security is its massive neighbour India, with whom it has fought four wars and engaged in countless border clashes since 1947.

Pakistan’s military fears being surrounded if India gains dominant influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban are Pakistan’s insurance policy against New Delhi becoming pre-eminent in Kabul. Just this week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in an interview with the BBC, accused Pakistan of continuing to foster war and insecurity in his country by its continuing support for the Taliban.

There has, however, been a significant change in the Afghan Taliban equation since the death of its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, in Pakistan in 2013. Several of the Taliban commanders have defected to the Islamic State group, with its even more barbarous interpretations of Islam and the fitting treatment for unbelievers and traitors.

Whether ISI and the Pakistani army will continue to treat Islamic State groups with the same kind of paternal affection they have displayed for the Taliban is one of the most important questions confronting Afghanistan and, indeed, Pakistan.

The attitude of Prime Minister Nawaz to terrorism and insecurity in Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial and industrial hub and capital of southern Sindh Province, is dramatically different from his response to the same problems back home in Punjab.

Karachi is a very violent place, and not just from the work of religious fanatics. It has criminal mafias and a lot of political violence, especially within the Muttahida Quami Movement, the party of people who fled to Pakistan at the time of partition from India in 1947.

But Sindh province is the heartland of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the main opposition party once led by Benazir Bhutto and, since her assassination in 2007, by her husband Asif Ali Zardari. It is a measure of Zardari’s lack of confidence in his personal safety in Karachi that he chooses to lead the opposition PPP from the relative safety of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Because Karachi and Sindh are the heartlands of the PPP, Nawaz has not felt the need to appease local people’s sensitivities when confronting violence and terrorism. The counterinsurgency campaign in Karachi is led by the paramilitary Rangers and their army officers. A speciality of the Rangers are what is known as “encounter death.” Others would call this a shoot-first policy or even a policy of extra-judicial murder. At any rate, last year the Rangers killed about 800 people alleged to be criminals or terrorists.

Their tactics may be brutal, but they do seem to be effective. The number of people murdered in the city has dropped from 2,789 in 2013 to 986 last year.

Mind you, Karachi has plenty of bad people to go around. (The last time I was there my considerate hosts provided me with six armed bodyguards for the duration of my stay. I well remember the look of relief on their faces when they finally delivered me to the airport for my flight home.)

Since 2005 about two million people displaced by fighting and terrorism in other parts of the country have fled to Karachi in search of security. Among them is a large number of Taliban sympathizers who have taken over at least three districts of Karachi, where they operate profitable protection rackets against local businesses.

The situation is not helped by the growth of a network of about 1,000 madrassas – Muslim religious schools – around the city. Of these, around 50 are connected to the Pakistan Taliban and other Sunni extremist groups.

Pakistan was never meant to be like this. Yet even from before the country was created there was confusion and division about the role of Islam in the constitution of the state. When, in the 1930s, the idea to hive off the Muslim regions of predominantly Hindu India into a separate country was being debated, leading figures thought it should be a theocracy based on Sharia Islamic law. But when partition came in 1947, the leader of dominant Muslim League and Pakistan’s first leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, opted for a secular state. In his inaugural speech Jinnah said: “You will find that in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.”

Unfortunately for Pakistan, religion has not become a matter of personal, private devotion. It continues to be a cause for public violence, murder and discord.

There are nearly 200 million people in Pakistan, and about 96 per cent of them are Muslims. That makes Pakistan the second most populous Muslim country after Indonesia. About 85 per cent of those nearly 200 million people are Sunni Muslims and about 15 per cent are Shia. About two per cent of Pakistanis are Ahmadi Muslims, who, as I said above, are considered heretics by other Muslims and even the government. The remaining few percent of Pakistanis are Christians or Hindus.

The first years of Pakistan’s independence were taken up with trying to write a constitution that embodied a parliamentary democracy with protection for minorities, but which also acknowledged the supremacy of Islam and its tenets. It was a fraught and challenging business that led to high emotions and a gathering tide of unrest on the streets. In 1958, President Iskander Mirza, a career army officer with little regard for civilians or the notion of democracy, decided the security of the state was threatened by the unrest. He dismissed the government and the parliament. He imposed martial law, issued his own constitution, formed a government made up largely of technocrats, and appointed Pakistan’s army commander, Gen. Ayub Khan, as the head of government. Big mistake. Within a few months Gen.Ayub Khan took full control, fired Mirza’s government, forced the president to resign and packed him off to exile in London.

Ayub Khan minmized foreign criticism of his coup by allying himself with the U.S. and Britain in the Cold War. Tha air base at Peshawar was made available to the U.S. Air Force, from where it flew U-2 spy plane flights over the Soviet Union. In 1969 Ayub Khan resigned and handed power to Gen. Yaya Khan, who immediately reaffirmed the declaration of martial law.

Yaya Khan’s rule ended in chaos. Predominantly Muslim East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, was still part of the country, but a strong secessionist movement there spawned a civil war. This in turn morphed into a war with India, which Pakistan lost. That 1971 defeat remains a livid cultural scar on the soul of the Pakistan armed forces. The shame of that defeat still determines the military’s attitude to India and the country’s security.

Yaya Khan had little choice but to leave before being thrown out the door. He handed power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a British-trained lawyer from an aristocratic Rajput family, who had managed to survive in several government positions during military rule.

Bhutto had founded the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party in 1967 under the banner: “Islam is our faith, democracy is our policy, socialism is our economy. All power to the people.” Even before he achieved power Bhutto and the PPP attracted support from hardline socialists and communists.

Bhutto took power as the civilian administrator of martial law, but under the 1973 constitution he became Prime Minister. He pursued a classic socialist agenda, but his populist style and volatile personality generated mounting political opposition. The most potent opposition came from staunch Islamists and the Muslim League.

In order to try to stave off this attack from the religious right, Bhutto the populist decided to become an Islamist himself. He instituted a number laws and rules consistent with Sharia religious law, but it was too late to save his regime.

Believing that Pakistan was on the brink of civil disorder, the army under Gen. Zia-ul-Haq took control in July 1977. At first Bhutto was allowed to go free, but after he toured the country gathering large crowds at PPP rallies, he was arrested and charged with murder. After a trial of extraordinary drama and legal tomfoolery, Bhutto was found guilty and hanged on April 4 1979.

Although Bhutto had started the Islamization of Pakistan’s law and constitution, it was Gen. Zia who decisively shifted the balance from secular democracy to theocratic state.

“Pakistan which was created in the name of Islam will continue to survive only if it sticks to Islam. That is why I consider the introduction of an Islamic system as an essential prerequisite for the country,” Zia said in his first speech after taking power.

Zia established “Sharia Benches” in the Federal Court to judge legal cases using the teachings of the Quran, and to bring Pakistan’s legal statutes into alignment with Islamic doctrine. He increased the influence of Islamic clergy and the Islamic parties. For example, 10,000 members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party were appointed to government posts.

He also introduced punishments such as amputation, whipping and stoning to death for crimes like adultery, fornication, and robbery. It was Zia who enacted the blasphemy laws that remain a huge blight on the country, and which were directly responsible for the Easter Sunday bombing in Lahore.

The bombing was, in part, revenge for the February 29 hanging of Mumtaz Qadri. He had been a police bodyguard for Salmaan Taseer, the PPP-appointed governor of Punjab. Taseer was killed by Qadri on January 4 2011 because of the governor’s efforts to have the blasphemy laws removed. The law, which makes any denigration of Islam a capital offence, has been widely used to persecute Christians and, because little evidence is required to prove the case, as a weapon in personal and family feuds. While no one has been executed for blasphemy, 62 people have been murdered while their trials were underway.

Zia muted criticism from the West of his military regime by remaining a firm ally with the U.S. in the Cold War. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 was a gift to Zia. It put him in the wonderful position of being Washington’s invaluable ally in the drive to support and supply the mujahideen guerrillas fighting the Soviets. Washington persuaded its ally, Saudi Arabia, to help finance the project. Riyadh joined with alacrity and as well as money for arms, it sent its most troublesome radical Wahhabist clerics to preach and teach in Pakistan in the guerrilla camps and madrassa religious schools for refugee Afghan boys and young men.

We know how that venture turned out.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com



Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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U.S. conviction of David Hicks, Guantanamo Detainee, not valid

by Raymond Bonner, Special to ProPublica
Jan. 28, 2015

David Hicks speaking in xx. Photo by Adam Thomas via Flickr, Creative Commons

David Hicks speaking in Canberra. Photo by Adam Thomas/Flickr, Creative Commons

SYDNEY — The United States has acknowledged that the conviction of an Australian man held for nearly six years in Guantanamo Bay was not legally valid.

The Australian, David Hicks, was one of the first people sent to Guantanamo, and he has already figured in a key U.S. court decision that expanded the rights of detainees held in the offshore prison. Initially charged with multiple crimes, including conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, attempted murder, and aiding the enemy, Hicks ultimately pleaded guilty to a single charge of providing “material support” to terrorism.

Hicks recently appealed, arguing that the law used against him was passed after 9/11 and could not be applied retroactively. In its reply, the U.S. argued that the review court should refuse to review the case because Hicks had entered a guilty plea.  But in a crucial concession, the military commission’s chief prosecutor said that if the appeal were allowed, “the Court should not confirm Hicks’s material-support conviction.”  

The Jan. 16 brief by Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins was obtained by ProPublica and has not yet been made public.

“Hicks will finally get justice,” said Michael Mori, a Marine Corps major who was Hicks’ military lawyer. Mori is now out of the military and is no longer involved in the case, but he said he has seen a copy of the prosecutor’s brief, as did two lawyers currently representing Hicks.

Hicks would not have been convicted in the first place “if the case had been tried in federal court, instead of the politically motivated military commissions,” said Mori, author of a book about the case, “In the Company of Cowards: Bush, Howard and Injustice at Guantanamo,” which was published last September.

The latest development is a striking retreat for the American government. The Bush administration initially described Hicks as among the “worst of the worst,” the label used for the men held in Guantanamo. And in 2007, when Hicks was still in Guantanamo, the American ambassador in Australia, Robert D. McCallum Jr., described the Guantanamo detainees as “ruthless fanatics who would kill Australians and Americans without blinking an eye.”

Hicks’ case stands out in any discussion about the use of the military commissions in the war on terror. He was a Westerner, Detainee 002 (001 was another Westerner, John Walker Lindh, from San Francisco. Lindh pleaded guilty in federal court to two-terrorism-related charges in 2002 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison) and he was on the first plane bringing prisoners to Guantanamo.

Later, Hicks was a plaintiff in the lawsuit that resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that Guantanamo detainees had the right to file habeas petitions in civilian courts to challenge their detention.  And he was the first person convicted and sentenced by the military commission.

Many legal analysts have questioned whether the military process begun by the Bush administration can ever arrive at the truth.  How can a judge assess a statement extracted by torture? How reliable are the allegations in the government’s indictments when prosecutors overcharged, as they did in Hicks’ case? If the Bush administration had allowed suspects to be tried in federal courts, the government’s charges and the suspects’ claims of innocence could have been put to rigorous test.

In the case of David Hicks, opinions remain divided over whether he was a lost soul in search of adventure and meaning in his life or a committed Taliban supporter, who, with his Caucasian skin and Australian passport, was being groomed by al-Qaida to carry out terrorist attacks in the West.

A heavy drinker and drug user, Hicks was expelled from school at 14. He was only 5-feet-5-inches tall, but he played Australian Rules football, which is physically more demanding than rugby, and became a kangaroo skinner in Australia’s Outback; he then went to Japan to train horses. Tired of that, he ventured to the Balkans where he joined the Kosovo Liberation Army, which at the time was fighting with NATO support against Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s leader.  When that war ended, he returned to Australia, and after trying unsuccessfully to join the Australian army, he went to Pakistan, hoping to ride the Silk Trail on horseback, he told his parents.

There, he found Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani-supported organization battling India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Lashkar-e-Taiba eventually ended up on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations and executed the 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people, including six Americans. But at the time, the group was officially viewed as a collection of regional insurgents.

Lashkar sent Hicks to Afghanistan for training. American and Australian officials have said that he attended at least four al-Qaida camps. In the most exhaustive journalistic examination of the Hicks case, “Detainee 002: The Case of David Hicks,” Australian journalist Leigh Sales wrote that Hicks “did a seven week training course, including marksmanship, small team tactics, ambush, camouflage and intelligence gathering,” and that he claimed to have met bin Laden twenty times, which was probably a boast, which he later regretted. A military prosecutor described Hicks, to Sales, as a “ne’er-do-well,” “big talker,” and a “kooky maverick,” without the courage or intellect to carry out a major operation.

In his own memoir, “Guantanamo: My Journey,” Mr. Hicks glosses over his time in Afghanistan. Sally Neighbour, an Australian journalist who has written extensively on Islam and terrorism post 9/11, asserted in her review of the book that Hicks had been less than forthcoming. She noted that he devoted only one page in the 456-page book to his al-Qaida training.

“None of this is to suggest that David Hicks deserved the ‘six years of hell’ he describes,” Neighbour wrote. “He did not, which is why so many Australians campaigned for his release. At the least, Hicks owed them a frank, open and truthful account of his whole story, rather than this distorted air-brushed version of the truth.”

Hicks’ ordeal began when he was captured in late 2001 by the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban group.  The Afghans turned Hicks over to the American military for a ransom of $5,000, according to his father. After being interrogated aboard the U.S.S. Peleliu, he was flown to Guantanamo, where he cooperated with interrogators.

The Australian government was content to let him stay there because whatever he was doing in Afghanistan, he had not violated any Australian laws, so he would have to be released if he were sent home.

When Hicks was first captured, Australian tabloids labeled him “Australia’s own Taliban.” But public opinion turned here, and support for David Hicks became the symbol, for conservatives and liberals, to express their opposition to the manner in which America was conducting the war on terror 2014 Guantanamo, secret prisons, torture and the lack of due process under the military commissions.

Prime Minister John Howard, the leader of the country’s center-right Liberal Party, and who coincidentally had been feted at a gala party at the Australian embassy in Washington two days before 9/11, was facing a tough re-election and appealed to President Bush and Vice President Cheney to bring Hicks to trial. The charges against Hicks were then reduced to the one count of material support for terrorism, and he pleaded guilty.

He was returned to Australia, served seven months in jail and then was released after a total of nearly six years behind bars. He has since married, lives in Sydney and works at odd jobs. He is currently on a job outside Sydney, beyond reliable cellphone service and thus not available for an interview, his Australian lawyer, Stephen Kenny, said in a telephone interview from his office in Adelaide. “We’re very please to see that they agree he is innocent, and the conviction cannot stand,” Mr. Kenny said.

In November 2013, lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, in New York, and Joseph Margulies, a law professor who has represented several Guantanamo detainees in landmark cases, filed an appeal in Hicks’ case. They argued that Hicks’ guilty plea and conviction were not legally valid because material support for terrorism was not a crime under American law at the time Hicks was in Afghanistan, nor was it a war crime under international law.

Last July, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia vacated the material support conviction of another Guantanamo detainee, Ali al-Bahlul. In light of that decision, United States v Bahlul, in November, the military review court hearing Hicks’ appeal asked the government and Hicks’ lawyers to specifically address the question of whether Hicks’ conviction should be affirmed.

In the seven-page brief responding to that question, the commission’s chief prosecutor argues first that the court should not hear Hicks’ appeal because he had pleaded guilty. Hicks’ lawyers argue the plea was coerced by the torture and brutal conditions under which Hicks was held at Guantanamo. They said his plea was irrelevant in any event because courts cannot accept a guilty plea to conduct that was not a crime at the time it occurred.

In his brief, the chief prosecutor acknowledges that if the court believes it has jurisdiction, it “should decline to affirm Hicks’s material-support conviction” in light of the appeals court ruling on Bahlul.

Hicks, 39, has maintained a low profile since his release. But at a human rights ceremony in Sydney last month, he heckled the country’s attorney general, George Brandis.

“Hey, my name is David Hicks,” he shouted as Brandis was speaking, the Guardian-Australia reported. “I was tortured for 5 1/2 years in Guantanamo Bay in the full knowledge of your party! What do you have to say?”

Creative Commons

Related reading:

CIA psychologists failed both scientific rigour and morality, by Laurence Alison, The Conversation

Verbatim: U.S. senators condemn CIA detention, interrorgation activities, by F&O

 ProPublica’s coverage of Guantanamo Bay. (You will leave Facts and Opinions’ site) ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up here for their newsletter.


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What to make of Bowe Bergdahl?

Two events in Afghanistan recently seem to be at odds with each other: the Tabliban’s release of American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for a prisoner swap, and the attempted killing of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah.”Yet these two pictures are not mutually exclusive,” writes International Affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe. ” There are strands that bind them together.” An excerpt of Manthorpe’s new column: 

USA_PFC_BoweBergdahl_ACU_CroppedHow, then, to reconcile the relaxed body language of the Americans and Taliban at the handover of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl a week ago, and a suicide bomb attack today on the election campaign convoy of Afghanistan’s likely next President, Abdullah Abdullah?

The circumstances around the release of Bergdahl on May 31 in exchange for five Taliban leaders being held at the United States’ prison camp at Guantanamo Bay contain efforts to move to a political playing field. After 12 years of war since the American-led invasion of Afghanistan late in 2011 and the ouster of the Taliban regime, there is urgency on both sides. A runoff vote in Afghanistan’s Presidential election is due on June 14, with the results posted on July 22. This will likely produce an administration led by former Foreign Minister Abdullah, who is committed to engagement with the Taliban, provided there is an end to violence.

For veteran leaders among the Taliban this offers some hope of a role in government and an opportunity to pursue their puritanical Islamic agenda. It also tends to reassert their authority over the young blood fighters, many of whom believe a battlefield victory is still obtainable … read more* 

*Log in on the top right of each page (or click here to purchase a subscription or a $1 site day pass) to read the column, Bergdahl a pawn in a bigger game.

Click here for Jonathan Manthorpe’s page, with all of his columns for F&O.

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Afghanistan’s unsavoury presidential choices

 Who will be Afghanistan’s next elected leader? International affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe considers the options – and finds all of the candidates wanting. Excerpt:

Manthorpe B&WThe world will soon discover whether 13 years of war in Afghanistan at a cost of the lives of tens of thousands of local people, the deaths of 3,392 members of the international forces fighting the Taliban insurgents, and upwards of $4 trillion, has all been worth it. Afghanistan this week embarked on its third election since United States-led forces invaded the country late in 2001 to root out al-Qaida terrorists and oust from power in Kabul their Taliban sponsors. This, however, is by far the most important and unpredictable of the three elections. The parliamentary and presidential elections come with almost all members of the International Security Assistance Force due to leave the country … …

Subscribers please log in to read the column, Afghans survey an unsavoury buffet of presidential candidates,  here.*

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Polio and progress

In most of the world polio is a mere bogeyman, a shadow that drifts through our awareness every October 24, the day global health agencies call World Polio Day. Few suffered, or now recall, the polio epidemics that menaced cities from the late 1800s until 1952, when Jonas Salk invented a vaccine. 

Scientists like Salk, politicians, public health agencies and Rotary International made it a global mission to wipe out poliovirus: they cooperated globally and aggressively attacked a scourge that causes muscle weakness, paralysis and sometimes death. Most of us are lucky today because of them: they were smart.

Lately we haven’t been so smart – and now the bogeyman is becoming a real threat.

Earlier this year health authorities thought poliomyelitis had almost entirely vanished except in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and in those countries, there were 40 per cent fewer cases in 2013 than in 2012, said the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Because the virus only lives in humans, it was hoped that immunization through global cooperation would finish polio off within a generation, and that poliomyelitis would join smallpox as an extinct human disease.

But this month polio surfaced again in war-torn Syria for the first time since 1999, and more than 20 cases have been confirmed, reported the World Health Organization. It was reported again in the Horn of Africa, and a few cases were reported in China.

Meanwhile efforts to stop it elsewhere are being hindered by religious fundamentalists – and the rule of unintended consequences.

America’s “war on terror” coincidentally sparked opposition to vaccines in Taliban territory, after a Pakistani doctor working with the United States reportedly used a fake vaccination campaign to get information from Osama bin Laden’s family.

Pakistani physician Shakil Afridi told a court he used the ruse  of a hepatitis-B vaccination campaign to try and get DNA from Osama bin Laden’s children, in Peshawar. The U.S. said it killed bin Laden in 2011, and last year a Pakistan court sentenced Afridi to 33 years in jail for treason.

Since Afridi’s admission, the Taliban has targeted health care workers delivering vaccines. The latest in some two dozen deaths were from bombings in Peshawar this month, reported the BBC.

Disease control is an example of human “progress,” a disputed and contentious word that’s fallen out of fashion lately. In addition to being out of fashion, “progress” has taken several steps backward.

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones


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