Fallout from the War on Terror – Part II

The complex effects of the US war on terror extend far beyond security – and the unintended results are not all positive. In this two-part series, YaleGlobal explores how US anti-terrorism policy is changing America's position in the world. In part two, J Alexander Thier , a former legal adviser in Afghanistan, considers the effects of human rights violations on the US standing in the Muslim world. Since Sept. 11, allegations have surfaced of torture, secret prisons, and government cover-ups. What began with the Abu Ghraib scandal has since been followed by a constant stream of shocking incidents at Guantanamo and other facilities. Thier warns that in permitting such violations, the Bush administration is playing with fire: "How can the US government credibly trumpet democracy and human rights while it continues to block attempts to hold it accountable on those same principles?" Washington's tolerence of human rights violations will do little to sway the hearts and minds of Muslims. Actions, he concludes, speak louder than words: "Treating one's enemies by the same principles as one's own citizens is the hallmark of virtue, and one that will not go unnoticed." – YaleGlobal

Fallout from the War on Terror – Part II

A pattern of human rights violations and prisoner abuse risks hurting US credibility in the Muslim world
J Alexander Thier
Thursday, June 16, 2005
Igniting passion: Afghan demonstrators denounce the alleged US abuse of the Quran

PALO ALTO: The spasm of protest and violence that swept through the Islamic world from Afghanistan to Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, and Indonesia in reaction to the Newsweek Quran abuse piece reveals something critical: the Muslim world is a powder-keg of anti-American sentiment. But rather than improve relations, the Bush administration continues to play with fire.

The real "war on terror" is about culture, ideas, and perceptions as much as bombs and spies. While it is critical to fight the committed terrorists, abhorrent incidents of abuse by members of the US military play directly into the hands of the Islamic extremists who are competing for the hearts and minds of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The US only has so many chances to deliver its message, and in the information-poor and conspiracy-rich environments of the Middle East, actions speak much louder than rhetoric.

Witness the recent case of the United Nations independent expert on human rights in Afghanistan. The United Nations expert, Cherif Bassiouni, released a report in April detailing continued gross human rights violations in Afghanistan. Bassiouni, a law professor at DePaul University, is among the most prominent Muslim legal scholars in the world. He previously served as chairman of the U.N. Commission to Investigate International Humanitarian Law Violations in the former Yugoslavia, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for his lifelong work to establish an International Criminal Court.

Bassiouni was mandated by the UN Human Rights Commission to "provide a report on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan." His report lauded important progress by the Afghan government, while detailing ongoing abuses inside Afghanistan by elements of the government, Afghan warlords, and the US military forces stationed there. The report criticized US forces of "engaging in arbitrary arrests and detentions and committing abusive practices, including torture" and homicide.

These allegations against the US forces, while serious, are far from controversial. Reports now confirmed by the US military have revealed that at least nine detainees have died in US detention facilities in Afghanistan alone. New evidence from a US Army criminal investigation of prisoner abuse in Bagram, Afghanistan provides, in gory detail, how an innocent young taxi-driver was beaten to death over several days by several American soldiers. Witness testimony indicates that some of the beatings were performed merely to hear the detainee cry out to his God.

Yet, in response to Bassiouni's report, the US government forced the UN to fire Bassiouni and to get rid of the position altogether. How can the US government credibly trumpet democracy and human rights while it continues to block attempts to hold it accountable on those same principles? Thus far, the Bush administration record for suppressing information about abuses is far more compelling than their record for sharing information.

The Bush administration needs to radically recalibrate its approach to the war on terrorism. This is a war of values – promoting freedom, democracy, and human rights against intolerance and extremism. Thus the US must lead with real American values, values that abhor torture, secret prisons, and government cover-ups.

For the last year, the world has been exposed to a steady trickle of stories revealing shocking tales of abuse and humiliation of Muslims at the hands of the US government. The images of Abu Ghraib are burned into the memory of even the most ardent Bush supporter. The revelations from Abu Ghraib, while visually stunning, have proven to be only the tip of the iceberg. The Pentagon and the CIA run a network of secret detention facilities in Afghanistan. The US government also continues its Kafkaesque practice of "extraordinary rendition," wherein suspects are kidnapped by US security forces in various parts of the world and flown to countries like Egypt, Syria, and Uzbekistan. Once there, these men are handed over to local governments to be interrogated using torture techniques forbidden to US officials. In one such case, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, Khaled al Masri, was snatched by American agents at the Macedonian border and flown to Afghanistan via Baghdad. After enduring months of interrogation and detention shackled in a tiny cell, he was sent back and dumped on a deserted road in Albania. It seems he had been picked up because he shared the name of a suspected terrorist.

The Quran stories from Guantanamo have overshadowed other revelations from FBI agents and US soldiers which make the US prison there sound like a House of Horrors: beatings, naked prisoners left chained in their own waste, mass suicide attempts, and a female guard smearing fake menstrual blood on a detainee to break his faith in God. As former Army Colonel Patrick Lang said on "60 Minutes" recently, ""I mean, what is this? A scene from Dante's Inferno?"

Yet the Bush administration has done surprisingly little to counter impressions that the US supports neither human rights nor accountability for those who violate them. One abuse scandal can be called an aberration, but there is clearly a pattern here. Punishing a few low-level soldiers a year after the abuses make headlines is hardly going to sway the Islamic world that the US takes these issues seriously. Much of the most damaging information about approved torture techniques and extraordinary rendition has come through law suits against the government or leaks to the press. This is precisely why Amnesty International, in their recent human rights report, compared the network of US "war on terror" detention facilities to the Soviet gulag. These abuses no longer appear to be unfortunate aberrations caused by poorly trained soldiers under stress. Instead, they appear to comprise a policy of violations of human rights and the rule of law for political ends.

Ultimately, these issues go far beyond individual allegations of abuse. The Muslim world has largely come to see America as an occupier, not a liberator. Despite elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, few there believe that establishing independent, democratic societies is Washington's primary goal. Rather, they believe that the US incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq are part of a scheme to establish permanent bases in the region in order to dominate the Islamic world. Indeed, recent discussion about establishing permanent US military bases in Afghanistan emboldened extremists by stoking the fears of those who remain wary of such long-term US involvement.

How does the US get out of this morass of distrust and moral decay? It must hold itself to higher standards. The US can do a lot more to make Muslims believe that the government finds its own shortcomings even more unacceptable than those of its enemies. And it can demonstrate that the US will spare no effort or expense to right the wrongs it commits. It should also act quickly to repair the breach by guaranteeing fair hearings for all those arrested and detained after a reasonable period of time. Most importantly, the US must restore its commitment to safe-guarding the human dignity of friend and foe alike. Treating one's enemies by the same principles as one's own citizens is the hallmark of virtue, and one that will not go unnoticed.

J Alexander Thier is a Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, and a National Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served as legal adviser to the Afghan Constitutional and Judicial Reform Commissions from 2002-2004.

© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization