Swapped Taliban detainees: Terrorists or prisoners of war?

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Kurt Wallace: This is Kurt Wallace and our guest today on Rare is Sheldon Richman. He is the vice-president of the Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF’s monthly journal Future of Freedom, and Sheldon thanks for being with us today on Rare.

Sheldon Richman: Great to be with you.

Kurt Wallace: Now you’ve written and article, it’s “Sgt. Bergdahl and the Fog of War,” talking about the different perspective in putting the reader in the shoes of people who go to war. On a broad scale you’re talking about the effects of this and what really happens. Could you break this down for us a little bit more?

Sheldon Richman: Sure, I tried to start off in general that they have the phrase “fog of war” which usually relates to the inability to get good information. There’s a lot of confusion. But I think there’s another sense to it, I don’t know that its original with me, but there’s also sort of a moral chaos involved in warfare. You thrust young people into a battlefield, they’re shooting at people in order of their commander’s and ultimately there governments. They don’t know who they’re shooting at. They don’t know really the moral status of it. They are taught to obey others although there is a rule that you need not obey an unlawful order. But I don’t know how much that is stressed to individuals.

Most of them might be thinking of the famous line from Alfred Lord Tennyson the Charge of the Light Brigade about “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die” and I think that’s probably the standard attitude. Occasionally you get somebody like Chelsea Manning who sees things that appear to be wrong and unlawful and immoral. Who then tries to bring the issue to commanders, and when rebuffed in Manning’s case, went public and released to Wikileaks many, many documents as well as that famous video ‘Collateral Murder’ where innocents were killed in Iraq by American troops. So you have a moral chaos and I think it’s magnified in a place like Afghanistan. Which is in some ways like a conventional war but in other ways is not a conventional war.

So, the confusion and the moral fog is thicker than ever. So, I tried to see things through the eyes of Bowe Bergdahl, who one day left his post. And judging by his emails he had written to his father he had become disillusioned. He’s seen a child run over by a military truck. He saw an arrogant attitude on the part of American soldiers making fun of Afghans and things of that sort. And we’ve heard of other incidents too where people were urinating on burning Korans. And the famous Abu Ghraib where people were being tortured in both Iraq and Afghanistan. All of this could drive, I think could drive, an individual soldier to say I don’t understand the point of this anymore, I thought I did but I don’t know, and want to extricate himself from a very bewildering situation.

Kurt Wallace: Well many may argue that there are soldiers that have been disillusioned but they didn’t leave their post, they didn’t leave the people they were fighting with. There actions didn’t turn into what happened with Bergdahl. So, a lot of people are calling for an investigation and if nessacary punishment?

Sheldon Richman: Well, I’m not saying the precise thing that he did was necessarily the best thing for him to have done. He could have, I suppose, gone to a commanding officer and said I can’t do this anymore. Send me home, send me somewhere, I want to be a conscientious objector. He could have made some complaint. In fact I just heard today there were a couple of other times he left his post but returned within a matter of hours. I haven’t heard any more details about that so there is maybe more to this than we’ve understood up to this point. I’m not saying the thing to do was leave the post and try to walk to Pakistan. Which was what he had in mind. That was of course a very dangerous thing to do himself because as we know he got picked up by Taliban. And I’m not sure what he thought was going to happen. He didn’t take his gun, he had a knife on him and some other personal things and just walked and eventually got picked up. I’m not saying he chose the best course.

But I was trying to put myself in the position of a soldier who goes over there filled with the propaganda that people learn from very early on. That the government is always right and it’s missions abroad are always moral. You hear this in school and you hear it in baseball games when they’re honoring the troops who are serving their country and keeping us free. And you can see a young person getting caught up in that and then something like 9/11 happens and they join up. And then they learn some more or may see things first hand and then they say wait a second, this is not what I thought it was. You’re not allowed to quit the military like most other jobs, you can’t just quit. The questions is, what is somebody in that situation do? I think the right-wing that has been so critical it never looks at it from that point of view. They just see human beings as cogs and they’re supposed to follow their commander and chief no matter what he tells them to do.

Kurt Wallace: Well, we know from Vietnam soldiers came back we know they suffered greatly from the atrocities that happened over there. Children being used as weapons women, elderly being used. Similar things have happened in Afghanistan. We’ve been there 13 years now. The bigger question is about that we’re still there and we are dealing with policing a country that nobody has been able to conquer.

Sheldon Richman: Well, that’s an excellent point and that’s right. He should have never been there because the troops should have never been there. I don’t know what the policy makers were thinking when they decided to go into Afghanistan. It hadn’t been that long before that the Soviets were embarrassingly defeated and had to turn around and go after about a decade in Afghanistan. So, I don’t know what George Bush and his war planners were thinking. There’s no way you’re gonna tame a place like Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been through decades of terrible wars. You had the decade where they resisted the Soviet Union and then when the Soviets left you have almost a full decade of warring factions and clans, militias and warlords, very nasty. And then the Taliban with probably pretty wide support at that point restored some order and brought it in for that terrible violence.

But of course, it was at a very high price. The Taliban were very puritanical of course, in an Islamic sense, imposed a very strict form of Islam on people. Girls couldn’t go to school and learn to read. There were terrible, terrible things. I can’t say anything nice about the Taliban regime. And of course you have the additional element of Bin Laden, you have Arabs that came to Afghanistan in the fight against the Russians and at that time, of course, the US was on their side. The CIA was aiding the Mujahideen. Some of that money and those arms through Pakistan were getting to Bin Laden’s people and they were doing some fighting. Though there was always a divide between Afghans and the so-called Afghan Arabs.

The Arabs would come from other places to help out and Bin Laden comes, I think, toward the end of the 90’s, he comes to Afghanistan. But his fighters were sometimes looked on by the Afghans as they were crazy. They came looking for martyrdom. They almost wanted to be killed by the Russians. And the Afghans would say, you know we’re not here to be martyrs, were here to throw the Russians out. The Arabs jihadist didn’t get that. They saw it as a path to paradise so there was an uneasy relationship between the Afghans and the Arabs. And that was true between the Taliban and Bin Laden when he gets there later on in the 90’s after leaving Yemen.

And I was just reading an article by Gareth Porter just a few years ago. Gareth Porter is a investigative reporter – his work appears at Antiwar.com. Pointing out that the Taliban had given Bin Laden conditions for his being allowed to be there. He couldn’t talk to the press without permission of the Taliban. He couldn’t plot against any other country from Afghanistan, particularly the United States. So they were very concerned about him. Then once 9/11 happens and there were offers before 9/11 for the Taliban to expel him but the American government wasn’t really interested in talking to them. And even before 9/11 in 2001 but before 9/11 the Bush administration was made an offer by the Taliban and they didn’t seem very interested in it. Once the 9/11 attacks occurred and the Bush administration demanded that Bin Laden be turned over to America, the Taliban, number one, asked for evidence. I recall Colin Powell offering to provide evidence which never was provided.

But still the Taliban made repeated offers to send him to another Arab Muslim country where he could be tried by some sort of Islamic council. There was this matter of reluctance to turn Bin Laden over to America because that would be seen as an insult to Islam. Mullah Omar, head of the Taliban government, didn’t want to do what he felt like that would be a humbling of Muslims in respect to Americans. So, our side, the Bush administration wasn’t very sensitive to these kinds of issues, and so they simply made demands of unconditional surrender of Bin Laden and that didn’t happen and they attacked. But once they attacked they killed people indiscriminately in bombings and they picked out warlords to ally with which automatically made the enemies of those warlords our enemies because the US took the positions that if your weren’t with us you were against us. We heard a lot about the Hakomi network lately. Withholding Bergdahl.

Well Hakimi, the leader of that group which fought the Russians, got CIA money, was a guy that the US thought they could deal with but once the US invaded and kicked out the Taliban and al-Qaeda disbursed they made an offer to Hakimi. Unfortunately, it included some time of detention under American supervision and he rejected that. And at that point then he became an enemy of the United States because that’s the way the US saw things. If you weren’t with us you were against us. So we teamed up with Hakimi’s enemies and went after Hakimi and everybody else who was on the other side of the warlords we teamed up with.

So, it was a ridiculous situation to begin with there’s no way there was going to winnable. They are not going to tame Afghanistan if they wait till 2016 to let everybody out. Things are not going to be any different. They sustain the Karzai government and the successor government whoever gets elected Karzai’s successor. No one will be surprised if that government falls and chaos ensues in Afghanistan when the US leaves. It doesn’t matter if it happens today or if it happens in 2016. It’s just the number of people who are gonna get killed both Afghans and Americans between now and 2016.

Kurt Wallace: The other question is with Gitmo from a libertarian perspective this swap of these key individuals. Five detainees that are considered very dangerous and they have been traded for Sgt. Bergdahl. Rule of law, there was no due process, Obama did this unilaterally. What are your thoughts on this?

Sheldon Richman: Well of course holding people in Guantanamo has been without due process. They held many people there no charge for many years. Most have since been released even though we were told by Dick Cheney back in the 2000s that these were the worse of the worst. The bulk of them were let go because they had no reason to hold them. Sometimes the courts intervened and sometimes the Bush administration decided there’s no point in holding these people. So they’re down to something under 200, many of whom have been cleared for released but still have not been released. They were cleared by a court or by a tribunal a review board in 2010 and still have not been released.

So in 2010 you have a bunch guys who learned that they were cleared for release and are still there here in June of 2014. Now that doesn’t happen to be the five Taliban leaders you are referring to. Those guys were all sort of high-ranking in the Taliban government. One problem I have with the way they’ve been talked about is I’m not sure. I don’t know why we call them terrorists. Think of it for a second, they didn’t venture out of their country and set off bombs in marketplaces or shopping malls. The certainly didn’t come to the United States and knocked down buildings. They were officials in a government which the US ousted in 2001. And then they were fighting, they were part of an insurgency against the US which was an invading army. I don’t think that counts as terrorism.

They were combatants, so they were really prisoners of war. I think they should empty Guantanamo I think Guantanamo’s been an atrocity from the beginning. Here we are holding a – having a prison without any due process on the island of Cuba which we condemn as a communist country, sort of ironic there that that’s were we hold people without due process. So the whole thing stinks regarding Guantanamo. I don’t mind that they made this exchange to get this guy back I wish they’d get everybody right back and close Guantanamo.

Kurt Wallace: Sheldon Richmond of Future of Freedom Foundation, thanks for being with us today on Rare.

Sheldon Richman: My pleasure.


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