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The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison
Andy Worthington, Pluto Books, 2007

Guantanamo Files - Andy WorthingtonAndy Worthington's hard-hitting new book shines a stark light into the black hole that is Guantanamo Bay prison, describing the process and consequences of a US intelligence project which is at the same time both ruthless and cackhanded; all the while failing to achieve its intentions. This book looks at the individuals incarcerated - and what they have been through - and for many of the detainees this is the first time their stories have appeared in print.

The author sets the geo-political scene by giving the background of Afghanistan's recent history - because it was from the post-9-11 US military attacks on this country where the bulk of the Guantanamo prisoners came from. The reader gets a concise history of the Taliban's role in a country being torn apart by rival warlords, and the US's meddling going back to funding and arming the mujahideen during the Russian invasion (back when Osama Bin Laden was an ally), through to their funding and arming of selected warlords to smash the Taliban, culminating in the US military operation following 9-11.

For those unclear, after endless media propaganda, about links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda - which the US Govt speaks of in the same sentence - this book illustrates that the crossover between them is very little: the Taliban were fighting a civil war, and attracted supporters from around the Muslim world who took it to be a holy war, while others thought the Taliban's strict adherence to Shiria law made Afghanistan a model Islamic state, and a place for worship. Then there were those who made this struggle part of a global holy war and an international network sprung up in this context - called al-Qaeda - whose goal had widened towards a global jihad - eg a struggle against all countries who had attacked/occupied Islamic states, or were deemed 'infidels'.

Whoever al-Qaeda had in the hills of Tora Bora in November 2001 (if indeed they were there at all), one thing the book makes clear is that the US hardly got any of them. While a ground war was being waged to shut down the Taliban, there simply wasn't the will or local knowledge to root so-called 'al-Qaeda' out of the hills, and seemingly they all managed to get across the border to Pakistan. So attention turned to arresting Arabs and other internationals who'd recently arrived in Pakistan from Afghanistan, as part of the thousands fleeing across the border which included war refugees, escaping Taliban foot soldiers, and presumably whoever passes for al-Qaeda as well. The majority of the arrests which turned into Guantanamo prisoners came, virtually arbitrarily, from this exodus. While several hundred were captured by the Americans' enterprising Afghan allies - or swept up by US Special Forces in raids based on extremely dubious intelligence - the majority were arrested by Pakistanis, who, like the Afghans, were taking a $5000 bounty for every likely looking suspect they could hand over to the US. Those trapped became the victims of the US's new illegal legal system, outside international law and breaking the Geneva Convention.

As Worthington goes through the arrestees one by one, we see a cross section of men who are in Afghanistan at this time for a range of reasons (as opposed to a set of hardened terrorists). Some happen to be there for family, business, or religious teaching, some are charity workers, and several weren't even in the country at all. There were those who actually had come prepared to fight or support the Taliban - men who were angered by anti-Islamic geo-politics, or were goaded on by the jihadist talk of their local mullah. Admittedly this section of the book does entail some repetition - eg many are variations on several recurring themes of young Muslim men traveling to Afghanistan and catastrophically being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But regardless of whether they were innocent, Taliban fighters, or zealots ready to join a global jihad, none of these men deserved what came to them after imprisonment.

The book goes on to describe the increasingly sadistic and Islamophobic treatment of the prisoners, who weren't giving the US the intelligence they were after - mostly because they didn't know it. What this lead to was forced confessions from people saying anything to stop being tortured. Memos came from the top level of the Pentagon giving the green light for a descent into the 'dark side' to wring confessions out of these supposed jihadist hard-cases, and the Geneva Convention - which offers limits to the powers of interrogation, and legal rights for prisoners of war - was jettisoned from this point. Guantanamo, as well as Bagram and other prisons in Afghanistan, became laboratories for torture techniques used in the following years at Abu Ghraib and other US military prisons.

Other aspects featured include the US/CIA practice of 'extraordinary rendition' - flying detainees to other countries which are outside legal scrutiny for torturing, as well as other covert movement of suspects. Also covered is the legal cases of several detainees fighting for habeas corpus - the right not be held illegally without due legal process - which at times saw judges coming down on the side of the detainees, but being over-ridden by the US Govt who pushed through legislation protecting this perverted (il)legal framework.

The 'Guantanamo Files' offers no light at the end of tunnel: these atrocities are still going on, and this book is current affairs, not history (though it is but one of the latest chapters in the US's long line of imperialist military scandals). At the time of publishing many of the names mentioned are still languishing in Gitmo, and it seems that 'War Of Terror'-era strategies of arresting terrorist suspects and putting them through a secret interrogation and incarceration process - outside international law - continues unabated.

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