Friday, August 13, 2004

Spare us the exonerations

August 12 2004

Please spare us the exonerations

pv vivekanand

IT IS disgusting to read reports after reports about reports of the findings of the dozens of secret and public investigations conducted into the abuse of prisoners at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison and other detention facilities in post-war Iraq. Almost all the reports exonerate top political officials of the Bush administration and the Pentagon as well as the top brass in the US military while media reports are lavish with suggestions that only a "handful" of "rogue elements" and "undisciplined" soldiers and private contractors were behind the abuse.

But then, does it really matter to us who exactly in the American hierarchy was responsible for the worst kind of violations of human dignity in recent history?

It is a collective responsibility that should weigh down heavily on the American mind.

We do realise that investigating the abuses and identifying those directly responsible for the abuses is an American imperative. The legal process has to be followed the guilty should be punished; that is what the American sytem demands.

It is a more of an internal issue for the Americans.

For us in this part of the world, everyone, from the senior-most official, elected or otherwise, in the US down to the private American who treated Iraqi prisoners likes the worst animals on earth, is equally guilty of prejudice and hatred cultivated by the policies of successive American administrations.

Can the US administration wriggle out of the reality that dehumanising Arabs, particularly the Palestinians and Iraqis, through the mainstream media and project them as unworthy of being treated as human beings was a direct or indirect American policy objective? Will the American public would ever be told of this reality?

As such, reports of repeated exonerations of top political officials of the Bush administration makes us want to throw up.

Where does the buck stop?

Indeed, a line has been drawn between the officers who actually served in Iraq and those who pulled the strings from Washington.

Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, who was the top American military officer in Iraq at the time of the abuse, was quietly removed from the post months after reports of the abuse appeared in the media.

Sanchez as well as his boss, General John Abizaid, head of the US Central Command, have testified in the US Congress that they did not find out about the abuse until this year when a military policeman revealed the problem at the prison. However, other accounts have spoken of complaints of abuse being filed in the third quarter of last year.

The senior most officer to be suspended in this connection was Brigadier-General Janis Karpinski, who commanded the 800th Military Police Brigade in Iraq late last year. She has been issued a letter of reprimand and been suspended from her post. Seven other military police reservists are facing charges. All except one of them have pleaded innocent saying they were only following orders. Even the one who pleaded guilty says he had instructions to treat the prisoners that way.

If Karpinski is to be believed, then she is also innocent. She could not be expected to know what was going on in the corridors of the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad except from reports filed by her juniors.

The latest US Army report also has cleared top US military officers in Iraq of abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib but implicates 20 or more intelligence troops in the scandal.

The report, according to Reuters, recommends disciplinary action such as administrative reduction in rank and loss of pay as well as further investigation that could lead to military trials.

It does not matter to us if US President George Bush pleads that he did not know what was going in the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad; that he did not know his soldiers and "private experts in interrogation" were playing sadistic football with Iraqi prisoners, humiliating them to the lowest level that any human being would ever consider himself to be and torturing them and subjecting them to conditions where they longed for death.

Whoever they are, the torturers and tormentors did not happen to walk into Abu Gharaib on their own. They were brought there and unleashed on the Iraqis by the US government. Can Washington argue its way out of that responsibility?

It has been nearly five months since the news hit the headlines that an internal investigation has unearthed gross violations of human rights, dignity and self-respect at Abu Ghraib. Probably, had it not been for journalists like Seymour Hersh and others the world would not have known about it either until sometime later (let us respect the integrity and investigating skills of American journalists in general; someone or another might have unveiled the findings of the investigation sooner or later).

For sure, top officials in Washington knew about the abuses several months earlier since they should have but been informed about complaints being received before the investigation was launched.

Throughout this period, the administration only tried to keep it away from the world that there were credible reports about prisoner abuse in Iraq. It is surprising that they hoped to get away with it, expecting to keep everything under wraps under the rules of confidentiality of the US military.

As such, the pledges by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials that they were committed to thoroughly investigating the reports of abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan sounded hollow and meaningless and seemed aimed only at public consumption. That is not to say that they would not investigate the cases, but that they are trying to divert attention from the fact that they had created the atmosphere that led to the abuses.

When the news of the abuses came out, everyone tried to pass the buck for some time and then the president and his defence secretary offered an "apology" but they did not know about the incidents until the investigation report was released.

It is the second part that we find insulting our intelligence, because it was precisely the indifference and contempt with which consecutive American administrations treated the Arabs that led to emboldening whoever abused Iraqi prisoners into thinking that it was permitted. Secondly, the administration knew well that such practices were common in Guantanamo Bay and it was no coincidence that one of the top commanders there was transferred to Iraq to introduce the same there.

A relevant question is: Would Bush or any other administration official would ever admit that they would not care how their military collects "information" that help the battle against Iraqi resistance? Would they really care that it came through torture of the worst degree?

We also know that Washington strategists hired Israeli "experts" at interrogating Palestinians and deployed them at Abu Ghraib. They were not sent there to hold the hands of the prisoners but to unleash a reign of terror among the detainees. Indeed, the Israeli experts would have loved doing it, if only because some of their own rules restrain them from exercising such sadism and brutality against Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. They had no such constraints in Iraq. They were free to do whatever they wished with the detainees with no questions asked.

American 'tradition'

In a broader context, it is an American tradition, as author and commentator Doug Stokes argues, to use whatever means to contain and destroy social forces considered inimical to US interests.

Stokes has described the reports prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib as merely confirming "what has long been a legitimate tactic within US counter-insurgency warfare: the targeting and torture of civilians."

"This terror serves not only to break the will of those targeted but has a wider symbolic psychological function in that it dramatically raises the cost of dissent," he writes. "Whether it is was a 'war on communism' during the Cold War, or a 'war on terrorism' in the post-9/11 era, the targets and tactics have remained the same and the abuses at Abu Ghraib are the logical outcome of what the US has long been teaching both its own counter-insurgency specialists and those of allied nations."

He goes on to say: "The abuses committed at Abu Ghraib thus form part of a covert tradition within the history of US imperial policing and counter-insurgency warfare."

That might indeed be true when seen through an American point of view. However, for us here in the Middle East, the American and Israeli abuse of Iraqi prisoners has a sinister perspective: The victims were Arabs and Muslims.