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Bipartisan Legislators Urge Biden To Evacuate Imperiled Afghan Allies

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos

A bipartisan coalition of House members that includes U.S. military veterans is continuing to call on the Biden administration to quickly evacuate Afghan allies ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan in September, writing in a follow-up letter to President Joe Biden that "[o]ur Afghan friends and allies are at greater risk than ever before."

"In the past month, we have been closely following your developing withdrawal plans," members of the Honoring Our Promises Working Group write. "We appreciate the complexity of ending the War in Afghanistan, but we are increasingly concerned that you have not yet directed the Department of Defense be mobilized as part of a concrete and workable whole of government plan to protect our Afghan partners."

While the working group was created earlier this year with a goal of expanding the special visa program benefiting Afghans who assisted U.S. military, they say the approaching withdrawal deadline necessitates immediate action from the Biden administration. "The current SIV process will not work. It takes an average of 800+ days, and we plan to withdraw in less than 100 days." That timeline threatens to leave behind thousands of applicants who put their lives at risk to aid our military, lawmakers say.

"After examining this situation through multiple hearings, briefings, and our own offices' research and outreach, our bipartisan working group has concluded that we must evacuate our Afghan friends and allies immediately," they write. "No U.S. entity—to include the Department of Defense, Department of State, USAID, et al.—has the ability or authority to protect them in Afghanistan after our withdrawal. It would be a moral failure to transfer the responsibility to protect our Afghan partners onto the shoulders of the Afghan Government. The time is now to honor our promise and evacuate Afghan SIV applicants."

Like veterans groups and refugee resettlement groups, the working group noted the U.S. has evacuated a large number of vulnerable people in the past, and has the capability to do so again. "The United States has conducted evacuations at a far greater scale before," legislators write, including the evacuation of roughly 130,000 Vietnamese refugees during the Ford administration. Smaller evacuations also occurred during the Clinton administration, including 20,000 Kosovar Albanians in 1999. "We have experience with this type of evacuation in times of crisis, and the current environment in Afghanistan clearly merits such action," legislators said.

"If we fail to protect our allies in Afghanistan, it will have a lasting impact on our future partnerships and global reputation, which will then be a great detriment to our troops and the future of our national security," legislators tell the Biden administration. "Veterans in Congress understand this firsthand: when we recruited our Afghan friends, we promised to have their backs. The Honoring Our Promises Working Group stands ready to provide support and oversight for this critical mission." A full list of working group members is available here.

In its letter to the Biden administration last month, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) said "the U.S. must fulfill its commitments to our Afghan allies and work urgently to ensure their and their families' safety. Veterans' groups, national security experts, and legislators agree that we must honor this commitment. Our allies put their lives on the line to support our troops because they believed in the U.S. mission. We must show Afghans and the rest of the world that the U.S. will follow through on our word."

"Through their allegiance and faithful service, these wartime allies and their families have long been the targets of anti-American violence and persecution," LIRS President Krish O'Mara Vignarajah warned in her recent op-ed in The Washington Post. "The omnipresent threat of retribution, tragically, has only grown in the face of imminent U.S. withdrawal."

If Afghan War Ends, Will Guantanamo Finally Shut Down?

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

The Guantánamo conundrum never seems to end.

Twelve years ago, I had other expectations. I envisioned a writing project that I had no doubt would be part of my future: an account of Guantánamo's last 100 days. I expected to narrate in reverse, the episodes in a book I had just published, The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo's First 100 Days, about — well, the title makes it all too obvious — the initial days at that grim offshore prison. They began on January 11, 2002, as the first hooded prisoners of the American war on terror were ushered off a plane at that American military base on the island of Cuba.

Needless to say, I never did write that book. Sadly enough, in the intervening years, there were few signs on the horizon of an imminent closing of that U.S. military prison. Weeks before my book was published in February 2009, President Barack Obama did, in fact, promise to close Guantánamo by the end of his first year in the White House. That hope began to unravel with remarkable speed. By the end of his presidency, his administration had, in fact, managed to release 197 of the prisoners held there without charges — many, including Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the subject of the film The Mauritanian, had also been tortured — but 41 remained, including the five men accused but not yet tried for plotting the 9/11 attacks. Forty remain there to this very day.

Nearly 20 years after it began, the war in Afghanistan that launched this country's Global War on Terror and the indefinite detention of prisoners in that facility offshore of American justice is now actually slated to end. President Biden recently insisted that it is indeed "time to end America's longest war" and announced that all American troops would be withdrawn from that country by September 11, the 20th anniversary of al-Qaeda's attack on the United States.

It makes sense, of course, that the conclusion of those hostilities would indeed be tied to the closure of the now-notorious Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Unfortunately, for reasons that go back to the very origins of the war on terror, ending the Afghan part of this country's "forever wars" may not presage the release of those "forever prisoners," as New York Times reporter Carol Rosenberg so aptly labeled them years ago.

Biden And Guantánamo

Just as President Biden has a history, dating back to his years as Obama's vice-president, of wanting to curtail the American presence in Afghanistan, so he called years ago for the closure of Guantánamo. As early as June 2005, then-Senator Biden expressed his desire to shut that facility, seeing it as a stain on this country's reputation abroad.

At the time, he proposed that an independent commission take a look at Guantánamo Bay and make recommendations as to its future. "But," he said then, "I think we should end up shutting it down, moving those prisoners. Those that we have reason to keep, keep. And those we don't, let go." Sixteen years later, he has indeed put in motion an interagency review to look into that detention facility's closing. Hopefully, once he receives its report, his administration can indeed begin to shut the notorious island prison down. (And this time, it could even work.)

It's true that, in 2021, the idea of shutting the gates on Guantánamo has garnered some unprecedented mainstream support. As part of his confirmation process, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, for instance, signaled his support for its closure. And Congress, long unwilling to lend a hand, has offered some support as well. On April 16, 24 Democratic senators signed a letter to the president calling that facility a "symbol of lawlessness and human rights abuses" that "continues to harm U.S. national security" and demanding that it be shut.

As those senators wrote,

"For nearly two decades, the offshore prison has damaged America's reputation, fueled anti-Muslim bigotry, and weakened the United States' ability to counter terrorism and fight for human rights and the rule of law around the world. In addition to the $540 million in wasted taxpayer dollars each year to maintain and operate the facility, the prison also comes at the price of justice for the victims of 9/11 and their families, who are still waiting for trials to begin."

Admittedly, the number of signatories on that letter raises many questions, including why there aren't more (and why there isn't a single Republican among them). Is it just a matter of refusing to give up old habits or does it reflect a lack of desire to address an issue long out of the headlines? Where, for example, was Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's name, not to mention those other 25 missing Democratic senatorial signatures?

And there's another disappointment lurking in its text. While those senators correctly demanded a reversal of the Trump administration's "erroneous and troubling legal positions" regarding the application of international and domestic law to Guantánamo, they failed to expand upon the larger context of that forever nightmare of imprisonment, lawlessness, and cruelty that affected the war-on-terror prisoners at Guantánamo as well as at the CIA's "black sites" around the world.

Still, that stance by those two-dozen senators is significant, since Congress has, in the past, taken such weak positions on closing the prison. As such, it provides some hope for the future.

For the rest of Congress and the rest of us, when thinking about finally putting Guantánamo in the history books, it's important to remember just what a vast deviation it proved to be from the law, justice, and the norms of this society. It's also worth thinking about the American "detainees" there in the context of what normally happens when wars end.

Prisoners Of War

Defying custom and law, the American war in Afghanistan broke through norms like a battering ram through a gossamer wall. Guantánamo was created in just that context, a one-of-a-kind institution for this country. Now, so many years later, it's poised to break through yet another norm.

Usually, at the end of hostilities, battlefield detainees are let go. As Geneva Convention III, the law governing the detention and treatment of prisoners of war, asserts: "Prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities."

That custom of releasing prisoners has, in practice, pertained not only to those held on or near the battlefield but even to those detained far from the conflict. Before the Geneva Conventions were created, the custom of releasing such prisoners was already in place in the United States. Notably, during World War II, the U.S. held 425,000 mostly German prisoners in more than 500camps in this country. When the war ended, however, they were released and the vast majority of them were returned to their home countries.

When it comes to the closure of Guantánamo, however, we can't count on such an ending. Two war-on-terror realities stand in the way of linking the coming end of hostilities in Afghanistan to the shutting down of that prison. First, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress passed right after the 9/11 attacks was not geographically defined or limited to the war in Afghanistan. It focused on but was not confined to two groups, the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as well as anyone else who had contributed to the attacks of 9/11. As such, it was used as well to authorize military engagements — and the capture of prisoners — outside Afghanistan. Since 2001, in fact, it has been cited to authorize the use of force in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. Of the 780 prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay at one time or another, more than a third came from Afghanistan; the remaining two-thirds were from 48 other countries.

A second potential loophole exists when it comes to the release of prisoners as that war ends. The administration of George W. Bush rejected the very notion that those held at Guantánamo were prisoners of war, no matter how or where they had been captured. As non-state actors, according to that administration, they were exempted from prisoner of war status, which is why they were deliberately labeled "detainees."

Little wonder then that, despite Secretary of Defense Austin's position on Guantánamo, as the New York Timesrecently reported, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby "argued that there was no direct link between its future and the coming end to what he called the 'mission' in Afghanistan."

In fact, even if that congressional authorization for war and the opening of Guantánamo on which it was based never were solely linked to the conflict in Afghanistan, it's time, almost two decades later, to put an end to that quagmire of a prison camp and the staggering exceptions that it's woven into this country's laws and norms since 2002.

A "Forever Prison"?

The closing of Guantánamo would finally signal an end to the otherwise endless proliferation of exceptions to the laws of war as well as to U.S. domestic and military legal codes. As early as June 2004, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor flagged the possibility that a system of indefinite detention at Guantánamo could create a permanent state of endless legal exceptionalism.

She wrote an opinion that month in a habeas corpus case for the release of a Guantánamo detainee, the dual U.S.-Saudi citizen Yaser Hamdi, warning that the prospect of turning that military prison into a never-ending exception to wartime detention and its laws posed dangers all its own. As she put it, "We understand Congress' grant of authority for the use of 'necessary and appropriate force' to include the authority to detain for the duration of the relevant conflict, and our understanding is based on longstanding law-of-war principles." She also acknowledged that "if the practical circumstances of a given conflict are entirely unlike those of the conflicts that informed the development of the law of war, that [the] understanding [of release upon the end of hostilities] may unravel. But," she concluded, "that is not the situation we face as of this date."

Sadly enough, 17 years later, it turns out that the detention authority may be poised to outlive the use of force. Guantánamo has become an American institution at the cost of $13 million per prisoner annually. The system of offshore injustice has, by now, become part and parcel of the American system of justice — our very own "forever prison."

The difficulty of closing Guantánamo has shown that once you move outside the laws and norms of this country in a significant way, the return to normalcy becomes ever more problematic — and the longer the exception, the harder such a restoration will be. Remember that, before his presidency was over, George W. Bush went on record acknowledging his preference for closing Guantánamo. Obama made it a goal of his presidency from the outset. Biden, with less fanfare and the lessons of their failures in mind, faces the challenge of finally closing America's forever prison.

With all that in mind, let me offer you a positive twist on this seemingly never-ending situation. I won't be surprised if, in fact, President Biden actually does manage to close Guantánamo. He may not do so as a result of the withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan, but because he seems to have a genuine urge to shut the books on the war on terror, or at least the chapter of it initiated on 9/11.

And if he were also to shut down that prison, in the spirit of that letter from the Democratic senators, it would be because of Guantánamo's gross violations of American laws and norms. While the letter did not go so far as to name the larger war-on-terror sins of the past, it did at least draw attention directly to the wrongfulness of indefinite detention as a system created expressly to evade the law — and one that brought ill-repute to the United States globally.

That closure should certainly happen under President Biden. After all, any other course is not only legally unacceptable, but risks perpetuating the idea that this country continues to distrust the principles of law, human rights, and due process – indeed, the very fundamentals of a democratic system.

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author of the forthcoming Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton University Press, August). Julia Tedesco helped with research for this piece.

How To Exit The Forever War

The courage of President Biden's decision to bring our troops home from Afghanistan should not be underestimated. But neither should that withdrawal be mistaken for the end of the "forever war" that the United States and its NATO allies have endured there for so long. We will leave, but the Afghans aren't going anywhere — and our responsibility for what happens there won't disappear either.

Biden surely knows there will be bad prospects for the government in Kabul when our troops go, even though we will continue to finance its army and air force. Most Americans, who devote little attention to what happens in Afghanistan, probably don't know how limited the reach of that regime is today (which is why our veterans sometimes call it #Forgotistan). After two decades, $2 trillion and the loss of more than 2,000 of our troops, it scarcely rules over more than the capital itself. The Taliban and other hostile forces control the rest.

That obviously doesn't bode too well for the future, and as Biden also knows, his Republican critics will blame him should the Kabul regime fall. They will conveniently forget that his predecessor not only insisted on an Afghan withdrawal but also set a departure date too abrupt to be met.

No doubt Donald Trump will join that chorus, turning around and shamelessly attacking Biden for "abandoning" Afghanistan, because that's what he does. So will figures like Sen. Lindsey Graham, a military strategist whose insights lured us into Iraq, a far worse disaster than Afghanistan. Graham now predicts that pulling out will result in terror attacks — but the biggest threat to America is from white supremacists within our own borders, a menace he denies. We don't have to occupy another nation to fight extremist enemies here or abroad.

Biden's critics will also forget the most salient fact about the Afghan war, which is how it began. I will confess to supporting the initial invasion following the 9/11 attacks, because I regarded the destruction of al-Qaida and the punishment of the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden as essential to American and world security. Like many others who endorsed the war in its earliest stages, I have long believed that the administration of former President George W. Bush — obsessed with overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq — ensured failure at the start.

Yet honesty compels me to say that those few who opposed the U.S. action back then may have been right all along. After such a long and costly misadventure, it isn't certain that what once seemed imperative was ever prudent, or just. What could have been done and what should have been done are no longer relevant — except to the Afghan people, who have suffered gravely without any end in sight. More than 150,000 of them have died in the war, with almost a third of the dead civilians.

Those Afghans were innocent of the terrorist violence that struck our cities on Sept. 11, 2001, and that level of death and destruction seems like a high price compared with what happened on 9/11, a day I remember too well. While most of the Afghan dead were killed by the Taliban, that doesn't absolve our responsibility. We also owe a deep and permanent debt to the veterans who served — the great majority of whom want us to bring their brothers and sisters home.

Discharging that debt will oblige us to rescue as many Afghans as we can from the vengeance of the Taliban, especially but not only those who served alongside our troops. For years now, Taliban assassins have murdered Afghan interpreters and others who assisted allied forces. They ought to have gained asylum here, but the Islamophobic prejudices of the Trump administration put obstacles in their way.

Now that must end. The United States should grant "immediate refugee status to all Afghan nationals that have helped us in the last 20 years," says Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat. "We can't let them be targets." Gallego, a Marine veteran of Iraq, is painfully aware of how Iraqis who worked with U.S. troops there were later hunted down by Islamic State group killers. He is right to demand that we start protecting the Afghans left behind.

We can hope that Afghanistan fares better than expected, but hope won't save any lives. Already the Taliban, which has not improved with age, is assassinating those who might dissent from its medieval ideology. If and when its mullahs regain state power, they may well kill many thousands more — unless we welcome them to this country.

There is no other honorable exit from the forever war.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Obama’s Afghan Failure Underlines Biden’s Hard Choices Now

Shortly before becoming vice president, Joe Biden traveled to Afghanistan in his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When he returned, he had a succinct assessment of the situation there: "a real mess."

When he takes the presidential oath on Jan. 20, Biden will find not much has changed. He will find himself saddled with a host of serious problems — a raging pandemic, a struggling economy, a toxic political environment — that are largely the fault of Donald Trump. But the blame for being stuck in Afghanistan lies mostly with Barack Obama.

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