New Documentary on US Military's Migrant Workers
Although military privatization in Iraq and Afghanistan has received extensive coverage, the stereotype of the wartime contractor as a gun-toting white American working for Blackwater is in some ways misleading: The overwhelming majority of the military’s contractor work force in the Middle East consists of local workers or “Third Country Nationals” (TCNs) from India, Uganda and dozens of other countries. Hundreds of thousands of TCNs perform much of the manual labor on US bases in war zones, from food service to armed guard duty. They are recruited through the same networks that have pulled workers from across the Indian Ocean region and elsewhere to the Gulf in recent decades. As with migrant labor in the Gulf more generally, stories of exploitation and abuse are common. And reform efforts, as “America’s War Workers” shows, have borne little fruit.
Despite Al Jazeera’s frustrating decision to block its videos from being viewed online in the United States (the video will go online for non-US viewers on March 12), you can read an excellent account by Kamat and her colleague Samuel Black detailing their findings. They interviewed workers on a NATO base in Afghanistan, in worker transit camps in Dubai and in villages in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Posing as subcontractors of US corporations, the journalists caught a labor recruiter on tape offering them bribes to hire his workers -- bribes paid for out of the thousands of dollars each worker must pay as a “recruitment fee” for the job opportunity.
Migrant workers on US bases frequently report taking on enormous debts to cover recruitment fees, which then require months (if not years) to pay off. The Obama administration has outlawed the use of recruitment fees, while Congress is okay with them as along as they are not “unreasonable.” The workers interviewed by Al Jazeera explained the limits of such reforms:
“We’ve already paid the agents for the job,” explained a man named Kumaran, who said his agent -- after collecting a hefty fee -- made him sign a declaration stating he had not paid anything. “If we tell the US military that we paid a fee, they’ll just send us back and we’ll lose everything.”
The abuse and exploitation endured by migrant workers, however, is not just evidence of privatization run amok: It is also symptomatic of these workers’ political utility to Washington. In Iraq and Afghanistan, TCNs have often outnumbered the contingents of close US allies, yet they don’t factor in to the politically sensitive troop figures that drive much of the Beltway conversation. As for the deaths and injuries that TCNs suffer, no one seems to be counting them, at least not systematically. At the same time, because migrants are easily deported, they present less of a challenge to manage than locals, whom the US views as potential infiltrators working with insurgents.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the plight of these migrants mirrors that of detainees in Guantánamo and other extraterritorial prisons in the “global war on terror.” These prisoners are outside the reach of most US domestic courts, thousands of miles away from their families and detained in places where they have little chance of laying claim to local sympathy. The US prefers to keep prisoners and workers in a legally ambiguous space and status, disconnected from the public, whether in the US, the countries where they find themselves or their homelands.
"Journalists Are the Eyes of the World" on Guantanamo
Lisa Hajjar’s spring lecture tour, entitled “Let’s Go to Guantánamo! An On-the-Ground Perspective on the Military Commissions,” explores secret renditions, black sites, torture, suppression of evidence, clandestineness and what it means to provide “legal counsel” to detainees in the post-September 11 “war on terror” in the absence of procedural fairness or public scrutiny.
Credentialed as a journalist writing for Middle East Report, editorial committee member Lisa Hajjar has traveled to Cuba four times to observe military commission hearings for detainees in the Guantánamo Bay complex. In 2010 she followed and reported on the case of Omar Khadr, al-Qaeda’s “child soldier,” a Canadian who was 15 when he was taken into custody in 2002. As she observed in a critical historical overview of war crimes tribunals entitled “From Nuremberg to Guantánamo: International Law and American Power Politics,” US practices at the offshore site deviate substantially from international law.
In December 2013 Hajjar joined a small press contingent and some victims’ family members to witness the important but mostly secret court proceedings for five high-value September 11 suspects including the purported mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Muhammad.
This week Hajjar brought a slide show and hard-hitting reportage to audiences at the University of Richmond and the University of Mary Washington. Visual images mixing snapshots from Hajjar’s cellphone and original artwork from courtroom sketch artists Steve Mumford, Molly Crabapple and Janet Hamlin show what is allowed to be photographed or drawn. They are rare, poignant glimpses of the prison and the courtroom. Yet they are also, by definition, a small part of the big picture. In the name of security, there is tight censorship at the prison complex, as well as limitations on access to the proceedings and an overall atmosphere of obscurity. Hajjar’s commentary emphasizes what is missing from the visual, documentary, testimonial and court records. The Guantánamo site was “selected originally for and continues to operate under a very thick layer of secrecy,” she said. “Many of the aspects of working, living, visiting Guantánamo are classified.”
In particular, Hajjar’s analysis cites about one hundred interviews with military and civilian lawyers. The civilians volunteered their expensive time and committed corporate resources to defending Guantánamo detainees accused of involvement in terrorism. Their testimonials highlight the suppression of evidence, including the destruction of videotapes, and the suspension of rules of due process. Reflecting the collective but often confidential views of this professional cadre of legal practitioners dedicated to the rule of law, Hajjar declares it a “travesty of justice.”
Most passionately, the presentation expresses the outrage that anyone fully informed about the saga of the Guantánamo detainees -- the guilty as well as the innocent -- would feel. The palpable anger centers on the illegal, indefensible, but undeniable torture of men -- whether guilty or innocent -- taken into custody by America’s Central Intelligence Agency.
The prosecution of perpetrators of mass murder is a serious legal matter. Adherence to prohibitions against cruel and unusual interrogation methods and freedom of information are also crucial to American and international conceptions of humanitarian law. As Hajjar quotes Ramzi Kassem, lawyer for one of the accused, Ahmed al-Darbi, “Inside GTMO it’s Kafkaesque, outside it’s Orwellian.”
Watch the full video of Hajjar's presentation here.
Image: Ammar al-Baluchi, allegedly the man whose torture is depicted in the opening scenes of Zero Dark Thirty. (Janet Hamlin)
The Battle for Nazareth
By order of the Israeli Supreme Court, Nazareth will reconduct its mayoral election on March 11. The city is once again the site of an acrimonious political battle.
Municipal elections were held in Nazareth, along with the rest of the country, on October 22, 2013. The first tally showed ‘Ali Sallam unseating the incumbent, Ramiz Jaraysi, by a razor-thin margin of 22 votes.
Jaraysi has been mayor since 1994, representing the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE), a joint Arab-Jewish party established in 1976 when the Communist Party unified with non-Communist Palestinians and non-Zionist Jews. Sallam is the former deputy mayor of Nazareth and a former DFPE member, who left the Front to establish a non-party list, My Nazareth.
The DFPE appealed to the District Court on the grounds that the votes cast at one of the polling stations had not been counted. (There were, in fact, two stations involved in the dispute, both for groups with special needs: one for people with disabilities, the other for volunteer Palestinian soldiers in the Israeli military, who were permitted to cast their ballots on their bases.) The DFPE demanded a recount at both stations but backed down from its insistence on including the soldiers’ votes on the grounds that the party objects to Palestinian service in the first place. The count of the contested ballots of disabled voters showed Jaraysi to be in the lead by nine votes. Sallam appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, which ordered a new election, citing irregularities. As Justice Daphne Barak-Erez explained, holding a new election would be a bother, but “not voiding the results, and allowing an election shrouded in suspicion to stand for five years, could also cause hardship.”
In most places, the contest to head a local bureaucracy charged mainly with the provision of basic services would not merit much attention. But Nazareth is no ordinary municipality. A religious and administrative center during the British Mandate period, Nazareth is the unofficial capital for Palestinians who remained in Israel after 1948. It is the only all-Arab city that survived the nakba, or Palestinian catastrophe, and the political and economic heart of the predominantly Palestinian Galilee.
Each party -- the DFPE and My Nazareth -- claims that it will act more effectively than its rival for the public good. But, off-camera, both parties have been rallying support on the basis of sectarian and family loyalties (Sallam is Muslim and Jaraysi is Christian). Class tensions have also come to the fore: The DFPE has stressed its Communist-inspired support for the working and popular classes, accusing Sallam of prioritizing the interests of capitalists, who would be given control of the city to advance their interests at the public’s expense. Sallam, for his part, accuses the DFPE of neglecting the city over the past decades, citing, for example, inadequate roads and infrastructure, low success rates in high schools, and lack of public transportation.
The candidates’ relationship with Upper Nazareth, the Jewish settlement established on land confiscated from local families in the 1950s, has also played a prominent role in the campaign. Mayor Shimon Gapso is an unabashed champion of the racial purity -- or “Jewishness” -- of Upper Nazareth and the country at large. He has grown louder lately because several Palestinian families have moved to his town. This week, DFPE supporters circulated a digital leaflet reminding voters of Gapso’s support for Sallam during the campaign in October. “Gapso is my friend,” Sallam is quoted as saying. Gapso, for his part, is quoted regarding the eruption of the second intifada at the mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: “Al-Aqsa is for Jews…. Had I been there in October 2000, there would have been many more Arabs killed.”
The connection between municipal power and the national conflict in Israel-Palestine has been a factor in Nazareth politics since the British Mandate, but it deepened after 1948. Soon after Israeli troops occupied the city that summer, local and national Communist Party leaders demanded democratic municipal elections on the grounds that the existing local council, appointed during the Mandate, lacked popular representation. In response to inadequate services, an increase in local taxes and the imposition of military rule, a grassroots campaign to reiterate this demand expanded in the early 1950s, particularly as it became clear that Israeli authorities feared that the introduction of political representation in Israel’s most important Palestinian locale. The insistence of Nazareth residents on equality and freedom posed a challenge to the pillars of Jewish privilege in the spheres of land, labor and immigration.
The authorities finally caved to public pressure in late 1953, but not without doing everything to rig the elections in favor of their preferred candidates. The national contest to control Nazareth’s municipality continued unabated over the next two decades. The 1976 electoral victory of veteran Communist Party activist Tawfiq Zayyad, who campaigned under the banner of Palestinian national rights in Israel, set a new tone in the city until he died in 1994. Notably, both parties this year have made rival claims to Zayyad’s legacy, stressing their commitment to serve the “national interest.” (In the case of the DFPE, this stance includes their objection to a current -- and underreported -- government campaign to extend Israel’s military draft to include Palestinian Christian citizens.)
That the question of democratic representation and Palestinian rights play such a central role in the current campaign can only be understood in light of the discursive and organizing strategies developed by activists in those early years after Israel’s conquest of the Galilee, strategies which helped protect and maintain a Palestinian national identity along with strong claims to citizenship and rights within the state.
In her column on the Haaretz website yesterday, Carleton University political scientist Mira Sucharov bemoaned the tendency of “some of the cleverest minds on Israel and Palestine” to “devolve” into Manichean thinking about Israel as either “good or bad.”
Sucharov highlighted my February 25 post at this very blog, among other pieces, to illustrate the failure of critics to “dwell for a while in the gray zones” of Israel’s record. Heeding a call from Thomas Friedman, she urged me and other observers to judge the Jewish state on more than its 47-year military occupation of the West Bank. (Her implied criticism of the refusal of AIPAC supporters to consider Israel’s flaws was intended to demonstrate her own ability to see past such “hardened binaries.”)
The charge leveled against my post, “The Ongoing Fantasy of Israeli Democracy Before 1967,” rested on my critique of a group of well-known dovish personalities like Yossi Sarid and Peter Beinart, whose support for targeted boycotts of companies that operate in the West Bank is premised on their wish to restore the apparent integrity of Israel's pre-occupation democracy. Of course, neither Sarid nor Beinart are entirely blind to the racism deliberately built into Israel’s legal and political DNA in order to maintain the privilege of Jewish immigrant-settlers at the expense of the indigenous Arab minority that managed to remain inside the new state after 1948 -- the main subject of my post and recent book. Still, their blunt rallying cries to “save” the nation by simply returning to the 1949 armistice lines reinforce a popular and well-established liberal Zionist amnesia about the systematic structural inequalities on which the Jewish state was not only founded but exists to this day (read: Israel before 1967, “good;” thereafter, “bad”). Their calls also silence the voices of the millions of Palestinian citizens and refugees who are actively working to attain justice (not just an undefined “measure” of it, as Sucharov would be willing to dispense) and the right to live with equality, freedom and dignity, including on land that in many cases was stolen from them or their families.
Sucharov wraps up with an admission that her column this week was inspired by her therapist’s advice not to issue a “zero-sum” referendum on herself as a person, since she -- like all people -- is a work in progress. Perhaps I missed the memo, but scholars are not in the business of treating states like individuals, or of judging them on their normative worth. Unlike in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, for instance, we no longer ask historians of US slavery or the dispossession of Native Americans to soften the stories they tell or to dull their insights into the damaging legacies those policies left behind.
It goes without saying that states and societies are always in motion, not fixed in time. Instead of worrying about whether I might hurt the feelings of a state, its policymakers or its military, it’s my job to observe them as they are.
Our Primer on Israel-Palestine
Some 43 years ago, a group of activists in the movement to end the war in Vietnam founded the Middle East Research and Information Project.
The impetus was that the American public, including the anti-war left, was poorly informed about the Middle East and the US role there. The region was commonly depicted as alien, its politics uniquely determined by religion and impossible to explain with ordinary categories of analysis. The original idea behind MERIP was to produce better reporting that would get picked up by existing left outlets.
That didn’t work so well, so we at MERIP decided to publish our own magazine. One of our signature issues over the years has been the question of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict -- partly because of its intrinsic interest but largely because so much myth and cant clouds the mainstream media coverage of this subject that independent analysis is particularly necessary.
It’s probably for that reason, as well, that “Palestine, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” the primer by Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar, has always been the most popular item on our website. Last week, we published a comprehensively revised and updated version of the primer.
A lot has changed since we last updated the primer in early 2001.
The “peace process” inaugurated by the 1993 Oslo agreement sputtered to a halt, as Israel went back onto a war footing with the blessing of the Bush administration. The subsequent attempts to restart negotiations have failed.
In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel has built settlements and other “facts on the ground” at an accelerated pace since evacuating soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip. Gaza remains under de facto Israeli control and has been under international siege since Hamas won legislative elections in 2006. The Palestinian Authority is split between its Gaza and West Bank branches.
Settlement blocs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are increasingly accepted in Israeli Jewish opinion as part of Israel. The security forces of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah are often deployed to disperse Palestinian protests against Israeli settlement and occupation.
Twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Palestinian Arabs. They are caught as always in the contradictions of Israel’s self-identification as both a democracy and a Jewish state. A new poll indicates that Americans are more aware of these contradictions. Meanwhile, the United States finds itself ever more isolated when it defends Israel’s military operations before the court of world opinion and blocks Palestinian efforts to rally international support.
All of these developments have intensified doubts about the viability of the “two-state solution,” the vision that animated the Oslo accords and is backed by international consensus. This spring, Israeli and Palestinian leaders will come to the White House, where the president will push them to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for reviving talks about a two-state solution.
There are lots more sources of news about Israel-Palestine than there were when MERIP was founded. But misinformation still abounds and nuanced, no-nonsense analysis is still hard to find. The Beinin and Hajjar primer is a good place to start in understanding what is at stake as events unfold.
The Ongoing Fantasy of Israeli Democracy Before 1967
The past week has a witnessed a flurry of debate in the American and Israeli media over the growing call to boycott companies and institutions that profit from or are otherwise complicit in the ongoing 47-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition to covering proposed legislation in New York and Maryland that would punish members of academic associations which endorse academic boycotts of the state, the New York Times and Washington Post have published op-eds and invited readers to weigh in on whether a boycott would be an effective and/or moral tool of political action.
The debate in Israel has the potential to carry more immediate consequence. On February 16, Israel’s High Court held a second hearing for opponents and proponents of a new law that criminalizes boycott calls of any kind by Israeli citizens (Arab or Jewish). On February 23, Ha’aretz reported the start of a campaign to draft a new law that would “enshrine the concept of Israel as a Jewish state in one of the country’s Basic Laws.”
This campaign is of course a rhetorical ploy, cynical and redundant at best. To cite just two of the most prominent examples, everyone in Israel knows that the state’s Palestinian citizens remain formally barred from purchasing over 93 percent of the land in the country, and that since 2003 they have been prohibited from living in Israel with a spouse if he or she hails from the Occupied Territories (or any “enemy state”). What is more remarkable about the campaign, though, is the fact that institutionalized discrimination against “non-Jews” in Israel was written into the very first Basic Law of the land. The Law of Return, which the Knesset passed in July 1950, granted legal residency status and de facto citizenship to all Jews in the world -- both those already living in the nascent state and those who might wish to immigrate to it in the future. As my new book documents, it was only the passage of the “Return to Zion” law, as it was first called, that broke the years-long deadlock over the country’s draft Citizenship Law. Unlike the 18 prior drafts of that law brought to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion for consideration starting in 1949, the “Return” bill was the first to drive an explicit legal wedge between those people granted effective entitlement to the state (Jewish immigrants) and those who would eventually be offered a handful of rights within it (the minority of native Palestinian Arabs who managed to remain inside Israeli territory after 1948). Critically, this racial distinction in the Law of Return (and “racial” is an adjective I do not use lightly) enabled the false universality of the state’s 1952 Citizenship Law.
I mention this history because I continue to be amazed by the disingenuousness -- or willfully ignorant wishful thinking -- of arguments made by liberal Zionist luminaries in favor of an economic boycott targeting companies that operate in the West Bank and Golan Heights. Earlier this week, for example, a former Israeli education minister, Yossi Sarid, pleaded passionately for a boycott to “remove the gangrene and save the healthy tissue” of Israel’s pre-1967 democracy. From his perch in New York, Ha’aretz columnist Peter Beinart waxed paternalistic about the desire of Palestinians for a state of their own that will ultimately trump their concerns about the immorality of “the very idea of a state that offers special representation to Jews.” (Since the boycott will hasten the establishment of two states, he reasons, supporters of a Jewish state should embrace the project in order to bring about a withdrawal to the Green Line before it’s too late.) Beyond the more than 4 million Palestinian refugees outside the Occupied Territories still denied the right to return to their homes, Beinart seems to be forgetting the 20 percent of Israel’s electorate that is increasingly demanding to end this injustice.
Whatever one’s vision of an end to the conflict, wishing these problems -- and people -- away will not make them disappear. It’s time for an honest reckoning with the past.
The Sisi Shuffle
This morning Egypt’s military-installed cabinet resigned en masse. Initial comment implies that the resignations were a surprise but nonetheless fit into a pattern of events paving the way for a presidential run by Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. If al-Sisi does indeed run, the outcome would not be in doubt.
That certainty has not stopped debate over why the cabinet departed this morning and who’s in and who’s out in the next cabinet. Will Prime Minister Hazim al-Biblawi stay or go? Can al-Sisi legally remain minister of defense when he announces his presidential candidacy? Does it matter? Is Military Chief of Staff Sidqi Subhi going to be the next minister of defense? How does the cabinet’s makeup mesh with the personnel shifting and morale building that al-Sisi has led among the top brass since the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) ordered Muhammad Mursi to appoint him defense minister in August 2012? There are endless permutations with which to understand the elite maneuvers.
Today’s reshuffle should not have been a surprise. The first junta-backed government was transitional, a way station on the route to the regime the military wants to make. With al-Sisi’s candidacy, the generals have decided to push all of their chips to the center of the table and try to dominate the increasingly fragmented political order. They probably wish that al-Sisi did not have to run for president and govern directly. But the generals don’t have a better choice for imposing their vision of stability. From their point of view, now is the time for concerted action to resubordinate the state apparatus, redraw the blurred lines between social obedience and dissent, and reorganize what’s prohibited and what’s tolerated. But, rather than declare the junta’s victory, it’s worth remembering that social processes are not inevitable. There are many interactions to come between this regime-in-formation and Egyptian society.
In that light, it is worth reviewing why the generals chose today to reshuffle the cabinet. Biblawi’s announcement of the move focused on how well his cabinet has performed. In his telling, the ministers bravely led a government that battles terrorists and left Egypt in a better place than when they started nearly eight months ago. “In most cases,” the prime minister said, “we have achieved good results.”
But another of today’s talking points reveals a key continuity with the early days of SCAF rule after the fall of Husni Mubarak. In those days, al-Sisi’s mentor Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi droned on about the imperative not to stop “the wheels of production” with strikes and other “fi’awi” (special interest) protests.
This morning the cabinet announced its resignation against the backdrop of a public transportation strike as well as a garbage collectors’ strike. There are likely other job actions underway. Meanwhile, Twitter and Egyptian newspapers are saturated with reports of cooking gas shortages. Like Tantawi before him, though, Biblawi admonished Egyptians that now is not the time to demand better working conditions, better pay or hot food. “We must sacrifice our personal and narrow interests for the benefit of the nation,” he said.
A cabinet reshuffle was foreordained the moment that the SCAF unanimously put forward al-Sisi’s name as a presidential candidate. The next government will certainly consist of ministers handpicked by the coterie in khaki. But that the reshuffle happened today is a reminder that the timing of these announcements is not entirely at the elites’ initiative. The junta continues to deal with a restive society that it wishes no one would acknowledge as existing. The generals can erect a façade of democracy, replete with constitutions, elections and parliaments, but they can’t make people struggling to be better served by their rulers go away.
Looking for the Three of Diamonds
A few years ago, I began work on a crime novel set in Iraq. I borrowed the name of a real-life person, Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, as a writing prompt. Taking this man’s name seemed like nothing since my character was entirely fictitious and all resemblances purely coincidental.
As I revised the manuscript, I felt I owed it to myself to find out who the real man was. Al-Khafaji was number 48 on the list of “Most Wanted Baathists,” the Three of Diamonds in the US military’s deck of cards.
I had only the grim outlines of the real al-Khafaji’s story. He was sought for his participation in the bloody suppression of the 1991 popular uprisings against Saddam’s regime, and captured on February 7, 2004.
The events of 1991 may be largely forgotten in the United States, but not in Iraq. Encouraged by the fiery rhetoric of President George H. W. Bush, Shi‘a and Kurds rose up against the Baathist state. They might have succeeded were it not for the brutality of loyalists like al-Khafaji. By the time the rebellion was over, one hundred thousand civilians had been killed.
With a bad taste in my mouth, I set out to find what happened to al-Khafaji after his arrest. I found references to a Muhsin al-Khafaji detained in Camp Bucca. But it turned out that he was a different man, not a war criminal but a novelist. His arrest and three-year detention was a horrible error, possibly the result of mistaken identity.
In a 2005 letter from prison, this Muhsin al-Khafaji wrote:
Dear George W. Bush, I write to you from one of the southern prison camps. I came to you Americans in good faith. I imagined that I would find refuge with you. What I found instead was nothing but handcuffs and the cracking of bones. What people know about me is that I write. Sometimes I draw pictures, too, and I’ve got a pretty good hand for calligraphy. And my ability to sit around in cafes is the stuff of legends. I love the West. But not because you go around evangelizing about democracy. What I love is not Samuel Huntington, but Ernest Hemingway. And Walt Whitman. And John Updike.
I went looking for a war criminal, but found a novelist sitting in a US jail talking about some of my favorite American authors. Fantastic and disturbing as it was, this discovery did not relieve me of the task of finding out what happened to the Three of Diamonds. All I knew was that he was detained by US forces, and later remanded to custody with the Iraqi High Tribunal. He is currently serving a life sentence in the hush-hush Kadhimiyya prison, in the same wing as Tariq Aziz.
No matter what one thinks of the US invasion of Iraq, one of the nobler promises of the occupation regime was to try officials for the crimes committed by the Baathist regime against the Iraqi people. Many in the human rights community had hoped for an international, rather than a national, tribunal, as the best way to ensure that trials of these crimes would be fair and transparent. The decision to ignore lessons learned in Sierra Leone and the Balkans ensured that the judges and lawyers with the most professional experience in post-conflict transitional justice would sit this one out, and for the most part they did.
Over these professionals’ objections, the US decided to do things its own way. Rather than waiting for the conflict to end, the Department of Justice began judicial proceedings before the first American boots hit the ground. The original most-wanted list, which became the basis for the infamous deck of cards, was compiled by Justice Department lawyers working closely with Iraqi exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi. Some of the names on that list of most-wanted Baathists were obvious. But, given the thousands of high-ranking Baathists who participated in state crimes, there are real questions about the decision to place names like al-Khafaji on the list and not others.
L. Paul Bremer established the Special Tribunal and appointed Ahmad Chalabi’s nephew, Salim, as its first director. The controversy of the younger Chalabi’s appointment delayed the court’s work for months, and led to a name change. It was in 2005 that the Tribunal began its work in earnest, mounting high-profile trials of top officials. Some, like Saddam Hussein, were quickly tried and executed. Others were tried and imprisoned; a few were acquitted. There was no provision to make the indictments or the findings of the Tribunal public. After the first, most prominent trials, the court’s operations have been more obscure, its proceedings and decisions largely sealed from public scrutiny.
From early on, scores of American judges and lawyers were conscripted into a newly formed Regime Crimes Liaison Office of the Department of Justice in order to advise the Tribunal. They had little, if any, experience with system crimes or war trials. None had any knowledge of Arabic, Islamic law or even Iraqi law. With judges assassinated, fired and resigning, the composition of the Tribunal changed quickly. Likewise, the American experts came and went in a quick series of rotations. In the courtroom, where proceedings took place in Arabic and according to Iraqi law, all this American legal expertise came to matter very little.
By the time al-Khafaji’s case came forward, the Tribunal was being roundly criticized for its lack of transparency and fairness. By then, most of the American lawyers had gone back to their stateside careers, leaving the Iraqis they had appointed to muddle through in a judicial system that was never very insulated from the score-settling politics of post-conflict Iraq. In almost nine years of activity, the Tribunal has compiled a mixed record, shedding light on some of the crimes of the Baathist era, while burying others in shadow.
I have yet to discover the specific charges filed by the Department of Justice against the Three of Diamonds, let alone the court ruling that finally put him behind bars. All I know is that this former Baathist official is in one of the most infamous jails of the old Baathist state.
Whether this is justice, one cannot be certain. But we can be certain that the story of the Three of Diamonds is as American as it is Iraqi. Over the last decade, thousands of American experts and consultants came and went from Baghdad, setting up the Tribunal, drafting Iraqi laws and, in the process, leaving behind a very doubtful legacy.
And, of course, for every Muhsin al-Khafaji doing time for real war crimes there were thousands of other Muhsin al-Khafajis whose imprisonment (and sometimes torture) at American hands were crimes in themselves. These were not only crimes against Iraqis, they were also crimes against our reputation as a nation -- and they remain unpunished and uninvestigated.
I went looking for the Three of Diamonds and found a story of injustice that belonged to Baghdad and also Washington, with facts stranger than fiction. Iraqis won’t forget these stories soon, and neither should Americans.
Breaking “America’s Last Taboo”
American Zionism has made any serious public discussion of the past or future of Israel -- by far the largest recipient ever of US foreign aid -- a taboo. To call this quite literally the last taboo in American public life would not be an exaggeration. Abortion, homosexuality, the death penalty, even the sacrosanct military budget can be discussed with some freedom. The extermination of native Americans can be admitted, the morality of Hiroshima attacked, the national flag publicly committed to the flames. But the systematic continuity of Israel’s 52-year-old oppression and maltreatment of the Palestinians is virtually unmentionable, a narrative that has no permission to appear.
—Edward Said, “America’s Last Taboo” (2000)
During the four days of the American Studies Association (ASA) annual meeting at the Washington Hilton, conference attendees were buzzing with talk about an Israel boycott resolution proposed by the Caucus on Academic and Community Activism. The resolution, based on the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel call for solidarity, was proposed to the National Council of the association at the previous conference, held in Puerto Rico in November 2012. Over the last year the caucus website featured the resolution as well as a place to sign as an endorser. Amidst the normal chaos of a large academic conference the BDS resolution was everywhere a central theme. The executive committee of the ASA organized two large events to consider the resolution, including a town hall discussion featuring panelists who supported the resolution and an open forum in which attendees put their names in a box in the hopes that they would be selected to speak for two minutes. At the open forum 44 names were selected. Of these speakers, only seven opposed the resolution. Moreover, petitions circulated throughout the conference, with the “pro-” resolution group adding approximately 450 names and the “against” petition carrying 50 signatures including seven former presidents of the association. Both sides have many more signatures from petitions collected outside of the conference.
Although there are only a few active academic and cultural boycotts of Israel, discussions about boycotts within universities seems to be more common. In 2005 the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in Britain passed a boycott resolution against the University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University. These institutions were singled out because of the ways that they limited the academic freedom of Israeli scholars critical of the occupation and because of academic programs they operate in illegal West Bank settlements. Within the United States the AUT boycott was fiercely condemned by the Anti-Defamation League as well as by the AAUP (and a bit more mildly reproved by the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association). The AAUP responded to the AUT boycott by drafting a policy statement opposing academic boycotts as “prima facie violations of academic freedom.” The AAUP has maintained this position amidst growing boycott movements within the American academy. In April 2013 the Association of Asian American Studies became the first academic association in the American academy to endorse a boycott resolution. The ASA boycott resolution was raised in a context of growing political awareness of the politics and possibilities of boycotts, including a controversial special issue of the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom in which most of the articles, many of which were authored by ASA members, made compelling endorsements of academic boycotts.
I am a co-founder of the ASA’s caucus on academic and community activism and I spoke in support of the resolution on the town hall panel and in the open forum. What struck me about this year’s conference was how quickly the impossible became possible. When the caucus first raised the question of Palestine in America many years ago, only a small handful of ASA members joined our conversation. At the 2012 conference we were amazed to see 80 people attend a meeting to discuss the boycott resolution. At the 2013 conference the issue took off, in large part because of the ways that the issue of boycott adheres to a vision of the ASA as an anti-racist organization. We saw nothing less than the breaking of what Edward Said called “America’s last taboo.”
In order to understand why the resolution gained the overwhelming support of conference attendees we have to understand a longer history of scholarly transformation within the ASA. The support for the BDS resolution represents a conjuncture between at least four ongoing social movements and the academic formations surrounding them. The ASA has recently been shaped by Native American and indigenous studies and its theorizing of settler-colonialism; activism coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its related analysis of debt and the neo-liberal university; the slow but steady march of the Palestinian freedom movement that has led to the formation of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters across academia; and the creation of American studies programs in the Middle East in which the question of Palestine can be discussed outside of the constraints imposed on discourse in America.
The interest within the ASA on studies of settler-colonialism are not new; yet they have been invigorated by a cohort of rigorous scholarship within Native American and indigenous studies who have unraveled the history of settler-colonialism within the US. This scholarship has been especially adept at theorizing the connection between US territorial expansion across North America and US extra-territorial expansion throughout its empire. Native American and indigenous studies scholars have always been active within Palestinian solidarity circles, but the recent growth of settler-colonial studies has provided the intellectual scaffolding through which to better understand settler-colonialisms rooted in liberal nation-states. Moreover, studies of settler-colonialism and indigeneity have allowed scholars to make comparison across time and space that bring into focus transnational processes of colonialism, as well as make evident new forms of anti-colonial solidarities. Recently, for example, Palestinian activists joined Idle No More, a global protest movement in support of indigenous rights.
Scholars who took part in Occupy Wall Street have contributed new insight into the relationship between neo-liberalism and the university. This scholarship has identified the university as being at the front lines of economic neo-liberalism, as tenure, state funding and the humanities have been embattled in the push for new efficiencies, downsized departments and outcomes assessments. In addition, this scholarship has linked higher education to the military-industrial complex in ways that reveals how universities participate in imperialism. What these insights reveal are the ways that higher education participates in the perpetuation and maintenance of inequality and therefore, that “academic freedom” takes place within local and global contexts that are always and already unequal and exclusionary. True academic freedom can only exist in a context devoid of social and political inequalities.
Although the Palestinian solidarity movement has existed for a long time, it has been the growth of SJP activism across American university campuses, more than anything else perhaps, that has expanded the possibilities for discussion of Palestinians within the American academy. Like many non-violent student movements, SJP is dedicated to analysis as well as action; it therefore is committed to spreading knowledge about the occupation throughout higher education, while also dedicated to protesting the occupation in various non-violent forms of civil disobedience. One notable action of SJP has been to link Palestinian solidarity activism to indigenous and migrant justice movements. In mid-October, for example, SJP activists in Arizona protested that state’s deportation policies. SJP should be understood as a community of scholarly activists whose knowledge contributed greatly to the BDS movement with the ASA.
And finally, new academic formations of American studies beyond the US have been open spaces within which the question of Palestine has not been a taboo but a central concern. The Palestine question was at the center of the formation of the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at the American University of Beirut (AUB). When Mayor Rudy Giuliani refused Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s donation to the City of New York following the September 11, 2001 attacks because the prince dared to criticize US policy regarding Palestine, the prince formed two American studies centers in the Arab world in order that the Arab world could better understand and study America. Throughout its ten-year history CASAR has organized conferences and hosted visiting scholars who discussed the Palestine question openly, in ways that were unavailable in the US where there was supposedly academic freedom, but also a vigorous campaign to silence and prosecute those who discussed Palestinian solidarity. Moreover, in Beirut, American scholars interacted with Middle East Studies experts as well as Palestinian intellectuals and activists. Thus, while the Palestine question was a third rail in the US, CASAR provided a “third space” beyond the US and Israel where the Palestine question could be debated and theorized and the nature of American imperialism could be viewed through a new lens.
The combined academic and activist developments discussed above came together at this year’s ASA conference. The caucus organizing table became a meeting area for young SJP activists in their kaffiyyas, veterans of the Occupy movement, and faculty and graduate students of all ages and backgrounds. For the first time ever ASA members declared themselves on this issue and an overwhelming majority of conference attendees endorsed the resolution. Trailblazing scholars of African-American studies, Chicano studies, Asian American studies, American literature and history endorsed the call for the boycott, suggesting that intersectional analysis is also leading to intersectional politics. Many said they were relieved that they could finally voice in public their analysis of Palestine question without fear of retribution. One Palestinian activist told me that the ASA conference was the first time, outside of Palestinian events, that she felt that she was in the majority.
There were members of the association, and many non-members of the association, who signed a counter-petition. These scholars argued that the resolution unfairly targeted one nation and that the boycott resolution would have a negative impact on academic freedom. They often cited the AAUP statement against academic boycotts. Celebrity Israel supporters, such as Alan Dershowitz, are now on the prowl. Other opponents were sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, but felt that there are better ways to engage the occupation -- such as divestment campaigns -- that do not implicate institutions of higher education. Much of the criticism of the boycott concerned confusion about the difference between an institutional boycott (like the one proposed by the ASA caucus) and an individual boycott (which the ASA caucus did not propose). It would be a mistake to argue that the divide over the question of the boycott was generational; it seemed to have more to do with how different groups conceive of the role of activism in scholarship.
While much of the opposition merely reproduced talking points developed by distant federations and lobbies, within the ASA there was genuine concern among some that the academic boycott is the wrong strategy for fighting the occupation. This argument was often voiced to me in private, especially among self-described Jewish anti-Zionists who are repulsed by the occupation, but think that an academic boycott is misguided for the ASA. To these colleagues I would point out that the boycott asks each of us to prioritize the most immediate and serious political issue, which is the plight of the Palestinians, their precarious lives and the absence of their freedom. The boycott call came from within Palestinian civil society and represents how an indigenous people contending with colonialism are engaging non-violent resistance. Moreover, as Howard Zinn once wrote, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Our silence represents complicity and our boycott call represents solidarity. And finally, we spoke about the important need to disaggregate Jewish identity from Israeli state policy. The boycott call is not a boycott of Jews, or of any individuals, but of institutions that are complicit in the occupation.
Drawing on the transforming and intersecting analysis of anti-racism and anti-imperialism within the ASA, the caucus members argued that universities do not exist outside of imperial contexts, and that academic freedom is a privileged category achieved by very few scholars in Israel-Palestine. Moreover, we argued that the boycott resolution affirms academic freedom in two important ways. First, the boycott will help to open up debate in Israel and Palestine about uneven access to academic freedom. Second, the boycott opens up space within the US to (finally) have an open discussion about Israeli policy and the Palestine question. The boycott does not discriminate against individuals because the boycott is targeted at institutions. And finally, we conceive of the academic boycott as consistent with the politics of divestment; as one member of the caucus argued, a boycott extends into the realm of the academy what divestment extends into the realm of economy.
More than anything the ASA members involved in the boycott resolution felt that we had breached America’s last taboo. A broad group of scholars and students with different backgrounds and research interests worked together in a supportive atmosphere to analyze and discuss boycott in ways that were not possible in previous years. I have studied global solidarity movements, but this was the first time that I felt what it was like to be part of one. Throughout the conference I received e-mails from friends in Beirut and Cairo, as well as from scholars across the US who lent their support and wanted to know what was happening at the conference. Moreover, those of us involved in the boycott movement saw evidence of how our scholarship informs all aspects of our lives, including our activism. The boycott supporters brought to our activism scholarly knowledge about social movements in the past and present that we could draw on for comparison and for inspiration. Whether it was by contributing their insights about the United Farm Workers struggle, the indigenous struggle for sovereignty, the prison abolition movement or the South African anti-apartheid movement, scholar activists put ideas into action in ways that were both inspiring and revelatory.
Update: On December 4, the National Council of the ASA decided to endorse a slightly modified version of the boycott resolution and put it to a vote before the full membership of the association.
Manhunting in Africa
The penultimate scene in the recently released film Captain Phillips, about the 2009 seizure of the US-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, depicts the methodical precision with which a Navy SEAL Team 6 unit identified and then captured or killed the pirates during their doomed attempt to ferry their hostage to the Somali mainland.
According to Jeremy Scahill’s new book Dirty Wars, the crisis over the Maersk Alabama was the newly inaugurated President Barack Obama’s introduction to the formidable surveillance and intervention capabilities of the US military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which commands the military’s most elite commando units such as the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and the Army’s Delta Force. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney oversaw the expansion of JSOC into a shadowy manhunting army that could “find, fix and finish” alleged terrorist enemies around the world without Congressional oversight or public discussion. But following the Maersk Alabama operation, according to Scahill, President Obama “let JSOC off the leash” by expanding authorization for JSOC’s clandestine operations into previously off-limits areas and countries beyond the official battle zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama’s embrace of JSOC’s manhunting capabilities was on display in early October of this year with a pair of highly publicized raids in Libya and Somalia intended to capture alleged terrorist masterminds in Africa. The strikes were carried out by elite JSOC special mission units and were approved and overseen by President Obama, who was given regular updates. In one attack, JSOC commandos from the Army’s Delta Force snatched Abu Anas al-Libi -- an alleged al-Qaeda leader wanted for his involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings -- off the streets of Tripoli, Libya. Earlier that day, SEAL Team 6 operators assaulted a beachside villa in Barawe, Somalia, hoping to arrest the al-Shabaab operative “Ikrimah,” linked to the deadly attack on a Kenyan shopping mall. The SEALs were forced to turn back following a protracted gunfight.
Despite President Obama’s assurances in an important May 2013 speech that he rejected the concept of “perpetual war” and would seek to eventually bring the war against al-Qaeda to an end, the concurrent JSOC raids across the African continent illustrate a deepening institutionalization and expansion of the ongoing global shadow war the United States is waging against alleged Islamist terrorists and their “associates.”
Most immediately, the centrality of the US Special Operations Forces in these operations rather than the CIA using drones illustrates the continuing shift in the center of gravity for shadowy counterterrorism operations away from the CIA to the US military and its clandestine operators. The Obama administration has been stung by fierce criticism of CIA drone strikes, which critics condemned as an unlawful global assassination program. These two Africa operations thus appear intended to illustrate a broader Obama administration initiative to shift counterterrorism operations toward US military commands, which in theory provide “additional layers of accountability and oversight,” and put them under “a more disciplined command culture,” as James Kitfield writes. The shift to military control and away from drone strikes also implies a greater emphasis on capture instead of killing, though this may not necessarily be the case. Moreover, as Kitfield notes, during his March confirmation hearings to become CIA director, the leading architect of the CIA drone program, John O. Brennan, expressed his desire to move the drone program and paramilitary operations from the CIA back to the US military in order to return the agency’s focus to its traditional role of intelligence gathering and analysis. Nevertheless, an analysis by Foreign Policy suggests that the effort to remove the CIA from targeted killing and drone strikes is running into some obstacles due to the need for “agility” and deniability in the face of intense local opposition to such strikes in Pakistan, among other places.
More broadly, the two JSOC strikes shed light on the sweeping extension and institutionalization of the US military’s manhunting capabilities and operations across the African continent, in addition to its manhunting networks in Central and West Asia. Nick Turse has outlined the expansion of base construction, advisory deployments and Special Operations missions across the continent under the aegis of the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), established in 2007. AFRICOM’s primary mission is counterterrorism and the Special Operations Command Africa has been a major player in establishing a network of bases and logistical sites to support various “high-risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara operating in North Africa as well as the quick response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 that operates closer to the Horn of Africa. In this context, it appears that JSOC forces have undertaken their own “Berlin Conference” division of the African continent into separate manhunting sectors that mirrors the JSOC’s earlier division of Southwest Asia. Following September 11, the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 became the most active JSOC element in Afghanistan and Pakistan while the Army’s Delta Force became the JSOC force most responsible for Iraq. Similarly, as seen in these two operations, it appears that the US Army’s Delta Force has responsibilities for North Africa, while the Horn of Africa is Navy SEAL territory.
And lastly, the JSOC raids in Africa illustrate the further blurring of international and domestic counterterrorism agencies and authorities within the global manhunting infrastructure. One of the central organizational developments making possible global manhunting operations has been the emerging Joint Task Force model of interagency coordination and information sharing among the US military, the CIA, the FBI and other organizations into a seamless network across domestic and international authorities. It appears that both CIA and FBI agents played a role in the Libya and Somalia operations, linking with the US military in its kill/capture operations and in developing intelligence for targeted strikes. This blurring of boundaries between domestic and international counterterrorism and manhunting takes on a disturbing quality in light of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations that the NSA has played a major role in assisting the targeted killing programs undertaken by both the CIA and the American military, in which data swept up from global communications networks, including those of American citizens, has been used to generate target packages for lethal operations in the global shadow war. The NSA has set up a special unit, the CounterTerrorism Mission Aligned Cell or CT Mac, to use its phone and e-mail interceptions to pinpoint the coordinates for CIA and US military drone strikes. It is possible, though it has not been proven, that NSA interceptions could also be used by the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI in targeting domestic threats or opponents.
Thus, although Obama’s May speech articulated an important recognition of the dangers of “perpetual war,” the Obama administration continues to streamline and institutionalize the highly classified practice of targeted killing and the rendition practices of the Bush administration, transforming ad hoc elements into an integrated and synergistic counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a permanent war across several continents as well as across domestic and international authorities. But rather than the CIA and its drones serving as the tip of the spear in this permanent war, it will increasingly be the clandestine “ninjas” of JSOC and their individually targeted and networked kill/capture model of counterterrorism that is in the lead. As Peter Bergen recently pointed out, a sign of where the Obama administration is placing its bets about the future of warfare is that while there are major cuts planned for all four of the armed services, Special Operations Command is one of the few places in the military where the force is actually growing. Although no longer named as such, the “global war on terrorism” is a long way from ending.
This post has been modified slightly from its original version.