Archive for the ‘War’ Category

A report published by the charity Physicians for Human Rights has documented illegal medical experimentation carried out on prisoners detained on suspicion of involvement in terrorism whilst being held in CIA custody[1]. The report, entitled Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program, outlines numerous instances of illegal testing carried out on prisoners in violation of both medical ethics and international treaties.

Among the experiments performed were tests to analyse how detainees would cope with subjection to prolonged periods of sleep deprivation, and experiments which involved adding a saline solution to the water used to simulate drowning during waterboarding sessions in order to prevent complications related to dilution of the blood.

Members of Physicians for Human Rights spent two years carefully analysing declassified but redacted documents pertaining to the treatment of detainees suspected of terrorism who were taken into custody following the attacks of September 11th 2001. The group has called for a congressional investigation into the allegations contained in its report, and has called on the White House to investigate.

According to the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-governmental organisation, such experiments – illegal under the Nuremburg Code and Geneva Conventions – were carried out with complicity on the part of CIA-appointed doctors, psychologists and other medical staff. PHR accuses the US government of having used such professionals to shield itself from criminal liability and charges that the physicians involved were complicit in “the routine practice of torture”. Page 9 of the 30 page report states that the experiments undertaken, “had no direct clinical health care application, nor [were they] in the detainee’s personal interest nor part of their medical management”.

The report observes that the illegal experimentation carried out, “appears to have been used primarily to enable the Bush administration to assess the legality of the tactics, and to inform medical monitoring policy and procedure for future application of the techniques”. Page 10 informs that, “US government lawyers used… observational data collected by health professionals… to inform legal evaluations regarding the risk of inflicting certain levels of harm on the detainee, and to shape policy that would guide further application of the technique on other detainees”.

The report reveals that medical professionals under the authority of the US government observed and analysed the effects of sleep deprivation on more than a dozen prisoners in 48, 96 and 180-hour increments. Scott A. Allen, MD, a PHR medical advisor and lead medical author of the report remarked that, “Any health professional [that] violates their ethical codes by employing their professional expertise to calibrate and study the infliction of harm disgraces the health profession and makes a mockery of the practice of medicine”. He stated that any medical practitioner who participated in “unethical human subject research… should be held to account”[2].

Frank Donaghue, Physicians for Human Rights’ Chief Executive Officer, affirmed that it appears that the CIA violated, “accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War”, which are designed to protect detainees from inhumane experimentation. Donaghue described the abuses detailed in the group’s report as “gross violations of human rights law” and “a grave affront to America’s core values”[3].

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano responded to the allegations on behalf of the agency, stating that PHR’s report is “just wrong”, and that the CIA did not carry out “human subject research on any detainee or group of detainees”[4].

President Barack Obama officially outlawed the practice of waterboarding not long after taking office, but has controversially preserved an undefined number of “black sites” or clandestine prisons situated in countries whose governments collaborate with the United States, and has preserved the practice of rendition whereby those suspected of broadly defined terror offences can be taken to such sites and “interrogated” with no judicial oversight.

Upon releasing four top secret Bush-era memos, which permitted the CIA to use torture against terror suspects, in April of 2009, President Obama guaranteed immunity to those who had been responsible either for encouraging and authorising such acts or for directly carrying them out. Obama called it a time for “reflection, not retribution”[5], and to date not a single member of the Bush administration has been prosecuted despite overwhelming documented evidence that torture was routinely used against people who had not been charged with any crime.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the administration of George W. Bush in 2002 had authorised the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, including but not limited to: waterboarding, subjecting detainees to extremes of temperature, forced nudity and forcing detainees to maintain stress positions. Such techniques were allowed providing medical staff present ensured prisoners did not endure “severe physical and mental pain”. This arbitrary proviso was widely derided at the time, with critics maintaining that this essentially gave US interrogators, who in many cases were devoid of experience and even basic training, a free hand to administer any type of punishment they saw fit with little interference from the upper echelons of government.

Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero, commented that, “President Obama’s assertion that there should not be prosecutions of government officials who may have committed crimes before a thorough investigation has been carried out is simply untenable”, with the ACLU characterising the legal basis for torture as “spurious”.

One memo declassified by the Obama administration, dated 1 August 2002, lists permissible techniques, which include: attention grasp, walling (pushing the detainee into a wall), facial hold, facial slap, cramped confinement, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, wall standing, placing a detainee with a fear of insects in a confined box containing insects, and waterboarding.

A secret 2004 US army investigation into allegations of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib military prison in Baghdad, Iraq, uncovered evidence of sustained and repeated mistreatment of prisoners held in US custody. The report revealed a damning catalogue of inhumane behaviour which included the following abuses[6]:

  • Sodomising a male detainee with a chemical light and possibly a broomstick
  • Threatening detainees with a charged 9mm pistol
  • A male military police guard having sex with a female detainee
  • Using military working dogs, without muzzles, to intimidate and frighten detainees; in at least one case biting a detainee and causing severe injury
  • Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid onto detainees
  • Beating detainees with a broom handle and chair
  • Pouring cold water on naked detainees
  • Punching, slapping & kicking detainees
  • Allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall of his cell
  • Threatening male detainees with rape
  • Jumping on detainees’ naked feet
  • Videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees
  • Forcibly arranging detainees in numerous sexually explicit positions in order to photograph them
  • Forcing detainees to strip naked and depriving them of clothing for days at a time
  • Forcing naked male detainees to wear women’s underwear
  • Forcing groups of naked male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed & videotaped
  • Arranging naked male detainees in a pile and jumping on them
  • Positioning a naked male detainee on an MRE box with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes and penis and electrically shocking him
  • Placing a dog chain around a naked male detainee and having a female soldier pose for a photo
  • Taking photographs of dead Iraqi detainees

The report´s author, Major General Antonio Taguba, later confirmed that photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib which the Obama administration declined to release depicts “sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube”. Taguba described the photographs as providing categoric evidence of “torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.” “The mere description of these pictures is horrendous enough, take my word for it”, he added[7].

Senior figures in the Bush administration came in for heavy criticism as it emerged that abuses amounting to torture were widespread both in Iraq and at US-controlled detention facilities in other countries. US Justice Department official John Yoo drew consternation from anti-torture advocates when he endorsed the sexual torture of terror suspects’ children in front of their parents as an acceptable method of extracting a confession[8].

Douglass Cassel, professor at Notre Dame Law School, quizzed Yoo in December of 2005 about an August 2002 memo he had authored, asking, “If the president deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?” “No treaty”, replied Yoo, who in addition to writing many of the memos which cemented the practice of “enhanced interrogation” as accepted policy also wrote extensively in favour of domestic surveillance and wiretapping of citizens of the United States without warrants. Cassel pressed the South Korea-born attorney further, “Also no law by Congress. That is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo.” “I think it depends on why the President feels he needs to do that,” was Yoo’s now infamous response.

Tom Kavanagh

[1] Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program, http://phrtorturepapers.org/?dl_id=9

[2] Evidence Indicates that the Bush Administration Conducted Experiments and Research on Detainees to Design Torture Techniques and Create Legal Cover, http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/library/news-2010-06-07.html

[3] Evidence Indicates that the Bush Administration Conducted Experiments and Research on Detainees to Design Torture Techniques and Create Legal Cover, http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/library/news-2010-06-07.html

[4] Physicians group accuses CIA of testing torture techniques on detainees, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-torture-20100608,0,1471800.story

[5] Obama releases Bush torture memos – Insects, sleep deprivation and waterboarding among approved techniques by the Bush administration, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/16/torture-memos-bush-administration

[6] Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade, http://www.npr.org/iraq/2004/prison_abuse_report.pdf

[7] Abu Ghraib abuse photos ‘show rape’, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5395830/Abu-Ghraib-abuse-photos-show-rape.html

[8] Meek, mild and menacing, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/blumenthal/2006/01/12/alito_bush/

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee in Washington D.C. on Tuesday evening that the call from the international community for Israel to temporarily freeze settlement construction in territory it has been illegally occupying since 1967 was an “illogical and unreasonable demand”.[1] Netanyahu’s comments came after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called on the Zionist state to make “difficult but necessary choices”, a reference to Israeli plans to construct around 1,600 new homes in illegally occupied East Jerusalem which were announced during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the country.

Clinton used her appearance at AIPAC to underscore her “rock solid” dedication to “Israel’s security”, saying that this is “more than a policy position for me. It is a personal commitment that will never waver”. She went on to say, however, that Israel’s continuing settlement expansion “undermines mutual trust” between the two nations.[2] Such tame chastisement came less than 24 hours after Netanyahu had told his cabinet that, “As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv”.

According to international law, however, there is a clear distinction. Israel has resisted repeated United Nations Security Council resolutions to withdraw from all territory it occupied in 1967, and has continuously expanded illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which have more than doubled in size since the failed Oslo peace accords of 1993. The total number of inhabitants of Jewish-only settlements in illegally occupied territory currently stands at over 650,000.

Despite the fact that the construction of settlements in territory acquired by war is roundly condemned by the international community and the practice is forbidden by international law, the BBC insists on including the concession that “Israel disputes this” whenever settlements’ legal status is mentioned, further clouding the issue and giving the illusion of legitimate contention where there is none.

Aside from their outright illegality, settlements are routinely constructed in strategic areas which give their inhabitants preferential access to scarce supplies of water and arable land to the detriment of the impoverished Palestinian communities who live on their margins. A network of roads and highways administered by Israel cuts through the West Bank, in many cases isolating Palestinian villages from one another and making travel between towns just a few miles apart unfeasible.

Settlements in East Jerusalem have been constructed so as to “ring-fence” the portion of the city under illegitimate occupation, with Israel claiming the whole of Jerusalem as its “eternal and indivisible” capital. The location of such settlements makes any transfer of sovereignty over East Jerusalem to a Palestinian government under a future peace deal practically impossible should the current inhabitants be allowed to remain where they are. The dominant forces within the international community have steadfastly refused to take collective action against Israel’s repeated and flagrant violations of internationally accepted practice in refusing to withdraw from territory it acquired following the 1967 war, and have thus undermined any genuine prospect of peace between the two sides.

British arms sales to Israel skyrocketed under Tony Blair’s stewardship and currently stand at their highest ever level. The prospect of a potential future Conservative government bringing pressure to bear on the Zionist state looks remote to say the least: a Channel 4 programme entitled Dispatches: Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby, screened in late 2009, found that roughly 80% of Tory MPs are members of Conservative Friends for Israel. The United States currently sends Israel, a nation with a population of just over 7 million, around US$3 billion in foreign aid annually, more than to any other single country and more than to every country in Sub-Saharan Africa combined.

Speaking at AIPAC on Tuesday, Netanyahu said that illegal settlements in East Jerusalem were an “inextricable” part of Israel and would remain so under any subsequent peace deal. Incredibly, he went on to state that their construction, “in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution.”[3] President Barack Obama appeared to agree with Netanyahu’s position in September of 2009, when he dropped an official demand for Israel to cease illegal settlement construction.[4] Even more bizarrely, this humiliating capitulation was reported by CNN as if it were a major step in bringing the two sides together.

Quite how Obama and the United States manage to retain any credibility whatsoever as neutral peace brokers in this conflict is a testament to the power of the mainstream media upon which the majority of Americans and Britons rely for information about world affairs. Obama, who had won glowing praise from the Israeli press for a now infamous performance at AIPAC prior to his victory at the polls in late 2008, effectively extinguished any faint hopes of positive action from Washington on the matter when he appointed former IDF volunteer Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff shortly after being elected. Emanuel is widely acknowledged to be one of the most potent figures in Obama’s administration, and it is against this backdrop that any call by the United States’ government for peace talks to resume can be discarded as fading rhetoric.

Clinton at AIPAC: Iran threatened once again

Speaking on behalf of the planet’s foremost nuclear power, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the latest contribution to the burgeoning collection of threats targeted at Iran by political figures from the United States and Israel, calling for “sanctions that bite” against the Persian nation and stating that the United States is “determined to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons”. Clinton was greeted by applause from the 7,500-strong audience, comprised of members of arguably Washington’s most powerful political lobby representing the interests of a foreign nation, no less than 25 times during Monday’s speech. She called Iran’s mythical quest to procure nuclear weaponry “unacceptable to the United States, unacceptable to Israel and unacceptable to the region and the international community”.

Russia and China have hitherto resisted proceeding with sanctions against Iran, while the U.S. began a programme of sanctions during the presidency of Secretary Clinton’s husband Bill which were dutifully extended by President Obama shortly after the latter took office early in 2009.

The double standard underpinning the frequently recited mantra that Iran is not entitled to obtain nuclear armaments and should be considered a pariah if it wishes to do so is palpable: not only does the U.S. have the world’s most formidable nuclear arsenal; it stands apart from the other members of the coveted nuclear club, having used such weapons to devastating effect against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

In addition, Israel is believed to have several hundred nuclear warheads and senior Israeli politicians have been repeatedly threatening military action against Iran in recent years. Israel allowed “cursory inspections” of its nuclear facilities once a year between 1962 and 1969, going to great lengths to conceal underground areas of its sites which contained incriminating evidence of the country’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme.[5]

When covertly taken photographs and information regarding Israel’s secret nuclear weapons facilities were released to The Sunday Times in October 1986, Israeli whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu was kidnapped in Rome before being flown to Israel where he served years in prison, spending longer in solitary confinement than any known prisoner in modern history. Iran, meanwhile, denies categorically that it is seeking to enrich uranium for the purpose of weapon development and maintains that its intentions are purely peaceful.

Tom Kavanagh

[1] Benjamin Netanyahu says Mid-East talks face new delay, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8583589.stm

[2] Hillary Clinton warns Israel faces ‘difficult’ choices, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8579766.stm

[3] Netanyahu reaffirms ‘right to build’ in Jerusalem, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8582190.stm

[4] Obama drops demand that Israel freeze settlements, http://edition.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/09/22/us.mideast/index.html

[5] Israel’s Nuclear Weapons, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/cpc-pubs/farr.htm

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The acceleration of the war in Afghanistan by the new administration is well publicised, representing a greater surge in the war against terrorism, with the use of unmanned drones playing an increasing role. What is slightly less known is the use of these technologies in neighbouring Pakistan.

The first Predator was rushed to Afghanistan just four days after September 11th 2001 as part of the U.S.’s remarkably rapid mobilisation. Since then unmanned aircraft have become integral to U.S. efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now increasingly, in Pakistan. Military claims of greater accuracy and technological superiority, together with likely benefits in reducing military casualties, have resulted in drones gradually replacing F-16’s over the battlefield.

The Air Force is currently spending $3 billion a year in procurement and operation of the aircraft, and now holds more than 7000 units in its arsenal.[1] The most commonly used drones are the Predator and the Reaper; both equipped with hellfire missiles and manufactured by General Atomics.[2] Operated from ground bases in either Afghanistan or the United States, pilots have access to multiple computer screens displaying live video feeds, high definition cameras and various other logistical intelligence. These capabilities, according to military analysts, allow pilots to be a lot more accurate in their strikes and reduce civilian casualties.  This claim may possibly explain why the Obama administration has carried out more attacks with the technology in its first ten months than the previous administration did in its last three years.

Since the first U.S. invasion force landed in Afghanistan in late 2001, insurgent forces have sought shelter in the bordering state of Pakistan, particularly in the inaccessible regions of North Waziristan.[3] The issue of preventing raids and attacks from outside the field of war has understandably been a difficult one for coalition forces. Without a remit for war against the Pakistani state, justifying ground force troop deployment has been impossible. Instead, the United States has been forced to use its relations with the government to ensure that the Pakistani military exerts pressure against Al-Qaeda strongholds. This method has had at best, mixed success.

The U.S. therefore simultaneously launched its own covert offensive against Al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan using drones. The avoidance of ground troops in this programme enables greater detachment from issues of legality, as well as allowing the United States to fluidly adjust the pace of its campaign. Success on this new front has been praised by news outlets for killing scores of militants over the last few months, including 12 in a single attack recently on what was once a religious school. The total estimated death toll runs as high as 700 for this campaign in Pakistan, with many questioning the proportion of these which are connected to Al-Qaeda.

Whilst the government in Pakistan has been co-operating to a certain degree with the United States, the reactions of its citizens has made the relationship difficult. As attacks under the Obama administration have increased, the Pakistani government has increased its demands, both public and private, to the Americans. A surge in attacks at the start of this year lead to public Pakistani pressure for its own drone force to defend against militant incursions.[4] [5] Privately, certain analysts argue that the U.S. has been able to maintain its campaign by adding to its list of suspects, enemies of the Pakistani government.[6]

The inability to confirm such assertions is maintained by the fact that the Pakistan drone offensive is not directed by the U.S. Air Force, but instead by the C.I.A. . As such, the list of suspect targets is confidential, together with the terms of what constitutes a militant target. As the government has also justified its use of force in this region as the only direct method of tackling the militancy, some might also ask where they are gaining the intelligence on which to base their attacks, if not from ground sources.

The attacks are justified under the legal framework of the Bush Administration, which sidestepped the U.S. ban on assassinations. Instead, terrorism was re-classified from a crime, to an extension of war, enabling forces to retaliate to attacks anywhere as a new front in their war on terror.

The C.I.A.’s lack of experience in direct military offensives, together with the ease with which these new aircraft can be piloted, has led to significant outsourcing within their campaign. Some of the practical operations have been assumed by civilian contractors, raising significant questions of legality in the assassinations of foreign nationals.

The drone war in Pakistan certainly represents a novel development in the field of warfare, it remains to be seen whether the costs of subduing suspected militancy outweigh the ‘complications’ of civilian casualties.

Chris Bowles

[1] Drone pilots have a front-row seat on war, from half a world away


[2] U.S. drone crashes over Pakistan


[3] U.S. Unleashes Unprecedented Number of Drone Attacks in Pakistan


[4] Zardari asks US to transfer drone technology to Pakistan


[5] U.S. to supply Pakistan 12 drones


[6] Jane Mayer on Predator Drones and Pakistan


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Afghan President Hamid Karzai has unilaterally taken over the country’s Electoral Complaints Commission, declaring himself the right to appoint all five panel members.  The move comes four months after the commission ordered a rerun of last August’s presidential election in the wake of widespread electoral fraud, with estimates that Karzai had received around one million unsubstantiated votes in order to claim victory against rival Abdullah Abdullah.[i]

This run-off, however, did not materialise, with Abdullah Abdullah withdrawing days before the vote, leading to the second round of voting being abruptly cancelled. Abdullah stated that his “demands for a fraud-free election had not been met”, and that a repeat of the August debacle “might not restore the faith of the people in (the) democratic process.”[ii] The August elections had been marked by voter intimidation and ballot stuffing in Karzai’s favour on the part of election monitors. The governor and other election officials in the northern state of Balkh, for example, noted “voter coercion” and intimidation, “particularly” on the part of election monitors.[iii]

Ballot-stuffing was also a common complaint, with both Karzai and Abdullah facing accusations over huge voting irregularities. The BBC uncovered election cards being sold openly in some cities, and candidates offering thousands of dollars worth of bribes in exchange for votes. The Bareez tribe in the southern city of Kandahar alleged that nearly 30,000 votes had been switched from Abdullah to Karzai, with the president’s brother Ahmed Wali maintaining that the claim was “baseless”.[iv] Ahmed Wali Karzai is himself a controversial figure who does little to bolster the reputation of his brother’s regime internationally, with voluminous evidence linking him to the heroin trade in the war-torn nation.[v]

Prior to Hamid Karzai’s overhaul, the ECC had been dominated by the United Nations, with three of its panel being directly appointed by the UN. Western diplomats were quick to register their outrage at the Afghan President’s decision. The head of the United Nations in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, reportedly struck a deal in private with the Afghan head of state prior to the announcement that the President would determine the five-strong commission, to the effect that at least two foreigners would be part of the panel. This would still leave Karzai-appointees in a dominant position, holding the remaining three out of five seats. The President already controls Afghanistan’s Independent Elections Commission, which was considered to have favoured the incumbent during the August election and was accordingly criticised by Abdullah Abdullah.

Karzai’s announcement comes during a parliamentary recess, with the Afghan parliament not due to reconvene until Saturday 27 February. Abdullah Abdullah was critical of the move to seize power of the ECC, calling it a “step backwards”, and affirming that Karzai’s actions “could seriously jeopardise the efforts being made on the military front”. President Obama announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in December of 2009[vi], following the deployment of an extra 17,000 troops in February of last year.[vii]

This significant increase in foreign troops comes at a time when confidence in Afghanistan’s fledgling government is dwindling, with the Karzai regime perceived by many both in and outside of the devastated nation to be riddled with corruption and showing no sign of improvement. Consequently, public opinion in the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries which have troops stationed in Afghanistan has turned sharply against the war, with rising death tolls both among the Afghan civilian population and foreign occupying forces and the obvious shortcomings of Karzai’s government. The number of British troops killed in Afghanistan reached 256 in early February 2010, surpassing the number of dead in the Falklands’ war of 1982, as three British troops were killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Helmand province.[viii]

Meanwhile, the Afghan cabinet voiced its condemnation of the killing of 27 civilians in the south of the country following a NATO airstrike in an area under Dutch military control in the border region between the provinces of Uruzgan and Dai Kondi.[ix] A cabinet statement affirmed that “The repeated killing of civilians by NATO forces is unjustifiable… We strongly condemn it.”[x]

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary stated that the victims of the airstrike were all civilians.  He said that two Land Cruisers and a pickup truck containing a total of 42 people came under attack from the air as they approached the Khotal Chowza mountain pass that connects the two provinces.

Tom Kavanagh

[i] Hamid Karzai takes control of Afghanistan election watchdog, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/22/karzai-afghanistan-electoral-complaints-commission

[ii] Abdullah pulls out of Afghan vote, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8336388.stm

[iii] Accusations Of Vote Fraud Multiply in Afghanistan, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/27/AR2009082704199.html

[iv] Afghan poll: Main fraud allegations, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8244125.stm

[v][v] Reports link Karzai’s brother to heroin trade, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/04/world/asia/04iht-05afghan.16689186.html

[vi] Barack Obama’s war: the final push in Afghanistan, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/01/barack-obama-speech-afghanistan-war

[vii] Obama approves Afghanistan troop increase, http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/17/obama.troops/index.html

[viii] Afghanistan death toll exceeds Falklands as three UK soldiers die, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/feb/08/uk-soldiers-killed-afghanistan

[ix] Afghanistan slams US-led forces over civilian deaths, http://www.presstv.com/detail.aspx?id=119233&sectionid=351020403

[x] NATO Airstrike Kills Afghan Civilians, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/world/asia/23afghan.html

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“What you want in a media system is ostensible diversity that conceals actual uniformity”

Joseph Goebbels

The election of Barack Obama has been rightly heralded across the world as a defining moment in the history of the United States. The election of the nation’s first black president is symbolic of the progress made in terms of attitudes towards racial harmony and acceptance in a country where less than fifty years previously basic rights and entitlements were routinely denied to non-white people, and a dehumanising structure incorporating segregation and separation kept people permanently excluded from any sort of meaningful political representation according to their ethnicity.

Obama’s victory has cued an outpouring of elation and hope both among the American people and abroad, which says much for the disastrous two-term presidency that preceded his victory. For many Americans and those of the younger generations in particular, the election of the Democratic candidate represents a rejection of eight years of George W. Bush’s neoconservative rule. The Bush administration was characterised by callous militarism, total disregard for international consensus on matters such as war and torture and policies that have progressively eroded civil and constitutional rights within the United States.

Bush left office with plummeting approval ratings, his hugely unpopular policies having engendered overwhelming anti-American sentiment internationally and created a climate of fear and intimidation in the United States that has undermined the preservation of freedom of speech and justice. The wars started by Bush’s administration have taken an enormous toll; an ORB survey estimates that more than a million Iraqis had died by August 2007 following the 2003 invasion of that country[1], in addition to the millions of displaced, and American military casualties since Bush took office now number more than 5,000, with over 100,000 soldiers estimated wounded.

Public opinion demanded an end to the wars of aggression, the torture and warrantless wiretapping. The American people cried out for an end to the no-bid contracts for Halliburton and a halt to the intimate relationship with the highest echelons of elected power enjoyed by big business. People had had enough of a government which seemed to revel in trampling on the country’s core values, and under whose rule those suspected of being enemies of the state are now guilty until proven innocent. It was in this context that Barack Obama was elected; indeed his campaign could be succinctly represented by one word: “Change”.

Those who elected Obama on anti-war grounds, however, had not read the small print. Indeed, Obama’s status as a champion of pacifism can be attributed in no small part to the stance taken by his Republican opponent during the campaign; compared to John McCain’s overt belligerence, Obama became the candidate of peace by default. Whereas McCain hypothesised that American military involvement in Iraq could continue for “a hundred years”, Obama affirmed in September 2007 that, “[t]here is no military solution in Iraq and there never was. The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq’s leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year – now.”[2]

In July 2008, Obama said that a previous commitment and campaign pledge to complete a full withdrawal of combat troops within 16 months could be “refined” at a later date[3], and following his inauguration he indeed extended the timetable for the prospective pullout to between 19 and 23 months[4]. Obama’s current position is that a “residual force” of up to 50,000 troops will be left in the country after this 23-month period has elapsed[5] – giving rise to consternation from anti-war activists and from some within the Democratic Party. There are currently 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and therefore the proposed 50,000-strong residual force represents more than one third of the American forces currently serving in the country. Under an agreement signed between George W. Bush and the Iraqi government in 2008, all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by December 31st 2011.

Aside from the somewhat confused stance with regards to the Iraq pullout, President Obama has been criticised by opponents of the ‘war on terror’ for pledging to almost double the number of U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan. His proposal to supplement the existing force of 36,000 with an additional 30,000 troops[6] – presumably consisting in no small part of soldiers who have already served in Iraq – contradicts statements made in July 2008, in which Obama had suggested increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan by just 7,000[7]. Since taking office, Obama has already dispatched an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to the country[8].

The newly elected President wasted no time whatsoever in continuing another policy inherited from his predecessor; attacks by unmanned drones inside Pakistani territory. In September 2008, Obama called the first attacks carried out by the government of George W. Bush inside Pakistan a “small step in the right direction.” Susan Rice, top foreign policy advisor to Obama’s campaign, said of the raids – undertaken without approval from Islamabad – that the U.S. had a right “Not to invade. Not to take over Pakistan’s sovereignty, but to take out that target as an act of self-defence”[9]. Obama stated publicly as far back as July 2007 that he had no qualms whatsoever about using military force against “al-Qaeda” in Pakistan, even without consultation with the Pakistani government[10], provoking outrage in a country that has been a key strategic ally of the United States during the ‘war on terror’. Following his inauguration, Obama did not dawdle in making good on those threats.

The new President carried out the first such strike just three days into his term in office on January 23 2009, killing 22 people inside Pakistani territory and provoking huge protests in the tribal heartlands of North & South Waziristan[11]. The total number of unauthorised U.S. raids inside Pakistani territory since August 2008 now stands at more than 30. Pakistani officials were quick to condemn these attacks as violations of their national sovereignty, pointing out that many civilians have been killed by missiles fired from unmanned drones since the raids began last summer, and emphasising that in terms of winning hearts and minds in the region such aggressions are counter productive to say the least.

Another potential sphere of conflict following Obama’s electoral success is Iran. In a statement made before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – widely considered to be the most powerful lobby group representing the interests of any foreign nation in Washington – in March 2007, Obama called Iran “a threat to all of us” and received a standing ovation from the crowd in attendance as he said global leaders must do “whatever it takes” to stop Iran from enriching uranium – refusing to rule out a recourse to force, and called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad “reckless, irresponsible and inattentive”[12].

In an address to the Iranian people given in March 2009, Obama appeared to change tack somewhat, declaring, “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right – but it comes with real responsibilities.”[13] This apparent reference to Iran’s nuclear programme, which the Persian state claims is purely for civilian and not military purposes, reiterates the line taken by the Bush administration. Earlier in the month Barack Obama had extended U.S. sanctions against Iran that began under Bill Clinton in 1995 and had been continued throughout the presidency of George W. Bush, claiming that Iran poses a threat to U.S. “national security”. The sanctions would have expired automatically had Obama not extended them for another 12 months. In an address to the U.S. congress, the new President stated, “The actions and policies of the government of Iran are contrary to the interests of the United States in the region and pose a continuing and unusual and extraordinary threat”[14]. Obama’s refusal to rule out using force against Iran and his decision to extend American sanctions has not gone unnoticed in Tehran. “Unlimited sanctions which still continue and have been renewed by the United States are wrong and need to be reviewed”, said President Ahmadinejad in response to Obama’s message to the Iranian people. “By fundamentally changing its behaviour America can offer us a friendly hand,” he added. A fundamental change in behaviour does not look on the cards however, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed as much when he stated, “the opportunity for success in is probably more in economic sanctions [in Iran & North Korea] than it is in diplomacy”[15]

One area of U.S. foreign policy that the newly elected President is coming under increasing pressure to act on is the United States’ controversial relationship with Israel, particularly in the wake of evidence that the Israeli military committed war crimes during the 23-day Gaza war. Barack Obama maintained a deafening silence throughout the Israeli onslaught, which was carried out in the period between his election and his inauguration, even though the then President-elect was vocal in his condemnation of the attacks in Mumbai, and gave numerous statements regarding the global financial crisis during the same period.

In his aforementioned address to AIPAC in March 2007, Barack Obama stated, “We must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs”. The then senator’s performance at the forum received a rave review from the Washington correspondent of Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, who remarked that Obama “sounded as strong as Clinton, as supportive as Bush, as friendly as Giuliani. At least rhetorically, Obama passed any test anyone might have wanted him to pass. So he is pro-Israel. Period.”[16]

Israel has been the largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States since the Second World War, receiving approximately $3 billion per year in grants since 1985[17]. In August 2007 under the government of George W. Bush, the U.S. signed an agreement pledging Israel $30 billion in armaments over the next decade[18]. 26.3% of the money may be spent on arms produced by Israeli manufacturers, with the rest being earmarked for the purchase of weapons and military equipment from U.S. arms producers. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. Undersecretary of State who signed the deal during Bush’s presidency called it an “investment in peace”, saying that, “peace cannot be made without strength”.

Some of the appointments the new President has made since taking office have also done little to assuage those who fear there is little difference between his policies and those of his predecessor. Obama decided to retain Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, who picks up where he left off in the same position to which George W. Bush appointed him. Obama has appointed Rahm Emanuel, a former investment banker and one-time volunteer in the Israeli army, as his Chief of Staff. Emanuel is a particularly polemic figure in the context of the economic downturn because of his strong ties to Wall Street – he has been one of Congress’ top recipients of Wall Street contributions since his congressional election in 2002. Indeed, Rahm Emanuel was the top House recipient in the 2008 election cycle of contributions from hedge funds, private equity firms and the securities/investment industry[19] – putting him at odds with Obama’s frequent criticism of Wall Street’s financial institutions, although Obama himself also took large contributions from the securities and investment industries[20].

Despite Obama’s affirmation that none of his appointees would be placed in positions that, “directly and substantially related to their prior employer, for two years”, the new President has selected William J. Lynn III as deputy Defense Secretary[21]. This has provoked outrage among peace campaigners and anti-war activists, as Lynn served as head of government relations for arms manufacturer Raytheon, where he was also a top executive, prior to his selection by Obama, prompting accusations of a conflict of interest. In November 2007, Obama announced that,

“I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. I have done more than any other candidate in this race to take on lobbyists and won. They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president.”

However just weeks into his administration that is already starting to look like dated campaign rhetoric. Other notable lobbyists appointed to high-level positions by Obama include former lobbyist for investment banking giant Goldman Sachs Mark Patterson who has been selected as Chief of Staff at the Treasury[22], Attorney General Eric Holder who formerly lobbied for the now bankrupt telecommunications firm Global Crossing Ltd.[23] and Mona Sutphen, who lobbied for a number of corporate clients including Angliss International, who has been selected as deputy White House Chief of Staff[24].

Finally, one of the first high-profile ‘changes’ Obama made after taking office was to sign an order that many media outlets reported would close the United States’ detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within a year and return America to “the moral high ground” in the ‘war on terror’[25]. Such reports were premature however, and skated over the fact that Obama has signed executive orders since taking office that preserve and protect the controversial practice of rendition; secret abduction and transfer of prisoners and ‘terror suspects’ to “countries that cooperate with the United States”[26]. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials even stated that there might be an “expansion” of the practice of rendition given that other avenues for ‘interrogation’, such as the transfer of suspects to Guantanamo Bay, have been closed by the government. Obama administration officials confirmed that the orders to shut the CIA’s network of secret prisons “do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis”, according to the LA Times. Suspects who have been held in secret prisons have given harrowing accounts in recent years of brutal torture experienced at these ‘black world’ camps in countries such as Algeria and Poland, and under executive orders signed by Obama such treatment of detainees will be allowed to continue.

It is frequently stated that Obama and his administration must be given time before judgement can be passed; that perhaps Obama is holding back his more radical policies until he is able to gain a stronger grounding that will enable him to better implement real change. However, in the face of the available information, this looks like wishful thinking. Barack Obama has unquestionably softened the rhetoric used in comparison with his predecessor, who seemed unmoved by his overwhelming unpopularity and by consistent opposition to his unethical policy decisions. Obama is a much more palatable figure than the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney; he is more charismatic, more charming and clearly more intelligent than the man he has replaced as president, and this has evidently endeared him to many in the U.S. and around the world. The underlying problem is that, as notorious neoconservative commentator Ann Coulter observed whilst commenting on Obama’s handling of issues of ‘national security’, “we ought to be gloating because he seems to be continuing the policies of George Bush”[27].

Smooth rhetoric aside, as of yet there is precious little that distinguishes President Obama from his Republican forerunner in terms of foreign policy and the rolling out of a draconian police state within the United States. It is looking increasingly unlikely with each passing day that those who were wooed by the most expensive presidential campaign in U.S. history and swept Barack Obama into the White House on an unprecedented wave of popular fervour will stand up and hold the new President to account for the flagrant violations of his campaign’s principles that are already piling up within the first hundred days of his term in office.

Tom Kavanagh

[1] January 2008 – Update on Iraqi Casualty Data, http://www.opinion.co.uk/Newsroom_details.aspx?NewsId=88

[2] Obama calls for the immediate withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-481393/Obama-calls-immediate-withdrawal-US-combat-troops-Iraq.html

[3] US election: Barack Obama wobbles on withdrawing Iraq troops, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/barackobama/2243536/US-election-Barack-Obama-wobbles-on-withdrawing-Iraq-troops.html

[4] Obama weighing 23-month Iraq withdrawal option, http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1233304707882&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull

[5] Democrats voice concerns on Obama’s Iraq drawdown plan, http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/27/iraq.dems/

[6] Up to 30,000 new US troops in Afghanistan by mid-2009: Mullen, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5j8aaFy5REgT_h1Pvsiar04fxldcA

[7] OBAMA: SEND 7,000 MORE TROOPS, http://www.nypost.com/seven/07202008/news/worldnews/obama__send_7_000_more_troops_120759.htm

[8] New Afghanistan strategy will target Taliban, pressure Pakistan and add non-military tactics to war, http://www.mlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2009/03/new_afghanistan_strategy_will.html

[9] Obama: Bush’s Pak incursions, small step, http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=69518&sectionid=3510203

[10] Obama warns Pakistan on al-Qaeda, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6926663.stm

[11] Obama air strikes kill 22 in Pakistan, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article5581084.ece

[12] Obama on Iran: Take off the Kid Gloves, http://www.suntimes.com/news/politics/281249,CST-NWS-OBAMA03.article

[13] Obama offers Iran ‘new beginning’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7954211.stm

[14] Obama renews US sanctions on Iran, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7941031.stm

[15] Gates prefers sanctions to diplomacy for Iran, http://www.france24.com/en/20090329-gates-prefers-sanctions-diplomacy-iran

[16] Rosner’s Blog: Obama Supports Israel. Period., http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/rosnerBlog.jhtml?itemNo=832667&contrassID=25&subContrassID=0&sbSubContrassID=1&listSrc=Y&art=1

[17] CRS Report for Congress – U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33222.pdf

[18] US & Israel in $30 bn arms deal, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6948981.stm

[19] Rahm Emanuel brings strong Wall Street ties to White House, http://news.muckety.com/2008/11/07/rahm-emanuel-brings-strong-wall-street-ties-to-white-house/6451

[20] Wall Street puts its money behind Obama, http://uk.reuters.com/article/stocksNews/idUKNOA53525520080605

[21] Obama picks lobbyist as Pentagon No. 2, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uslatest/story/0,,-8220924,00.html

[22] Another Lobbyist Headed Into Obama Administration, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=6735898&page=1

[23] Obama AG Pick Lobbied for Dicey Telco Deal, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=6302394

[24] Obama Finds Room for Lobbyists, http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0109/18128.html

[25] Obama signs order to close Guantanamo Bay facility, http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/01/22/guantanamo.order/index.html

[26] Obama preserves renditions as counter-terrorism tool, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/washingtondc/la-na-rendition1-2009feb01,0,4661244.story

[27] Ann Coulter offers mild praise for Obama, http://www.cnsnews.com/public/content/article.aspx?RsrcID=44283

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First foreign journalists to enter South Ossetia since summer conflict find evidence of Georgian war crimes

The first unrestricted visit by a foreign news organisation to South Ossetia since the violent conflict that erupted in the breakaway Georgian province in August has uncovered evidence that the Georgian military indiscriminately targeted civilians during the unsuccessful attempt to re-conquer the territory.

Georgia said at the time that the assault was launched in response to increasing attacks on its own villages by militia groups in South Ossetia, although it later abandoned this explanation, claiming its actions were provoked by an earlier Russian invasion.

Journalists from the BBC were able to ascertain statements from eyewitnesses in the province’s capital Tskhinvali, many of whom described witnessing Georgian tanks firing indiscriminately into populated apartment blocks and seeing civilians being shot in cold blood as they attempted to flee the fighting, the news organisation reported on 28 October 2008. Indiscriminate use of force is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and serious violations are considered war crimes. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev described the Georgian offensive in South Ossetia as “genocide”.

The mother of 21-year old dental student Georgy Tadtayev, who was killed during the fighting, told the BBC that her son had bled to death in her arms on the morning of 9 August after a fragment from a Georgian tank shell hit him in the throat as they were both sheltering from artillery fire in the basement of her block of flats.

Mrs. Sitnik said she subsequently saw the tank positioned a few metres from the building, firing shells into every floor, and BBC journalists reported that extensive damage to the five-storey block was consistent with her version of events.

According to Mrs. Sitnik, “They started firing not from rifles, but from heavy weapons. Shells were exploding. And we sat here on boxes. We thought it would end, but the firing got heavier and heavier. They went on firing all the next day without stopping. At some point there was a pause, and we saw Georgian soldiers going along the street in their NATO uniforms. Then they started firing again, even more heavily.”

She continued, “The Grad rockets were coming over all the time. How can you trust those people now? What possible friendship can there be? Let them all be cursed, cursed for the deaths of our children.”

These revelations are unlikely to surprise observers in Russia, whose government maintained from the outset that the conflict had started following a ruthless Georgian offensive targeted specifically at civilians and Russian peacekeepers stationed in South Ossetia, however many Western politicians outwardly rejected that version of events. Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin described the Russian invasion of Georgia that followed the attack on South Ossetia as “unprovoked” in an interview with ABC News. British Conservative leader David Cameron, who visited Georgia to show solidarity with its government immediately following the start of the conflict, stated on 27 August “We have got to confront that [Russian] aggression and take a series of steps to point out to the Russians the errors of their ways.”

British foreign secretary David Miliband visited the Georgian capital of Tbilisi soon after the start of the conflict, saying that Georgia had been offered a “route map to [NATO] membership”, and went on to state that, “In practical terms, NATO is offering close cooperation with the Georgian government and the Georgian military. That means helping the Georgians build up their [military] capacity.” Some within Miliband’s party questioned endorsing the Georgian government at a time when many international observers were accusing the former Soviet state of recklessness and of provoking the ensuing conflict with Russia. Miliband said he took allegations of war crimes “extremely seriously” and had raised them “at the highest level” with the Georgian government.

The Russian prosecutor’s office is investigating more than 300 possible cases of civilians killed by the Georgian military, some of whom may have been Ossetian paramilitaries, but the charity Human Rights Watch believes the figure of 300-400 civilians is a “useful starting point”, a figure that would represent more than 1% of the population of Tskhinvali.

Allison Gill, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch which has stated that it had researches on the ground in South Ossetia as early as 12 August, said: “We’re very concerned at the use of indiscriminate force by the Georgian military in Tskhinvali. We gained evidence and witness testimony of Grad rocket attacks and tank attacks on apartment buildings, including tank attacks that shot at the basement level. And basements are typically areas where civilians will hide for their own protection. So all of this points to the misuse, the inappropriate use of force by Georgia against civilian targets,” she affirmed.

It is of extreme importance to note that whilst human rights groups and charities condemned the Georgian regime for the brutality of its attack on South Ossetia, equally strong language was used to condemn the “disproportionate” Russian onslaught of Georgia that followed and led to a considerable number of deaths and many thousands of Georgians being displaced. Georgian officials confirmed that 188 Georgian civilians had been killed in the conflict and that a further 912 are missing.

Although HRW only spoke of a “possible” deliberate targeting of civilians by Georgia, eyewitnesses confirmed to the BBC that Georgian forces had targeted unarmed civilians.

Marina Kochieva, a doctor at Tskhinvali’s main hospital, says she herself was targeted by a Georgian tank as she and three relatives were trying to escape by car from the town on the night of 9 August. Ms Kochieva says a nurse from her hospital was killed while fleeing Tskhinvali in similar circumstances. Describing the attack on her car in response to being asked if it was possible that she and her passengers had been mistaken for combatants by Georgian troops, the doctor stated that “Fighters wouldn’t have gone away from town, they would have gone towards town. We were escaping like other refugees. The Georgians knew this was the ‘Road of Life’ for Ossetians. They were sitting here waiting to kill us,” she said.

Georgia’s Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili told the BBC, “I can firmly say that the Georgian military, on intention, never attacked directly any civilian object. Tkeshelashvili stated that an “in-depth military assessment needs to be done” before it can be ascertained whether any individual Georgian troops deliberately targeted civilians.

The BBC referred to what it called “the cycle of revenge” when describing the destruction of ethnic Georgian homes in South Ossetia by Ossetians in the immediate aftermath of the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali. One young man who said that he had been involved in the burning of ethnic Georgian homes was asked if he had taken part in ethnic cleansing and responded; “No, it wasn’t ethnic cleansing. No-one was killed there. We just let them go from our land. I don’t know whether they will return or not. But I did everything I could for them not to return. Never. You can call it ethnic cleaning, but I think I just did it to prevent a future war,” he said.

Thousands of Georgian opposition activists took part in a demonstration in Tbilisi on 7 November, their first major protest since the conflict, accusing President Mikhail Saakashvili of starting a war with Russia that Georgia could not win. “We are starting a new wave of civil confrontation, and we will not give up until new elections are called,” opposition leader Kakha Kukava said. Such a demonstration shows considerable courage; one year ago opposition rallies were broken up by police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons in a crackdown that ended days of protests but opened the Georgian government up to accusations of heavy-handedness.

Tom Kavanagh

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