Pakistan to help as the US's jailer By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - With the George W Bush administration under pressure to close the
US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Pakistan is readying to step in
to help its ally in the "war on the terror".
Both US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates
have suggested that President Bush transfer Guantanamo's detainees to the
United States, saying the facility is undercutting US foreign-policy efforts.
Should Bush not do so, it is likely that the joint military prison and
camp will be closed by the Democrat-controlled Congress. Vice President Dick
Cheney's office and the Justice Department oppose having Guantanamo prisoners
moved to the US.
The prison holds people suspected by the US of being al-Qaeda or Taliban
operatives, as well as those no longer considered suspects who are being held
The camp has drawn strong criticism both from within the US military and
worldwide for its extrajudicial detention of captives and acknowledgment that
the interrogation rules there opened the possibility that captives were being
tortured. To date, the Pentagon has only held military commissions for three
al-Qaeda members, out of the 375 or so detainees currently at Guantanamo.
Several hundred have been released over the past few years.
Asia Times Online has learned that the Bush administration is considering a
plan under which inmates would be returned to special facilities in their
countries of origin, where they would be treated on a case-by-case basis. There
are an estimated 65 or so Pakistanis in Guantanamo, including Khalid Sheik
Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
These special jails would be administered jointly by American and local
security staff. At the same time, the new jails in allied countries would also
house new suspects netted in the "war on terror".
A top Pakistani official told Asia Times Online that a special facility has
already been built in the city of Faisalabad, adjacent to Faisalabad Central
Prison. Another such facility is under construction in Multan and is expected
to be completed within the next few months. Work on a detention center adjacent
to Adyala Jail in Rawalpindi, the capital Islamabad's twin city, has just
These facilities are being funded by the US and will fall under the
jurisdiction of Pakistan's Ministry of Interior. Special staff will be deputed
to the centers to work in conjunction with US officials.
The Asia Times Online contact said similar facilities will be established in
Afghanistan, Egypt and other countries sympathetic to the "war on terror". Last
week, the Associated Press reported that the US is helping to expand a prison
in Afghanistan to take some detainees from Guantanamo. The report said a
high-security wing is being built at the Pul-e-Charki prison complex near the
capital Kabul. It will be capable of holding up to 660 people, Afghan officials
were reported as saying.
A special cell comprising various Pakistani intelligence agencies will
reinvestigate the cases of the returnees from Guantanamo and, after
coordination with US officials, will decide their fate.
On Osama's trail ... again
The detainees held by the US at Guantanamo were initially classified as "enemy
combatants", and as such it was argued that they were not entitled to the
protections of the Geneva Conventions. But the US Supreme Court ruled against
this interpretation on June 29, 2006. The next month, the Department of Defense
issued an internal memo stating that prisoners would in future be entitled to
protection under the conventions.
Herein lies the rub.
Washington is reluctant to abandon Guantanamo without arranging alternatives
where suspects can be interrogated without the interruptions of "normal" legal
procedures. Guantanamo was set up in the wake of September 11 with the specific
aim of tracking Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their al-Qaeda network.
This is a highly complex task in the belly of the terrorist world. It has
become even more difficult since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the
overlapping connections among the varied insurgency groups. Playing it by the
book, it's a tough world to crack.
Already in Pakistan the establishment plays loose with the rules. Asia Times
Online has learned that over the past few months several al-Qaeda members have
been rounded up, but they have not been formally arrested or charged, although
they are being interrogated about bin Laden and his colleagues.
The authorities fear that if they appeared in open court, information they
disclosed might alert al-Qaeda or, worse, they might be set free.
For example, it apparently took a year to track Abu Faraj al-Libby. Said to be
al-Qaeda's No 3, Libby was arrested by Pakistani authorities on May 4, 2005,
with four accomplices in the Pakistani tribal areas in North West Frontier
Pakistani security officials apprehended numerous al-Qaeda members while on the
trail of Libby, who had a US$10 million reward on his head. They were never
charged. "Had those persons been formally arrested, it would never have been
possible to stay on the trail of Abu Faraj al-Libby," a Pakistani security
official told Asia Times Online.
In theory, the facilities being built in Pakistan will not be classified as
"secret" and will be subject to the laws of the land, although they will be
used only for suspects in the "war on terror". Actual interrogation could be
carried out elsewhere.
Contacts confirmed that suspects would be kept in detention for a long time as
Pakistan does not want to be embarrassed, as happened with two men released
from Guantanamo: Abdullah Mehsud of the Pakistani tribal area of South
Waziristan and Mullah Shahzada of Afghanistan are both known to have joined the
Taliban. Mehsud was subsequently killed in a shootout with Pakistani security
forces in March 2005.
As the US realigns its detention system, so too has al-Qaeda changed. From
being a well-organized group at the time of September 11, al-Qaeda's financial
and logistical lifelines were all but broken. It has since regrouped and,
importantly, myriad groups linked to or inspired by al-Qaeda have sprung up in
any number of countries.
The "war on terror" is far from over.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.