Johann Hari: Obama's secret prisons in Afghanistan endanger us all

He was elected in part to drag us out of this trap. Instead, he's dragging us further in

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Osama bin Laden's favourite son, Omar, recently abandoned his father's cave in favour of spending his time dancing and drooling in the nightclubs of Damascus. The tang of freedom almost always trumps Islamist fanaticism in the end: three million people abandoned the Puritan hell of Taliban Afghanistan for freer countries, while only a few thousand faith-addled fanatics ever travelled the other way. Osama's vision can't even inspire his own kids. But Omar bin Laden says his father is banking on one thing to shore up his flailing, failing cause – and we are giving it to him.

The day George W Bush was elected, Omar says, "my father was so happy. This is the kind of president he needs – one who will attack and spend money and break [his own] country". Osama wanted the US and Europe to make his story about the world ring true in every mosque and every mountain-top and every souq. He said our countries were bent on looting Muslim countries of their resources, and any talk of civil liberties or democracy was a hypocritical facade. The jihadis I have interviewed – from London to Gaza to Syria – said their ranks swelled with each new whiff of Bushism as more and more were persuaded. It was like trying to extinguish fire with a blowtorch.

The revelations this week about how the CIA and British authorities handed over a suspected jihadi to torturers in Pakistan may sound at first glance like a hangover from the Bush years. Barack Obama was elected, in part, to drag us out of this trap – but in practice he is dragging us further in. He is escalating the war in Afghanistan, and has taken the war to another Muslim country. The CIA and hired mercenaries are now operating on Obama's orders inside Pakistan, where they are sending unarmed drones to drop bombs and sending secret agents to snatch suspects. The casualties are overwhelmingly civilians. We may not have noticed, but the Muslim world has: check out Al Jazeera any night.

Obama ran on an inspiring promise to shut down Bush's network of kidnappings and secret prisons. He said bluntly: "I do not want to hear this is a new world and we face a new kind of enemy. I know that... but as a parent I can also imagine the terror I would feel if one of my family members were rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to Guantanamo without even getting one chance to ask why they were being held and being able to prove their innocence." He said it made the US "less safe" because any gain in safety by Gitmo-ing one suspected jihadi – along with dozens of innocents – is wiped out by the huge number of young men tipped over into the vile madness of jihadism by seeing their brothers disappear into a vast military machine where they may never be heard from again. Indeed, following the failed attack in Detroit, Obama pointed out the wannabe-murderer named Guantanamo as the reason he signed up for the jihad.

Yet a string of recent exposes has shown that Obama is in fact maintaining a battery of secret prisons where people are held without charge indefinitely – and he is even expanding them. The Kabul-based journalist Anand Gopal has written a remarkable expose for The Nation magazine. His story begins in the Afghan village of Zaiwalat at 3.15am on the night of November 19th 2009. A platoon of US soldiers blasted their way into a house in search of Habib ur-Rahman, a young computer programmer and government employee who they had been told by someone, somewhere was a secret Talibanist. His two cousins came out to see what the noise was – and they were shot to death. As the children of the house screamed, Habib was bundled into a helicopter and whisked away. He has never been seen since. His family do not know if he is alive or dead.

This is not an unusual event in Afghanistan today. In this small village of 300 people, some 16 men have been "disappeared" by the US and 10 killed in night raids in the past two years. The locals believe people are simply settling old clan feuds by telling the Americans their rivals are jihadists. Habib's cousin Qarar, who works for the Afghan government, says: "I used to go on TV and argue that people should support the government and the foreigners. But I was wrong. Why should anyone do so?"

Where are all these men vanishing to? Obama ordered the closing of the CIA's secret prisons, but not those run by Joint Special Operations. They maintain a Bermuda Triangle of jails with the notorious Bagram Air Base at its centre. One of the few outsiders has been into this ex-Soviet air-hangar is the military prosecutor Stuart Couch. He says: "In my view, having visited Guantanamo several times, the Bagram facility made Guantanamo look like a nice hotel. The men did not appear to be able to move around at will, they mostly sat in rows on the floor. It smelled like the monkey house at the zoo."

We know that at least two innocent young men were tortured to death in Bagram. Der Spiegel has documented how some "inmates were raped with sticks or threatened with anal sex". The accounts of released prisoners suggest the very worst abuses stopped in the last few years of the Bush administration, and Obama is supposed to have forbidden torture, but it's hard to tell. We do know Obama has permitted the use of solitary confinement lasting for years – a process that often drives people insane. The International Red Cross has been allowed to visit some of them, but in highly restricted circumstances, and their reports remain confidential. In this darkness, abuse becomes far more likely.

The Obama administration is appealing against US court rulings insisting the detainees have the right to make a legal case against their arbitrary imprisonment. And the White House is insisting they can forcibly snatch anyone they suspect from anywhere in the world – with no legal process – and take them there. Yes: Obama is fighting for the principles behind Guantanamo Bay. The frenzied debate about whether the actual camp in Cuba is closed is a distraction, since he is proposing to simply relocate it to less sunny climes.

Once you vanish into this system, you have no way to get yourself out. The New York lawyer Tina Foster represents three men who were kidnapped by US forces in Thailand, Pakistan and Dubai and bundled to Bagram, where they have been held without charge for seven years now. She tells me there have been "shockingly few improvements" under Obama. "The Bush administration rubbed our faces in it, while Obama's much smoother. But the reality is still indefinite detention without charge for people who are judged guilty simply by association. It's contrary to everything we stand for as a country... I know there are children [in there] from personal experience. I have interviewed dozens of children who were detained in Bagram, some as young as 10."

Today, Bagram is being given a $60m expansion, allowing it to hold five times as many prisoners as Guantanamo Bay currently does. Gopal reports that the abuse is leaking out to other, more secretive sites across Afghanistan. They are so underground they are known only by the names given to them by released inmates – the Salt Pit, the Prison of Darkness. Obama also asserts his right to hand over the prisoners to countries that commit torture, provided they give a written "assurance" they won't be "abused" – assurances that have proved worthless in the past. The British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith estimates there are 18,000 people trapped in these "legal black holes" by the US.

As Obama warned in the distant days of the election campaign, these policies place us all in greater danger. Matthew Alexander, the senior interrogator in Iraq who tracked down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, says: "I listened time and time again to captured foreign fighters cite Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as their main reason for coming to Iraq to fight... We have lost hundreds if not thousands of American lives because of our policy." The increased risk bleeds out onto the London Underground and the nightclubs of Bali. I oppose these policies precisely because I want to be safe, and I loathe jihadism.

President Obama has been tossing aside the calm jihad-draining insights of candidate Obama for a year now. Whenever Obama acts like Bush, listen carefully – you will hear the distant, delighted chuckle of Osama bin Laden, and the needless stomp of fresh recruits heading his way.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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