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Advocates for Bagram Prisoners Hopeful but Cautious About New Afghanistan Strategy

President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan, which Spencer has been reporting on in detail, is being greeted with cautious optimism from lawyers representing

Dexter Cooke
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Mar 27, 2009

President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan, which Spencer has been reporting on in detail, is being greeted with cautious optimism from lawyers representing prisoners held at the U.S.-run prison at Bagram air base, Afghanistan. But those lawyers — who are representing prisoners picked up around the world and locked up at Bagram for years, with fewer rights than prisoners have even at Guantanamo Bay — have been disappointed before.

“The strategy as announced is encouraging,” said Tina Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network, which represents Bagram detainees seeking habeas corpus relief in federal court, told me today. “Of course, we’ve seen from President Obama in the past that encouraging words and pronouncements don’t necessarily translate into actions consistent with those words.”

Foster was referring to the fact that President Obama, despite promising to close Guantanamo Bay and improve U.S. detention policies, has kept up the Bush administration’s argument that detainees at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan have no habeas corpus rights — or any other constitutional rights, for that matter.

Bagram therefore has the potential to become, as I’ve written before, Obama’s Gitmo — and actually, far worse.  That’s because while there are about 240 detainees at Guantanamo, there are more than 600 at Bagram. And a surge of troops and a stepped-up U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, as President Obama is promising, will likely add many more prisoners to their ranks.

“I’m encouraged by the fact that the Afghan strategy recognizes the importance of the civilian population at the local level,” said Foster, who’s one of very few U.S.-based lawyers that have actually been to Afghanistan to try to see the prisoners and meet with their families. (The U.S. military does not allow its prisoners at Bagram to meet with lawyers, so she’s been able to see only those prisoners who have been released.)

“But he has to change the policy with respect to prisoners at Bagram, otherwise there will be no credibility for all of these new civilian and military forces being sent to partner with the local population in Afghanistan to build a new society,” said Foster. “If at the same  the U.S. is illegally detaining hundreds of Afghan civilians without legal basis, that has to change in order to have credibility.”

“There’s a large section of the Afghan population that would prefer to go back to the Taliban because since the U.S. invasion things have been so horrible and they’ve suffered so much,”  she added. “So you have to show some progress. Time is running out.”

The Obama administration’s commitment to working with the Afghan population to support their nation’s development ought to include extending to prisoners at Bagram the right to meaningfully challenge their detention — to make sure the U.S. military is at least holding the right people this time.

Dexter Cooke | He is an orthopedic surgeon who insists that a physician's first priority should be patient care. He specializes in minimally invasive complete knee replacement surgery and laparoscopic procedures that reduce pain and recovery time. He graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina with a medical degree and a postdoctoral fellowship in orthopedic medicine.


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