Ghost Wars: The War on Terror and those who are ‘Disappeared’

On the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, guest-bloggers Professor Caroline Kennedy-Pipe and Dr Thomas Waldman lay bare the scope and ongoing toll of disappearance as a tool of war.

The events of 9/11 produced many unexpected outcomes. First, in reaction to the multiple attacks on the US homeland, the Bush Administration started two wars. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to topple Taliban – the group which had provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden – turned out to be not just the longest war in US history but perhaps also the most expensive. With the recent commitment made by President Trump to deploy additional troops, that fighting is far from over. The second war against Iraq in 2003 is now at an end at least officially for the Americans but has spawned the ugly and dangerous civil war in Syria, opening up what has been dubbed a new Cold War. (President Assad is backed by the Kremlin and Western states, as demonstrated after the Russian annexation of Crimea and subsequent invasion of Ukraine, are unwilling to enter in to direct confrontation with President Putin.)

Many parts of the 9/11 story are well known. So the unfolding military catastrophe in Iraq after 2003 caused at least in part by a misguided over-confidence in the abilities of the US and UK militaries to win hearts and minds are well documented, as are the blunders and bungles of US officials determined to eradicate Baathism in the new institutional structures of an occupied country. Also familiar was the growing concern both in Iraq and Afghanistan over casualties on all sides, although the loss and maiming of Coalition troops took priority for many Western politicians. Human Rights monitoring groups pointed to the complexity of counting civilian casualties especially in the face of obstruction and obfuscation from both the Bush and Obama White Houses. Beneath statistics there were also stories.

These wars have thrown up a number of issues that continue to haunt Western consciences. Vast and historically unprecedented numbers of displaced peoples from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have been scattered throughout these countries, the wider region and beyond. Aside from being uprooted from home and hearth, the psychological trauma is untold. As it is too for those countless veterans of the West’s wars suffering from severe PTSD in Western societies, battling their own personal demons. While much of the rest of society looks uncomfortably askance at the victims; these are just some of the ghosts of the war on terror in our midst that we don’t want or don’t know how to acknowledge.  Yet there are many more other victims.

Amongst all of this too is the series of extraordinary measures taken by President Bush and followed up by President Obama (through drone strikes) to ‘root out’ and ‘finish’ those suspected of membership of al-Qaeda or its numerous affiliated groups. The War on Terror proclaimed by Bush gave rise to a series of measures such as incarceration, rendition, black sites and extra-judicial killings by drone strikes. All of these measures found their way in to the lexicon of US tactics to defeat enemies who had or would plot to destroy the US. The abuses in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (already a place of considerable fear under Saddam), Bagram air base in Afghanistan and the Guantanamo prisons in Cuba ignited a debate over the vices and virtues of physically and mentally hurting men, women and children to extract information, real or imagined.

Bound, hooded captives, being flown to Guantanamo. Unidentified employee of the United States Department of Defense. Public Domain.
Detainees in orange jumpsuits in a holding area at Camp X-Ray at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Jan. 11, 2002. DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy. Public Domain.

President Bush and those around him when not denying such practices justified the expediency of torture or their preferred term ‘enhanced interrogation’ with considerable zeal. Just six days after the 9/11 attacks Bush signed a sweeping ‘finding’ which gifted to the CIA a broad authorisation to disrupt terrorist activities including permission to kill, capture and detain members of al-Qaeda. The belief was that these terrorists would, under pressure, yield valuable information. It was however illegal for the government to hold prisoners in secret locations within the United States. This was why the CIA had to place the suspects overseas in a ‘netherworld.’ Of which more later.

Beneath the official versions of why people are tortured and held in isolation and the various justifications for physically and abusing many hundreds of people there are the ‘disappeared’; those who are unaccounted for – at least officially. In most wars there are ‘invisible’ groups – those who do not really matter to the business of the state or of war. There are also those who are regarded by the state as subversive or dangerous and who therefore must be ‘dealt’ with  and who disappear – categorised by their captors in some cases as ‘ghosts’.

Historically, those who ‘disappear’ have been the target of fascist regimes as in Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain or more recently by Latin American state cliques. Leftists and terrorists disappeared throughout the 1970s and 1980s in Chile, El Salvador, Honduras and Colombia. Most notably the’ disappeared’ are associated with ‘dirty wars’ during the dark days of Argentine authoritarism or regimes not known for the prizing of civil liberties. Hence Algerians suffered during the chaotic politics of the 1990s with many thousands ‘disappeared’. Morocco too finally released hundreds of people illegally held since the 1960s in a variety of make-shift prisons and holding facilities after years of incarceration.

One of the mass graves discovered in an excavation from July–August of 2014 at Estépar (Burgos). Dating from the start of the Spanish Civil War, the grave contains twenty-six republicans who were killed by nationalists in August-September 1936. Photograph by Mario Modesto Mata, used under creative commons licence.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and the London bombings of July 2005, it was widely reported that Pakistani authorities rounded up literally thousands of men accused of being militants. These men abruptly disappeared. It is claimed that some 10,000 Pakistanis have mysteriously vanished, detained by the security agencies. Before 2001, the ‘disappeared’ in Pakistan were primarily ethnic nationalists from Balochistan but the ‘practise’ widened after 9/11 often in return for a ‘bounty’. President Pervez Musharraf explained that just two days after the attacks he was provided with a list of demands by the Americans to open up Pakistani domestic lists of suspects for scrutiny to  the CIA.

It was the US Government which, from 2001 onwards, constructed the wide array of detention facilities for terrorism suspects and others it believed or claimed to be implicated in the War on Terror. The system included the ‘informal’ transfer of terrorists (rendition) to sites both in the US and ones abroad controlled by foreign governments. This all occurred without safeguards or substantive protection of human rights. As noted earlier, in order to torture suspects they had to be held overseas by friendly governments. The CIA wanted a type of Alcatraz Island – a secure facility somewhere off shore. Original plans to detain suspects on ships in international waters was considered too logistically complicated. In this respect it was reliable ‘allies’ such as Egypt and Jordon who were called upon first even though other countries such as Zambia had been originally considered and  would be implicated in the running of ‘host’ detention facilities.

The War on terror though soon developed momentum and the US was shortly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of suspects. After the invasion of Afghanistan and the success of the mission to topple the Taliban, the CIA found itself with literally hundreds of prisoners captured on the battlegrounds of the country. To house these men many were placed in large metal containers in a secure corner of Bagram Air Base. In freezing and crowded conditions. Some died of asphyxiation. Rewards and bounties offered to helpful Afghans who identified ‘terrorists’ in the community simply led to wily tribal elites pinpointing their local rivals, who would then be promptly spirited away in ‘night raids’ by special forces. Thus, America inadvertently found itself playing the role of ‘hired muscle’ to the local mullah mafia.

In Iraq, as subsequent testimony and reporting has established, a ‘mosaic philosophy’ came to characterise detentions policy, whereby innocence was irrelevant – rather, many, mostly men, in or near ‘hot’ areas would be rounded up in order to extract as much information as possible, purportedly allowing commanders to build up a comprehensive picture of the battlefield. Although this only served to overwhelm the intelligence system, powerful pressures meant it was difficult to reverse course – officers in charge of detentions feared signing off on the release of those who might go on to commit future mass-casualty atrocities. So the question became one of how to ‘hold’ hundreds of potentially innocent or potentially guilty people when little concrete evidence was available and when international organisations and indeed the families of the missing were demanding to see the victims and monitor their conditions. The answer was that the victims had to ‘disappear’, either temporarily or permanently.

Enforced disappearance occurs when there is:

arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the state or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law’.


Prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq in 2003. Connected to dummy electrical wires under threat that stepping down from the box would cause his electrocution. In the Public Domain.

In 2004 Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defense admitted acting upon a request from George Tenet, the Director of the CIA, in which he had ordered an Iraqi national held in Camp Cropper in Iraq to be kept off the prisoner rolls – this so the prisoner would not be visible to the Red Cross. The man was been known simply as ‘Triple X’. A US Army investigation into the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib criticised the holding of ‘ghost detainees’. These were men who did not officially exist.

These measures were developed to allow the evasion of judicial or international scrutiny. Those held were put beyond the jurisdiction of the US courts and incarcerated at approximately 40 prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and places such as Uzbekistan. Some 54 countries are implicated in aiding the US, either holding and torturing prisoners or assisting with flights and airport transfers. Torture of course took place out of sight but with the sanction of the government and the array of medical officers available to oversee the punishment. The Vice President Dick Cheney infamously remarked in relation to allegations of torture at the Guantanamo prisons that the prisoners inhabited positive conditions something along the lines of a ‘Club Med’.

CIA Extraordinary Rendition and Detention Program – countries involved in the Program, according to the Open Society Foundation. Used under creative commons licence.

The US has acknowledged the detention of many but not of all prisoners. Some of those held and indeed tortured are not ‘innocents’. Many plotted and planned and executed destruction and rained mayhem on to others. They are in some senses evil or, in the words of President Bush, ‘evil-doers’. Yet, whatever the defence of holding, rendering or disappearing prisoners there are and have been dark consequences.


Hypocrisy and double standards are perhaps staples of the foreign policies of most states. Liberal democracies however usually pride themselves on the upholding of international law and especially those international conventions that speak to human rights. The trajectory of the post Nuremberg era was to emphasise that genocide, torture and the abridgement of human rights was unacceptable. In this respect a type of moralism took over politics as Western states justified intervention – especially military intervention – not just against Communism but against violations of individual and group rights. Humanitarian intervention and saving strangers in danger became the hall mark of the post Cold War period. The Kosovo War was meant to end the century on a high note of removing a dictator and protecting civilians. The 9/11 wars and all that followed exposed the United States to sustained criticism of actions such as torture, rendition and disappearance. The country that sees itself as world’s greatest advocate of civil and political rights was embroiled in a systematic and institutionalised torture network. Perhaps of even more concern was the concerted attempt to justify the practises through the so called ‘torture memos’ authored by John Yoo that provided the legal rationale for actions which were in reality contrary to international law.

There is more than reputational damage here. Countries from Sudan to Zimbabwe have already cited the example of what occurred in Abu Ghraib to blunt criticisms of their own ugly policies of detention. More recently US condemnation of Assad detentions in Syria lacked moral authority even when there are over 65,000 disappeared with, as in Pakistan, mothers, wives and friends waiting outside prisons desperately seeking information.

President Obama called some of the excesses of the Bush Administration the  ‘greatest advertisement for Anti-American sentiment’ globally. In a bid to end some of the graver torture methods, in 2009 Obama prohibited techniques such as water boarding, ruling that only techniques as documented in the Army Field Manual could be utilised. President Obama himself though while acting to prevent some forms of torture started another debate about human rights and the limits of power. While objecting to the methods through which his predecessor had waged the war on terror the Democratic President escalated the war against the terrorists through the use of armed drone assassinations. Personally operating a ‘kill list’, those suspected of endangering the US were named, tracked down and killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Indeed President Obama became the first President since the Civil War to order the killing of an American born preacher and terrorist– Anwar al-Awalaki – in the badlands of Yemen.

MQ-1 Predator drone, the class of unmanned aircraft deployed against targets like Anwar al-Awalaki. Public Domain.

This assertion of a secret, unchecked power means that even if excessive torture is now forbidden the terrorists can be terminated from a safe distance on the word of the President. Not held, not tortured, simply ‘finished’. Whether there is a kind of moral equivalence between torture and killing with armed drones is now part of the serious chatter in Washington. This is important as President Trump has made it clear that he believes torture ‘absolutely’ works and that armed drones provide useful options in the ever widening war against ISIS and global terrorism. David Cole has argued ‘unchecked and unacknowledged lethal power is the stuff of forced disappearances in tyrannous banana republics not great democracies.’ Yet in the War on Terror people did just ‘disappear’ at the behest of a democratic government. This is something to ponder and remember on August 30.

Caroline Kennedy-Pipe is Professor of War Studies at the University of Hull.

Dr Thomas Waldman is Lecturer in Security Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s