The other drama
The headlines are all about the drama playing out in the streets of Boston, the earthquake in China that took at least 179 lives, and the explosion at a fertilizer plant that devastated a tiny town in Texas.
Far less attention is being paid to another important drama, one that fuels the anti-American hatred of many Islamists. That is the hunger strike among those still detained at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Over the weekend, it was reported that nearly half of the 166 prisoners being held there are on a hunger strike and that more than 10 percent of them were being force-fed.
Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, the deputy prison camps spokesman, said 77 of the captives are regarded as hunger strikers and that 17 of them were being force-fed via tubes snaked up their nose and into their stomach.
The number of strikers apparently rose by 14 prisoners overnight, given that the military had reported the figure at 63 on Friday. Five prisoners were hospitalized Saturday, said House, although he added that none of them “have any life-threatening conditions.”
Many must wonder why the prison is still functioning since President Barack Obama, two days after taking office nine years ago, declared that “the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.”
David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist, provided some background Sunday: “The United States began exploring the release of Taliban prisoners after Obama took office in 2009 … and his new special representative for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, was trying to open bargaining for a political settlement,” he wrote.
In April 2009, Holbrooke (who has since died) and others began talks with a former Taliban ambassador, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who had been released from Guantanamo, hoping to reach an agreement that in time would lead to the closing of the prison, Ignatius wrote. A former president of Afghanistan supported these talks, by the way.
A breakthrough seemed imminent in 2011, Ignatius added. Holbrooke’s successor and Taliban representatives agreed that the United States would release five Taliban prisoners and send them to Qatar. In return, the Taliban would publicly condemn international terrorism and release an American army sergeant, Bowe Berghdal, they’d held since 2009.
That deal collapsed when Afghan President Hamid Karzai protested that he hadn’t been involved. Karzai later relented, but by then the Taliban had lost interest.
“What made this exercise so frustrating was that the CIA had studied the five Taliban detainees who were slated for release and concluded that this would have no net effect on the military situation,” Ignatius wrote.
A British newspaper, The Observer, commented Saturday that “after 11 years, it is hard to see the rationale for keeping Guantanamo open.” It added that “indefinite detention of those cleared of any crime, or if those authorities have insufficient evidence to prosecute, is a gross violation of human rights.”
And it concluded with this key observation: “Until America closes Guantanamo Bay, it cannot, as it likes to, assert its moral authority over the rest of the world.”
Pundits can write all they want about the issues the Guantanamo situation raises, but the more spectacular news of the Boston bombings and other major developments overshadow those issues.
Even so, these issues deserve serious attention. Long after the headlines have moved on from the Boston bombings and the other big stories of the day, Guantanamo will affect us all.
President Obama, Congress and the Pentagon need to resolve this issue right away.