Saturday, June 23, 2012

Washington wants its own "String of Pearls" back: Part I

Today's Washington Post covers the recent effort by the Pentagon to establishing new military basing agreements in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand, in line with the U.S.'s recent push to remilitarize the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.  Most interesting is the fact that all of the bases the Pentagon wishes to utilize were at one time bastions of American Cold War Power, which over the past 30 years the U.S. had been kicked out of.
Source: Washington Post

Part I: Thailand
Most recently, U.S. military officials, led by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey visited Thailand, where the major point of discussion was building a U.S. designed "regional disaster hub" at the U-Tapao Air Field, located 90 miles south of Bangkok.  NASA also has its eye on U-Tapao, as a headquarters of a proposed "Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study," which will take place in August and September.  NASA has given Thailand a deadline of June 26th to allow or disallow the NASA project.

U-Tapao, which is currently run by the Royal Thai Navy, was constructed in 1965 by the U.S. military as a staging ground for the Vietnam War.  During the war, U Tapao's two-mile long runway served as a launching point for squadrons of B-52 bombers, which then flew north to drop ungodly tonnages of firepower on Vietnam (both North and South), Cambodia, and Laos.  In 1976, the U.S. withdrew its military from the base on request from the Thai government, however by the 1980's the Pentagon's access had begun to creep back.  Starting in 1981, the Cobra Gold military exercises between the U.S., Singapore and Thailand were held annually at the base.   After 9/11, Thailand was deemed a "major non-NATO ally" of the U.S. "war on terror," and sent 423 soldiers to Iraq between 2003-2004.  The Thai government also allowed U.S. military aircraft to stop at Thai airfields, including U-Tapao, on their way to the Middle East.  These developments, however, were kept quiet at the request of the Thai government, which wished to put forward a purportedly "neutral" stance on the U.S. invasion.

The most controversial part of this new alliance was the CIA's use of Thailand to host "black site" prisons and interrogation centers.  Although the location of these sites with Thailand is still contested, U-Tapao is thought to be a possible location.  As early as 2003, the New York Times reported that
Utapao is also probably where Qaeda operatives have been interrogated, retired American intelligence officials said, explaining that the base had facilities for sophisticated interrogations.  Last year, according to other American officials, at least two senior Qaeda operatives were brought here for interrogation -- Abu Zubaydah, thought to have been Al Qaeda's operations chief, and Ramzi bin al- Shibh, a planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Washington Post's famous article on the CIA Black Sites, written in 2005 by Dana Priest, elaborated on the details:

By mid-2002, the CIA had worked out secret black-site deals with two countries, including Thailand and one Eastern European nation, current and former officials said. An estimated $100 million was tucked inside the classified annex of the first supplemental Afghanistan appropriation. 
Many reports, including Priest's, indicate that the Thai black sites were closed at the end of 2002, replaced by similar sites in Poland.  Recently, however, evidence has come to light that this was not the case, as one man has testified that in 2004 both he and his pregnant wife were detained and tortured by the U.S. at Bangkok's Don Muang airport.  The man in question, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, was a veteran terrorist , an original participant in the anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad and subsequently a leader in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.  In 2004, at the time of Belhaj's capture, Libya was a new ally in the "War on Terror," and Anglo-American leaders were quick to help Gaddafi with security policies, and as such renditioned Belhaj and his wife back to Libya (stopping on the way at UK sovereign territory at Diego Garcia), where he was imprisoned and tortured for a further six years.

When the Anglo-American alliance pulled an about face and overthrew Gaddafi in 2011, Bellhaj became one of the main commanders of the rebel forces that took Tripoli.  Concurrently, Human Rights Watch discovered documents at the abandoned Libyan Intelligence Headquarters that implicated the UK as having been central to Belhaj's torture and renditions.  As it was put by the Guardian Newspaper, Belhaj was "a gift" to Gaddafi, one that was given at a fortuitous time:
Two weeks after the couple were rendered to Libya, Tony Blair paid his first visit to the country, embracing Gaddafi and declaring that Libya had recognised "a common cause, with us, in the fight against al-Qaida extremism and terrorism". At the same time, in London, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell announced that it had signed a £110m deal for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast
Seeing these new documents, and taking advantage of his new position of power, Belhaj subsequently sued the UK government over his rendition.

One of the most troubling repercussions that sprung from the Thailand Black Sites is the use of the CIA's infamous "enhanced interrogation" method's by the Thai military against Southern Muslim dissidents.  An article from Asia Times Online explains that, "Thai security officials have recently used torture techniques ranging from sleep deprivation, forced nudity, exposure to extreme temperatures and even the threat to release German Shepherd guard dogs on detainees during interrogations."  The first thing that comes to mind at the mention of these practices are the infamous Abu Ghraib photos.

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