Will Guantanamo Become America’s Auschwitz?

It's time to shut it down and end the War on Terror.

How do you officially end something so arbitrary that it’s never even been formally defined? With American troops gone from Iraq and withdrawal from Afghanistan now in sight, that’s a question the Obama administration better be thinking long and hard about.

Ready or not, the “Global War on Terror” – that abstruse and meandering campaign that by most accounts commenced in 2001, but has been retroactively applied, when necessary – is nearing its expiration date.

Let me be clear: that’s not to say the specter of international terrorism won’t remain a primary threat to U.S. interests. The Salafist revival in North Africa and the Levant, and the Islamist infiltration of the Free Syrian Army remain pressing national security concerns; what’s more, the future stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan – where the Taliban is now comfortably entrenched – presents a geopolitical conundrum of epic proportion.

But with most if not all of the original 9/11 masterminds dead or in custody, the Taliban struggling to hold on to hard-won Afghan territory, and Osama bin Laden’s once-formidable al-Qaeda network shattered into a leaderless confederation of fighters  more interested in taking on the “near enemy” than battling the “Great Satan,” it will be hard for officials in Washington to convince the American taxpayer for much longer that the original mission – to the extent there was one – has not been accomplished.

Estimates vary, but to date U.S. taxpayers have pumped somewhere in the range of $4-6 trillion into the War on Terror. That kind of sacrifice demands closure. We The People want out.

To end the war gracefully, however, President Obama needs to begin laying the groundwork for a thoughtful exit strategy. Unfortunately, with the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress made it a little harder for him to do that when it (once again) took away his power to decommission the most enduring symbol of U.S. excess in the War on Terror: the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Now into its 11th year of operation, Gitmo is shaping up to be an albatross for the Obama administration. Since the first detainees arrived in January 2002, a total of 779 men and boys have been brought through the camp, most of whom were released without charge after being held for years. Only six of the 166 men who remain there – including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his 9/11 co-conspirators – have been charged with a crime, while more than half  have been cleared for release or transfer but remain incarcerated anyway.  The rest fall into a gray area, having been deemed too dangerous to release, but too innocent to try – by which I mean the government doesn’t have enough evidence against them to legally justify holding them.

Lucky for them, it doesn’t need any. Not yet, anyway.  Under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force passed by Congress, an enemy combatant – defined, as far as I can tell, as any human being with so much as the inclination to do us harm (even when that inclination is spoon fed by the FBI) – may be extrajudicially detained until the cessation of hostilities. Most people take that to mean the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; but the notoriously vague and open-ended AUMF includes no such verbiage beyond making the general concession that the enemy-of-the-day should have at least some tangential link to the lunatics that orchestrated and carried out the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

To date it’s been pretty easy to use that broad brush to paint terror suspects into the corner of indefinite detention without charge at Guantanamo Bay. But it’s only a matter of time before we run out of paint. And once the President is deprived of his magical war powers card, all justification for the continued detention of all but six of the Guantanamo detainees goes out the window. Last November, an Obama administration official took the unprecedented step of declaring that time close at hand. In a speech before the Oxford Union in the U.K., Jeh Johnson, at the time a general counsel at the Department of Defense, said we are nearing a “tipping point” after which it will be hard to justify a continued armed conflict with the group known as al-Qaeda.

“War must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs,” he said.

There will be no Appomattox or Versailles to put the closing book end on the War on Terror. The Obama administration, with the help of congressional leaders, must do that itself.  If it doesn’t, and it continues to fight an open-ended conflict with a mission that is vague and undefined, Guantanamo will go down in history as one of those places – like Wounded Knee, Bataan, Nanking or Auschwitz – whose name alone echoes the shame of a nation. Then again, it may be too late to avoid that.