The Guantanamo Uighurs Are a Microcosm of the Afghan War

by Joshua Foust on 5/28/2009 · 3 comments

Steve LeVine got Sean Roberts—who has studied the Uighurs of Xinjiang for the better part of two decades—to write a guest post on the Guantanamo Uighurs:

Particularly discouraging is how little U.S. politicians actually know about the Uyghurs despite it being seven years since we essentially identified them as enemies in the war on terror.

His post really needs to be read in full. The way the U.S. has treated the Uighurs in Guantanamo—with a mixture of racism, assumption, and illegality, now mixed with outright xenophobia and ignorance in Congress—is, in many ways, a microcosm for how it’s conducted the war in Afghanistan until very recently.

Think of the story of Captain Kirk Black, who has been trying to resolve the complaints over the arrest of a man in Ghazni named Gul Khan. The U.S. authorities think he has a relationship with Qari Idris, a local Taliban commander—his relatives and friends dispute that and claim the U.S. is detaining an innocent man. As CPT Black sought to investigate the merits of the case—doing something the interrogators at Bagram apparently hadn’t done by speaking with Khan’s relatives—Black’s superiors forced him to drop the case and not discuss it with reporters.

Remarkably, that demonstrates an improvement in how the Coalition treats detainees at Bagram (there are no longer any more fatal beatings at the prison, at least as far as we know).

But, as Roberts reports, the entirety of the scare-mongering about the Uighurs specifically is just bizarre:

When one looks at all of this evidence (or lack there of), it is difficult to understand how the United States decided to place ETIM on a list of dangerous terrorist groups to begin with. Was this, in fact, a political act of appeasement to the Chinese government? Are there other groups on this list from elsewhere in the world that were likewise included among our enemies in the war on terror under dubious circumstances?

Undoubtedly, it is time to release the Guantanamo Uyghurs. In doing so, however, it may also be time to review our intelligence on ETIM and other alleged terrorist groups we are targeting in the war on terror, even indirectly through such methods as financial sanctions.

In all likelihood such a review will find that much of our intelligence on alleged terrorist groups like ETIM comes from foreign intelligence organizations in countries with a conflict of interest. It has not been a secret that we have increasingly relied on collaboration with intelligence services of tenuous allies in the war on terror, such as China, Russia, the Central Asian states, and Pakistan. Can such intelligence be trusted to help the United States decide who is our enemy?

Unfortunately, encouraging too much critical thinking, even among the current administration, is something of a losing game.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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junebug May 28, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Ahmed Rashid was pretty unambiguous on the point about ETIM in Descent into Chaos. Placing it on the list of terrorist organizations was nothing but a quid pro quo with the Chinese in order to get them on board with the Afghanistan war.

Transitionland May 29, 2009 at 12:57 am

I know way, way, way less than Sean Roberts does about Uighurs, but I’ve been aware for some time that Uighur militant groups, to the extent they’re actually militant, are nationalist in nature (that is, opposed to Chinese rule) and aren’t eyeing the West, and certainly not the United States. The Guantanamo Uighurs sound like fools who got caught up in things bigger than themselves. I mentioned on a blog ( that was pushing the “THEY WILL LURK UNDER YOUR CHILDREN’S BEDS AND KILL THEM WHILE THEY SLEEP!” line that uh, no, not likely.

With so many ignorant wingnuts shrieking “Do you want them living in your backyard!?” I’m glad to see Roberts come out and say he’d be ok having them as neighbors. I, too, would be fine with that.

If only someone, any member of the punditocracy would gather the guts to say the same, this “debate” might become a little more intelligent and a little less hysterical and childish.

Transitionland May 29, 2009 at 12:59 am

And does anyone really believe that the FBI won’t be watching these guys closely for years if they are released?

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