Laleh Khalili, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2012.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Laleh Khalili (LK): In the course of completing my first book, I was performing some final interviews with Palestinian residents in Lebanon who had been detainees in Israel at various points over the last couple of decades. I was conducting these interviews when the news of Abu Ghraib tortures broke and pictures of detainees being held by leashes, of dogs attacking detainees, of the sexualized torture emerged. More than one interviewee told me that the images felt familiar. That was one of the first sparks.
But even more fundamentally, my parents had briefly been political prisoners in Iran in the early years after the revolution, and their experience had massively and devastatingly scarred my father and changed the course of our family’s life and history, so I have always had this visceral connection to the condition of imprisonment.
When this subcutaneous memory of my parents’ imprisonment came together with these raw interviews I was conducting, I went back and started to read about detention. The project changed, shifted terrain, expanded and contracted over the six or seven years of research that went into it. It ended up becoming a project about the way imprisonment, incarceration, and mass confinement have been central to the counterinsurgencies conducted by superior powers that claim adherence to liberal principles and precepts.
So I started with Israeli practices of confinement in Lebanon and Palestine and US detention and incarceration practices in its War on Terror and started going back in history. With each layer of history of confinement that I excavated, I felt like I had to go back deeper. In the end, the subsoil of the project turned out to be the Boer War, and the contemporaneous Spanish War on Cuba, and their concentration camps. The two or three wars that ended up mattering a great deal were the ones that today’s counterinsurgents themselves claim as the originary wars. For the US, it always goes back to the British Emergency in Malaya, the Algerian War of Independence, and, of course, the Vietnam War. For the Israelis, so much is an echo of the various British counterinsurgencies in Palestine, primarily in the 1930s against the Palestinian Arab Revolt, but also against Jewish insurgents in the 1940s.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
LK: I felt like an interloper a lot of the time that I was researching and writing this. I am writing about Algeria and Malaya and the Boer War, when these places are outside my geographic area of expertise (well, maybe not so much Algeria). I am engaging sociolegal writing, which is completely new to me. But, most cheekily of all, and most exhilaratingly, I had to learn to read the masculine, technically dense, and discursively complex language of the military—not sociology of military or War Studies, but of the military itself. I spent years lurking on military blogs and counterinsurgency blogs. I feel like I know the inside gossip on so many of the US counterinsurgents in particular. I found this perhaps most exhilarating because it is not everyday that someone engages this material from “a left-of-center, Russell Square perspective,” as one counterinsurgent himself called my perspective (which he neither liked nor welcomed).
I really do want these soldier-scholars to engage with my work, but I suspect they are personally, affectively, and intellectually invested in their project and may find my criticisms unwelcome. I am also sure I will run into the argument often bandied about on these blogs: “she has never served in the military, so what does she know?”
My work is supposed to be critical. I don’t plan on it “improving” US counterinsurgency or making it more humane. In much the same way that I take seriously the scholarship of these soldier-scholars on its own terms, I would also like to be able to say what I want to say from my critical vantage point without necessarily having a policy prescription ready to give.
I have always thought action emerges out of the dialogic process of thought-criticism-counter-criticism and of practice itself. So I hope the book is a very small contribution to this.
As for the disciplines, like most of the work that I do, I am an omnivorous discipline-crosser. I am afraid I don’t particularly like or respect disciplinary borders, and magpie-like I grab whatever shiny exciting thing grabs my attention. That means that this book in particular draws rather promiscuously from politics and international relations (my avowed discipline) but even more so from critical legal studies, anthropology, sociology, and history.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
LK: In a way, I have always been obsessed with border crossings. Perhaps this comes from my own life being about serial crossings of oceans, continents, borders. My first book, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine, was about how ideas—Third Worldist resistance, or humanitarianist suffering—travelled in different eras and came to color Palestinian representations of their own past, the violence done to them, and the processes of nation-making in which they had been engaged.
This work is also about border-crossing, of ideas—but this time of counterinsurgents, not the subaltern—of militaries, of military doctrine, of bodies (soldiers!).
The previous book was about a refugee camp in Palestine. This one is a rather broad sweep through a whole lot of different places. That book used ethnography; this one is eclectic in its choice of methods, but depends primarily on archival research and interviews.
I have to confess that in the course of conducting the research for this book I fell in love with archival research. I think Samuel Moyn has criticized the fetishization of the archive, but god, I love it. To me it is a profoundly embodied, visceral experience. I suppose being a bookworm explains this kind of strong physical reaction to working among musty documents!
Excerpt from Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies
The United States Department of Defense files for 765 Guantánamo Bay detainees run anywhere from one page to fifteen pages of dense, single-spaced text. The longer they are, the more clinical their accounts seem, supported as they are with a thicket of footnotes referring to enigmatic documents with a string of letters and numbers. The files for Abu Zubayda and Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, two of the most well-known “high-value-detainees” are examples of the latter. They are detailed records of the travels and activities of the men, apparently substantiated and verified by other detainees, or by other documents, including the 9/11 Commission Report, FBIS transcripts of foreign news, and various other sources. Neither of the documents mentions the waterboarding to which the two were subjected. Abu Zubayda’s file does not include any information about his pre-existing mental illness. Nor does it indicate where he was held between March 2002, when he was arrested, and September 2006, when he was moved to Guantánamo. Abu Zubayda is said to be “moderately compliant,” and his handful of “disciplinary infarctions involve meal refusal.” Khalid Shaykh Muhammad’s file includes a substantial sketch of his family members who are also involved with Al-Qa’ida, an account of his “masterminding” various attacks against the US, and his global web of agents. It also includes an intriguing footnote on his retained property after his arrest: “The Casio model F-9lW watch is linked to al-Qaida and radical Islamic terrorist improvised explosive devices. For further information refer to 000002 MFR 24-APR-2002, Casio Watch Electronic Analysis Report 19-Aug-2004, Casio Watches and Relationship to Detainees 20-Apr-2006.” But the file says nothing about where he was held between his capture in 2003 and his transfer to Guantánamo in 2006.
Among the leaked files, fourteen known detainees’ files are missing. The most intriguing is that of Yasir Isam Hamdi, whose case was discussed in the previous chapter. Hamdi, a US citizen of Saudi origin, was one of eighty prisoners who survived the prison-revolt and massacre at Afghanistan’s Qala Jangi fort in November 2001. He was transferred to Guantánamo Bay in January 2002, and when it was discovered that he has a US citizenship, to a Navy Brig in Norfolk, Virginia in April 2002. A petition for habeas corpus brought by his father finally reached the Supreme Court in 2004, and the Court rejected the US government’s appeal to hold Hamdi indefinitely without trial. He was then stripped of his citizenship and deported to Saudi Arabia. His file is missing.
Also excluded from this tranche of documents is the file of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, known from early on to have been the source of the rumour—presented as fact—that an Al Qa’ida representative had met with Saddam Husayn’s intelligence agents in the Czech Republic. His file is missing, because he never spent any time at all at Guantánamo. What we do know about his whereabouts is shadowy and relayed at several removes, but it seems that from the moment of his arrest in 2001 in Afghanistan, he was held at the Kandahar airport, and later moved to the prison ship USS Bataan, possibly held in CIA prisons in European countries, was rendered for torture to Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Jordan, and held thereafter in CIA “black” prisons in Afghanistan. Finally, in 2006, he was sent back to Libya, where startled Human Rights Watch representatives saw him briefly in the prison yard at the notorious Abu Salim gaol, and just as the lawyers for Abu Zubayda were hoping to contact him to verify where his story and Abu Zubayda’s intersected, Al-Libi was said to have “committed suicide” in prison.
The maps these detentions draw are not limited to the US, the territories it controls, or the battle spaces in which it has situated its military. Rather, the story of these detainees is one of collaboration, of alliances, mobilized to keep detainees invisible, and to extend the period during which they can be interrogated. The smooth functioning of imperium has always been a desiderata not easily secured by imperial officials. The costs of direct military and administrative presence are often prohibitive, and it is sometimes easy to find local allies—even if not permanently loyal—who will, in return for the favour of authority, power, or gain, do the bidding of imperial masters, at least for a while and until the possibility of independent power proves too irresistible. Nevertheless, indirect control by a client is often touted not only as the less costly—in lives, political cachet, and economic terms—exercise of authority, but also as an immensely convenient alibi, when squalid exercise of violence is called for.
[Excerpted from Laleh Khalili, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies, by permission of Stanford University Press. © 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]