When I first started this column, the then editor agreed to an initial trial period. Neither of us was quite sure how it would go and how popular it might be with the readership. Well over a decade later, it is remarkable how enduring the column has been. So much so that I realised I started the column when Tony Blair was still the British prime minister. With this, my final column for the magazine, I finish with Boris Johnson in charge.
The first column addressed the United States' use of a naval station at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. It focussed in on the practice of extraordinary rendition and the global geographies of the War on Terror. Terrorist suspects were being captured and transported to the naval station. The logic of the US authorities was simple – the suspects could be detained indefinitely in an enclave that was legally and geographically separate from the American mainland. Years earlier, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro recognised that the American presence in Cuba since 1961 was an unwelcome complication. In 1961, Cuban troops established a cactus barrier between the naval station and the Cuban national territory in order to preventing anti-Castro Cubans seeking refuge in an enclave of the US.
Despite President Obama’s stated aim to close the detention facility for terrorist suspects, Congress repeatedly blocked his aim. Today, the Trump administration shows no inclination to close a facility that holds 780 prisoners, some of whom have been detained there since January 2002. Attempts by prisoners to contest their indefinite detention without trial have been rejected by the US Supreme Court. There are ongoing legal challenges to the indefinite detention and regardless of the outcome the facility is estimated to cost around $500million per year. While today’s headlines focus on US tension with Iran and the ongoing crisis in Syria, the War on Terror continues to rumble on in discreet locations.
In December 2019, the US print media broke a remarkable story. For all the billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan, Iraq and countless locations across Africa and Asia, the balance sheet for the War on Terror continues to attract controversy. Previously unpublished interviews, with those who were intimately involved in the US-led assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan, reveal a chequered account of the longest conflict in US history. Funded by the US government, the secret report involved hundreds of interviewees with military and civilian operatives. The Washington Post, after a lengthy legal battle, won the right to publish details from those restricted documents. The content is damning.
Scores of interviewees admit that knowledge of Afghanistan’s cultures and communities was inadequate. The reconstruction plans were inattentive to prevailing local and regional economies. There was no agreement over the endpoint for the US invasion and occupation with some wishing to transform Afghanistan into a liberal democracy while others simply wished to keep Pakistan, India, China and Russia at bay. As in the past Afghanistan appeared to be an appealing geopolitical buffer, designed to counteract regional and global geopolitical dynamics. Over the last 18 years it has been estimated that three US administrations committed around $1trillion to the country, while the human cost can never be truly known. America will continue to pay for the long-term care of scores of injured veterans and the cost to Afghanistan’s civilian population is far higher.
The ‘Costs of War’ project hosted by Brown University in the US estimates that American spending on the War on Terror (2001 to 2019) to be $6.4trillion. It estimates that over 800,000 people have died due to violence associated with wars in Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq. More than 20 million people have been displaced. The report makes for painful reading and the geopolitical consequences of the past 18 years will make themselves felt for years to come.
Looking back over the columns, it mattered to me that we addressed a diverse subject matter. Geopolitics is a form of mental mapping that divides the world into friends, strategic allies and mortal enemies. Geopolitics is also intimate and personal. When President Trump takes to Twitter to pronounce on the leadership of Iran and North Korea, it is sometimes hard to discern where and when the personal and professional diverge. Geopolitics can make itself felt in diverse ways; name-calling on the streets and demonisation via social media co-exist with communal solidarities and expressions of patriotic and populist geopolitics. It can be peaceful, violent and everything in between. And geopolitics will be informed and enriched by ‘big ticket’ items such as climate change, energy, food and water security, and population distribution. Geography matters but it matters in ways that are not under the exclusive control of humanity.
It has been a great privilege to write this column. I thank the readers for all the generous comments in person and via email, letter and social media. Finally, I am indebted to the current Geographical team for its invaluable support and guidance over many years.
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