Guantanamo — Soccer in Guantanamo – a duel between Republicans and Democrats

A row in the US Con­gress over Pen­ta­gon spend­ing on a soc­cer pitch for sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ists incar­cer­at­ed in Guan­tanamo focus­es atten­tion on the impor­tance of the beau­ti­ful game to both the mil­i­tants and their counter-ter­ror­ist detrac­tors.

Guantanamo’s $750,000 soc­cer pitch

The $744,000 pitch out­side a $39 mil­lion pen­i­ten­tiary-style build­ing known as Camp 6 at the U.S. Navy base at Guan­tanamo Bay, Cuba is intend­ed to reward the most coop­er­a­tive of the facility’s 120 171 inmates. It builds on US efforts to employ soc­cer over the past decade as evi­dence that it com­plies with the Gene­va Con­ven­tions and to reduce ten­sions between the mil­i­tants and their wardens. 

The pitch, set to be inau­gu­rat­ed next month once con­trac­tors have installed latrines and goals, is sur­round­ed by guard tow­ers and sur­veil­lance cam­eras and acces­si­ble by a secure walk­way to reduce con­tact and con­flict between the inmates and their captors. 

It is also yet anoth­er exam­ple of the US government’s use of soc­cer in its bat­tle for the hearts and minds of mil­i­tants and their poten­tial sup­port­ers. If soc­cer was a bond­ing and recruit­ment tool for jihadists across the globe, it could well serve to rein­force rehabilitation. 

That is a notion that doesn’t go down well in an elec­tion year and at a time of eco­nom­ic cri­sis with Pres­i­dent Barak Obama’s Repub­li­can oppo­nents in the US Congress. 

“Sev­en hun­dred and fifty thou­sand dol­lars for cry­ing out loud? Our deficit this year is $1.2 tril­lion and we’re spend­ing this kind of mon­ey on ter­ror­ists?” asked Flori­da Repub­li­can mem­ber of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Gus Bili­rakas in a tele­vi­sion interview. 

Den­nis Ross, anoth­er Flori­da Repub­li­can went a step fur­ther. He intro­duced in Con­gress what he dubbed the ‘NO FIELD Act’ or None of Our Funds for the Inter­est, Exer­cise, or Leisure of Detainees Act, which would reduce the Defence Department’s 2013 bud­get by $750,000 – the soc­cer pitch’s price tag. 

Guan­tanamo “should not be a place of com­fort. It should house the worst of the worst of the world’s ter­ror­ists, not be a train­ing ground for the World Cup,” McClatchy News­pa­pers quot­ed Mr. Ross as saying. 

“Though it’s a tough choice to say who deserves more blame for such appar­ent waste, fraud and abuse, the genius who thought up the soc­cer field in the first place, or the con­trac­tor fleec­ing Uncle Sam for a small dirt field sur­round­ed by a green fence, one thing is cer­tain – this episode shows Pres­i­dent Obama’s pri­or­i­ties in action,” said retired Navy Com­man­der and for­mer Pen­ta­gon spokesman J. D. Gor­don who served as an advi­sor to Her­man Cain’s failed 2012 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in an op-ed on Fox News. 

Guan­tanamo com­man­der Rear Admi­ral David B. Woods told McClatchy that con­struc­tion costs were high because all equip­ment and sup­plies had to be import­ed to the 116-square-kilo­me­ter base in south­east Cuba. 

“That’s prob­a­bly the biggest mis­per­cep­tion and lack of under­stand­ing of the expense of doing things down here. It’s unlike any place else in the world main­ly because we don’t have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cap­i­tal­ize on the local econ­o­my,” Admi­ral Woods said. 

Over the past decade, soc­cer has con­sti­tut­ed part of the Unit­ed States’ soft pow­er tools in seek­ing to win hearts and minds. The US admin­is­tra­tion in Iraq in the wake of the over­throw of Sad­dam Hus­sein made the con­struc­tion and reha­bil­i­ta­tion of soc­cer sta­di­ums and clubs a pri­or­i­ty in a bid to counter efforts by mil­i­tants to make inroads among the country’s youth. 

US mil­i­tary and civil­ian offi­cials argued that reopen­ing soc­cer sta­di­ums and encour­ag­ing peo­ple to play free of fear or per­se­cu­tion would win hearts and minds among those scarred by regimes for which soc­cer was either the ene­my or a weapon of terror. 

Mem­bers of the US 87th Infantry’s 1st bat­tal­ion were thrashed 9:0 a few years ago when they played the Sons of Iraq, a team made up of for­mer insur­gents, on a makeshift pitch on a dirt field in north­ern Iraq. As far as the Amer­i­cans were con­cerned, their thrash­ing con­tained an impor­tant mes­sage: soc­cer balls can be more pow­er­ful than bombs. “You lose a game, but you win a lot of friends,” said Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, the then com­man­der of the 1st Armored Divi­sion and Mul­ti-Nation­al Divi­sion North. 

Before US-led coali­tion troops entered Bagh­dad in 2003, Sad­dam Hussein’s men went into the neigh­bour­hoods and passed out guns and stored weapons in schools. Because it was too dan­ger­ous to dri­ve the trail­ers away through the streets, Amer­i­can forces blew them up — and in the process, dam­aged schools and sur­round­ing homes. Though the US mil­i­tary returned to clear away the debris, dis­trib­ute soc­cer balls and help set up teams and leagues in tense towns like Rama­di and Sadr City, unex­plod­ed shells remain in fields and school-yards where chil­dren kick their balls. 

With an esti­mat­ed 42 mil­lion land mines or two land­mines per per­son in Iraq in a nation of 24 mil­lion, US Pro­vi­sion­al Recon­struc­tion Teams part­nered with Spir­it of Soc­cer, a John­stown, Penn­syl­va­nia NGO that employs soc­cer to edu­cate youth about the risk of mines. Trained by Spir­it of Soc­cer, Iraqi coach­es, includ­ing women, dis­cussed fair play, avoid­ing dan­gers from land mines and oth­er unex­plod­ed muni­tions, sports­man­ship, tol­er­ance and the need for non-vio­lent con­flict res­o­lu­tion while drib­bling and kick­ing penal­ties. Par­tic­i­pants returned to their com­mu­ni­ties as coach­es and orga­niz­ers of Youth Soc­cer and Mine Aware­ness Festivals. 

In Afghanistan, US-led inter­na­tion­al forces played short­ly after their 2001 over­throw of the Tal­iban soc­cer against an Afghan team in Kabul’s Ghazi Sta­di­um to high­light the change they were bring­ing to the war-rav­aged coun­try. The sta­di­um had been used by the Tal­iban for pub­lic exe­cu­tions, ston­ings and ampu­ta­tions. Amer­i­cans and Ira­ni­ans com­pet­ed in Iran in the recon­struc­tion of soc­cer pitch­es as a way of earn­ing brown­ie points. 

Soc­cer may seem an odd for­eign pol­i­cy tool or mil­i­tary pri­or­i­ty. But with at least half the pop­u­la­tion of Iraq and Afghanistan under the age of 18, soc­cer balls and shoes are as basic to mend­ing the two coun­tries’ social fab­ric as beams and gird­ers are to mend­ing the dam­aged build­ings. Indeed, the future of Iraq as well as Afghanistan and US rela­tions with both coun­tries may well in part depend on soc­cer para­pher­na­lia and US efforts to pre­vent polit­i­cal inter­fer­ence and sec­tar­i­an strife from under­min­ing the two nations’ soc­cer performance. 

Clear­ly, it will take more than a soc­cer train­ing, a soc­cer league and a suc­cess­ful nation­al team to over­come Iraq’ and Afghanistan’s eth­nic, reli­gious and social divi­sions. Yet soci­ol­o­gists sug­gest that soc­cer can play a role in strength­en­ing feel­ings of uni­ty and nation­al iden­ti­ty. Sports can also have a cathar­tic effect by chan­nelling human aggres­sion away from vio­lence and into more healthy chan­nels. Nel­son Man­dela used a racial­ly inte­grat­ed nation­al rug­by team to unite South Africa in the wake of apartheid — a sto­ry now made famous by the movie Invic­tus. South Africa went on to become the first African nation to suc­cess­ful­ly host the World Cup. 

These are lessons that may be lost on the Repub­li­cans but they are cer­tain­ly not lost on mil­i­tants. The most rad­i­cal mil­i­tants includ­ing Al Qaeda’s Soma­lia affil­i­ate as well as some Sau­di and Egypt­ian Salafi sheikhs denounce soc­cer as the infidel’s game because it was intro­duced by British colo­nial­ists and because of its poten­tial to com­pete with Islam, par­tic­u­lar­ly as a release valve in auto­crat­ic envi­ron­ments. Sau­di Ara­bia rec­og­nized soccer’s com­pet­i­tive pow­er dur­ing the 2010 World Cup when it, afraid that believ­ers would for­get their dai­ly prayers dur­ing match­es broad­cast live on Sau­di TV, rolled out mobile mosques on trucks and prayer mats in front of pop­u­lar cafes where men gath­ered to watch the games. 

More main­stream mil­i­tants like the late Osama Bin Laden, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Hezbol­lah chief Has­san Nas­ral­lah are fer­vent soc­cer fans who use the game as a bond­ing and recruit­ment tool. Soc­cer brought recruits into the fold, encour­aged cama­raderie and rein­forced mil­i­tan­cy among those who had already joined. The track record of soc­cer-play­ers-turned sui­cide bombers proved their point. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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