Location of Diego Garcia
For a tiny spot on the map of the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia
has claims to fame aplenty. An implausible piece of America on British soil midway between Africa and Asia, it was the scene of what has been called one of the most shameful episodes in British post-war history. Between 1968 and 1973, its native population was illegally exiled into poverty to make room for a US base aiming to secure the oil flow from the Persian Gulf.
This lonelist of military outposts, 1,000 miles from the nearest mainland, ranks today as the largest US base outside the continental United States and the second or third most important such on the planet. Key to several bombing campaigns including both the Gulf wars, it will be a staging post for any future attack on Iran.
Diego Garcia is also a space command and control center; a spy station; and a suspected 'black site' for secret detention and interrogation. The modern history of this island is interesting not only in its own right, but for what it can tell us about the ways of the world.
Shopping for a second-hand colony
The largest of 65 islands in the idyllic Chagos Archipelago
-- one of the richest concentrations of coral atolls in the world -- Diego Garcia is a jungle reef of 6,720 acres, enclosing a 6.5 X 13 miles long lagoon. As usual with real estate, its value is a function, above all, of location. This has been the case since 1775, when it was claimed by France for its position astride the trade routes to India and the Far East. Along with Mauritius, it passed to Britain as a spoil of war in 1814.
As the Cold War intensified during the late 1950s, US defense strategists woke up to the absence of US communications infrastructure between Eritrea and the Philippines. Into the 1960s, a number of additional factors -- notably British decolonization; a perceived Soviet threat to the oil flow from the Persian Gulf; and a growing US dependency thereof -- convinced the Pentagon that it needed a stronghold in the Indian Ocean, courtesy of the Brits.
The eagle's eye fell initially on another British asset, the Aldabra island north of Madagascar; but partly thanks to a young British MP named Robin Cook
, this was discarded on account of being breeding ground for an endangered giant turtle. Interest therefore shifted to the Chagos, which for centuries had been administrated from Mauritius.
Its location was ideal. Too bulky for the Suez Canal, supertankers out of the Gulf must traverse either the Horn of Africa or the Straits of Malacca. The Chagos sits astride these sea lanes and only one day's travel by ship from the honey pot itself.
The Chagos Archipelago
In 1965, the British PM Harold Wilson demanded, as a condition of independence for Mauritius, to purchase the isles for £4m. Later that year, the Chagos was detached from Mauritius and, together with certain other islands, renamed the 'British Indian Ocean Territory' (BIOT) -- the only British Crown Colony established after WWII. It did not unduly worry London or Washington that this flouted UN Resolution 2066, imploring Britain to "take no action which would dismember the territory of Mauritius."
However, there was a more serious catch. The Chagos was inhabited. It was home to the Ilois ('islanders'), or as they are also known as, Chagossians: Creole-speaking descendants of slaves whom the original French colonists had imported from Madagascar, Mozambique, and Somalia in the mid to late 18th century. Upon British takeover, the liberated slaves carried on as indentured laborers, reinforced from Mauritius, India, and the Seychelles. Thus, by the mid-60s, a thriving community of about 2,000 dwelled in the archipelago. Some could prove five generations of local ancestry, and most were British citizens, described by a Foreign Office official in 1955 as being "lavish with their Union Jacks." Nonetheless, when the US instructed the UK to get rid of them all, it obliged. A newly recovered memorandum of August 1966 from the British Colonial Office to the British UN Mission reads:
We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls, who have not yet got a Committee (the Status of Women Committee does not cover the rights of Birds).
The diplomat in charge replied in the same cheerful tone:
Unfortunately along with the Birds go some few Tarzans and Men Fridays, whose origins are obscure, and who are being hopefully wished on to Mauritius etc. When that has been done I agree we must be very tough and a submission is being done accordingly.
As other documents reveal, the British Government was aware that the Chagossians were an indigenous population, protected from deportation under Article 73 of the UN Charter. Accordingly, it concocted a charade (or as one senior official put it, a set of 'whopping fibs') that they were all foreign contract workers with no right of abode.
The British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart and the US Secretary of State Dean Rusk agreed to keep Parliament and Congress in the dark about the details of the agreement, finalized on December 30, 1966
. The US would lease the BIOT until 2016, with the option of a further 20 years. The conditions shed interesting light on the nature of the postwar "special relationship": the UK would maintain sovereignty over BIOT, with all the responsibilities that entails, but would receive no rent. In reimbursement of expenses, it got a $14m discount on another lease: the US Polaris submarine nuclear missile system, which, like its successor Trident
, depended operationally on the US in nearly every respect.
Clearing the ground
The next year, expulsions from the Chagos began. Agents of the British Government exploited the fact that many Chagossians used to make an annual trip to Mauritius. They offered the islanders free fare with the local boat line, only to deny them reentry. The travelers thus found themselves stranded 1,300 miles away from home and, being without professional or language skills, condemned to destitution in the slums.
In 1968 the US announced it would be needing the main island, Diego Garcia. The British Government bought up the island's economic pillar, the copra oil plantation, and shut it down. The local hospital was also closed, and ships carrying food and medicine to the island turned back. These actions were taken with the knowledge of British PM Harold Wilson, who in 1969 approved a scheme to fool the UN as to the islanders' legal status. (For more on this conspiracy and the deportation affair in general, see 'Stealing a Nation'
(pdf) by the journalist John Pilger, whose award-winning documentary of the same title is available online
In 1971, the first US 'Seabees' from the Naval Construction Force arrived and started crafting a runway in a cloud of marijuana smoke. Britain had been told to expel the remaining islanders, and the British authorities had passed a so-called Immigration Ordinance (an executive order by royal authority) with, according to an official memorandum of January 1970, the following objectives:
a) To provide legal power to deport people who will not leave voluntarily;
b) to prevent people entering;
c) to maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population.
In October 1973, the last 800 or so Diego Garcians -- initially deported to other Chagos islands -- were herded into the hold of a ship and dumped on the wharf of Port Louis, Mauritius, with a single suitcase each and no compensation.
By any means necessary
That same month, the Pentagon got a preview of the strategic importance its new acquisition would attain. Oil prices spiked by 70 percent as OPEC sliced production, imposing an oil embargo on the US to punish its support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War, during which the US was denied overflight rights and use of bases by its NATO ally Turkey.
Oil prices hiked fiftenfold over the decade, culminating in 1979 with the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At this time, the coral atoll base -- although equipped with deep-water docks and an expanded runway, and known since 1977 as Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia -- was still principally an intelligence and communications facility. Used by the new-fangled Delta Force in the late 1970s, it would serve as a transit point for Operation Eagle Claw -- the bungled bid to free American hostages in Tehran, 1980. However, its rise to stardom on the Pentagon's firmament followed the nixing of the 'Nixon Doctrine' of relying solely on Middle Eastern proxy regimes.
In January 1980, the White House announced what became known as the Carter Doctrine: "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." To project the latter, Carter created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), designed to send in ten thousand well-equipped troops within days. Its logistical cornerstone was Diego Garcia, which thenceforth and throughout the Reagan era would be used to stockpile vast quantities of tanks, artillery, munition, and fuel aboard the anchorage in its deep lagoon.
The RDJTF was later reconstituted as CENTCOM: a command authority presiding over a string of new US bases in and around the Middle East. Yet the value of Diego Garcia, unfettered by host country interference, continued to grow.
So did the base itself: In the swiftest build-up of any military installation since the Vietnam War, Brown & Root (now a Halliburton Inc. subsidiary) completed a $500m upgrade in 1986. In 1987, at the height of the Iraq-Iran war, the local armada numbered over 40 cruisers, battleships, and aircraft carriers intended to safeguard the sea lanes. That year, B-52s deployed to the island for the first time in Operation Earnest Will, a response to Iranian mining of the Gulf.
A stationary aircraft carrier
Diego Garcia air base
The former coconut central had in effect become a stationary aircraft carrier, furnished with two of the world's longest runways -- one of which, at 3,600m (12,000ft), can service any airframe yet designed, including the space shuttle. Unlike conventional carriers, Diego Garcia is fit as a staging post for heavy bombing campaigns, affording tactical range control over most of South-East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
This unique capability was first put to use in 1990-1991, when it became the only US Navy base to launch offensive air operations in a campaign meant to bolster long-term US control of the western Gulf -- an area holding more than half of the world's known petroleum. The prepositioned flotilla at Diego Garcia transported equipment for 16,500 US Marines to take part in Desert Storm. After the war, as the Soviet Union crumbled, the instant invasion fleet was beefed up even further.
During the 1990s, the island was again a launching pad for airstrikes on Iraq in operations Desert Strike (1996) and Desert Fox (1998), involving chiefly B-52s. Meanwhile, evidence emerged for what had long been suspected: Diego Garcia was a storage point for nuclear weapons in contravention of the UN's 1971 Indian Ocean Zone of Peace Resolution. In 1995, a UN treaty for a nuclear-weapons free Africa was agreed to with dotted lines around the island, at the UK's and USA's insistence.
A certain strategic bombing campaign against targets in New York and Virginia prompted Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, during which 65 percent of the bombs dropped on Afghanistan were dropped by B-52Hs, B-1Bs and radar-deflecting B-2As out of Diego Garcia. The former two would commute between Diego and bases in the Gulf, whereas the latter -- at $2bn a piece the most expensive aircraft ever built -- refueled and changed crews with running engines at the atoll before a 30 hours return flight to their main base in Missouri.
Among Washington policymakers, the post 9/11 concern with terrorism readily took the back seat to securing strategic control over the ever more sought-after black gold. According to the notorious Downing Street Memo
of July 2002, the US saw basing at Diego Garcia as 'critical' for invading Iraq. The B-1s there were moved to Jordan and B-2s stationed overseas for the first time in climate-controlled hangars, inaugurating the island as one of four 'forward operating locations' for expeditionary air force operations worldwide. Thus posted a 5 hours flight from Iraq, the stealth bombers proved vital to the Shock and Awe campaign of March 2003, involving the longest bombing mission in history at over 50 amphetamine-assisted hours.
Other facilities, established at the reef during the 1970s, may also have helped the operation. Besides a signal intelligence station run by the National Security Agency, Diego Garcia is home to the newest of the US Air Force's eight space C&C stations, key to operating more than 110 military and spy satellites. So when, for instance, a B-2 from Diego drops a 2000 lb bomb over somewhere in the Middle East, a low-orbital satellite controlled from the same atoll could well be guiding the bomb toward its hapless target.
Amnesty USA map of possible US black sites
These may not exhaust the intelligence facilities present there. An August 2005 report by Amnesty USA
mentions Diego Garcia alongside Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, Thailand and Afghanistan as a possible location for a secret torture camp handling extrajudicial -- or 'ghost' -- detainees.
Such claims about a 'black site' are difficult to investigate, as the island is strictly off-limits to news reporters and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Nonetheless, press reports to this effect have been persistent. The Washington Post
claimed on December 26, 2002 that the US held and abusively interrogated suspected al-Qaeda detainees on the island.
The Blair government denied these claims, but the WaPo reporter insisted
: "What we have from our sources is that some al-Qa'ida suspects are indeed being held and questioned at Diego Garcia. The British Government could go some way to clearing this up by permitting an unrestricted visit."
In 2003, Time
quoted a "regional intelligence official" to the effect that Riduan Isamuddin -- otherwise known as Hambali, the alleged operations chief of Jeemah Islamiyah of Bali bombing fame -- was interrogated there, and confessed. In January 2005, the Washington Post
again stated that the island had hosted a secret CIA detention facility. Half a year later, the Toronto Star
cited intelligence analysts claiming that it is part of a network of such wherein 'ghost detainees' are being subject to treatment "that makes the abuses at the military-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay camp in Cuba look small-time." One analyst quoted is John Pike, who said the following: "They want somewhere that's difficult to escape from, difficult to attack, not visible to prying eyes and where a lot of other activity is going on. Diego Garcia is ideal."
For what it is worth, the investigative journalist Gordon Thomas
, the author of Gideon's Spies: the Secret History of the Mossad
, claimed in a 2004 article:
[P]rivate Lear jets regularly fly in with new prisoners. Highly placed intelligence sources in Pakistan and Washington have revealed that over thirty al Qaeda suspects have been kidnapped by CIA snatch squads and flown to Diego Garcia in the chartered Lears.
Among them are Osama bin Laden's senior lieutenants, Khalid Sheik Mohammed Ramzi Binasshibh and Abu Zubaida, kidnapped from Pakistan.
One intelligence source said: These operations are sanctioned in Washington from the top. Rumsfeld knows. Sometimes the snatch flights are approved by the White House.
Others have posited that ghost detainees in some cases are brought in by ship, to be taken ashore only when necessary for questioning or other purposes. In any case the about 25 UK Royal Marines policing the nominal British colony should be easy enough to eschew.
The natives are restless
What happened to those other, assuredly innocent, victims of extraordinary rendition -- the original inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago? As mentioned, the majority, expelled to Mauritius, had found themselves at the bottom of a foreign society marked by high unemployment and scarce accomodation. Illiterate, subject to racism and confined to squatter settlements, many succumbed to penury, substance abuse, prostitution, or suicidal depression. The Mauritius government had confiscated £650,000 received from the UK in 1973 to compensate for the resettlement (in turn financed by the Polaris discount); when these funds were finally distributed among 595 families by 1978, they had been decimated by rampant inflation.
A legal struggle starting in 1975 resulted in a 1983 settlement whereby the British Government paid Mauritius £4m for the benefit of Chagossians there. The Mauritian Government then transferred land worth £1m to the Chagossians in exchange for renouncing their right of return to the archipelago by signing or thumbprinting a document most couldn't read, bringing the total compensation paid to less than £3,170 ($6,000) per recipient. No Chagossians in the Seychelles have ever received any compensation, though these are doing better
. Litigation resumed in 1997 and continues to this day.
On November 3, 2000, the High Court of London unanimously overturned
the Immigration Ordinance of 1971, citing the 1215 Magna Carta and its ban on deporting any subject of the Crown from his home. The then Foreign Secretary -- none other than the late Robin Cook -- said the British government would not appeal. Cook began looking into repopulating the islands of Salomons and Peros Banhos, some 140 miles from Diego Garcia.
However, even before the sensational court ruling, the US Government chimed in on the issue. A letter
from the US State Dept. of June 21 2000 insists that:
The settlement of a permanent civilian population on the islands of the Chagos archipelago, even those at some distance from Diego Garcia, would seriously diminish that isolation and as a consequence erode the island’s nearly unparalleled strategic importance. If a resident population were established on the Chagos archipelago, that could well imperil Diego Garcia’s present advantage as a base from which it is possible to conduct sensitive military operations that are important for the security of both our governments but that, for reasons of security, cannot be staged from bases near population centers.
After Cook resigned to protest the Iraq War, and US pressure escalated following same, the Blair government made a baffling about-face in 2004; a year when the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement was up for renewal. Bypassing the courts as well as Parliament, it used the pre-Magna Carta prerogative of royal decree ('Orders in Council') to prohibit return to any of the Chagos islands, ostensibly on grounds of excessive costs as well as rising sea levels due to global warming.
However, in May 2006, the High Court in London quashed this procedure
in no uncertain terms:
The suggestion that a minister can, through the means of an order in council, exile a whole population from a British Overseas Territory and claim that he is doing so for the 'peace, order and good government' of the territory is to us repugnant.
Unsurprisingly, the Foreign Office has announced that it will appeal
. Meanwhile, the Chagossians are unrelenting in their demand to resettle Diego Garcia itself, replacing the 2,000 low-paid Filipino and Sri Lankan support staff and otherwise taking up fishing and agriculture, just like the old days.
Plus ca change...
Whatever its inherent feasibility (which is subject to legitimate questions), this repatriation project will remain a pipedream. When the lease on Diego Garcia expires in 2016, it almost certainly will be renewed for a further 20 years, snubbing not only the islander community but also Mauritius' attempts
to reclaim the Chagos. For the strategic importance of the base is hardly on the wane.
Official coin of the BIOS
The first half of this century will be marked by American efforts to retain world hegemony in the face of India's and China's aspirations to superpower status. As Der Spiegel
notes in a feature called 'The Coming Conflict: Natural Resources are Fueling a New Cold War'
, a major apple of discord -- both as a means and as an end in itself -- will be increasingly demanded yet decreasingly abundant oil. A number of studies and decisions out of Washington suggest that long-term US geostrategy is being refocused on the so-called 'arc of instability' from Morocco to Indonesia and from Kazakhstan to Kenya, which might as well be called the 'arc of petroleum'. The US has already reduced its presence in Japan and South Korea and must compensate in the Indian Ocean, where India and -- more ominously to Uncle Sam -- China are stepping up their naval ambitions. At stake is control of the sea lanes linking Africa and the Middle East, where the oil is, to East Asia through the Malacca Straits and into the South China Sea.
Once upon a time, Diego Garcia and the rest of Chagos were known as the Oil Islands. That label remains as apt as ever; though it will never again refer to coconut oil.