Former legal adviser talks Gitmo, ISIL


Shawn Paik

Harold Koh, right, spoke with Ryan Goodman on a number of topics including the Forever War and his role in the Obama Administration.

Christine Wang, Contributing Writer

Harold Koh, former legal adviser to the U.S. Department of State, led a conversation about the United States’ ongoing conflict in the Middle East at NYU Law on Wednesday. Koh began by focusing on Guantanamo Bay detention camp and the recent attacks from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant.

The discussion centered on the Forever War, a name given to the series of post-9/11 conflicts with various Middle Eastern terror groups, and the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution.

“What the government tried to do was narrow an open-ended war on terror to a specific fight against a network,” Koh said. “ISIL is a threat, but people can still continue to argue about the causes of the threat.”

Koh addressed President Obama’s commitment to end the war and the proposal he sent to Congress less than 24 hours ago, formally asking to authorize a three-year military campaign against ISIL.

Koh added that the proposal excludes enduring long-lasting ground combat.

“It doesn’t say no ground troops,” Koh said. “It says no enduring offensive ground combat operations. This means that the president is still hoping for ground forces in limited circumstances, perhaps for rescue operations or the use of special operations forces.”

Koh said he attributed the length of the conflict to the American-backed Iraqi prime minister.

“I think the problem is in trying to strengthen an Iraqi state prime minister, al-Maliki, [who] was not a good leader,” Koh said. “As a result, there became this huge ethnic divide and the goals of setting up a strong enough Iraqi force that could defend itself failed.”

Shifting the topic to Guantanamo Bay, Koh said its opening was a mistake but he sees no hope for a shut-down anytime soon.

“I’m sick of Guantanamo,” Koh said. “I would say ‘close it right away,’ but I know no one’s going to be happy about that. They never should’ve opened Guantanamo.”

Despite the decrease in the number of detainees at Guantanamo, Koh said he doesn’t think they will ever shut the facility down.

“My own guess will be that this process will continue, and they’ll get it down to a certain number, and then it’s all about what happens the two months before the president leaves office,” Koh said.

NYU Law student Catherine Lau said the event was relevant to the material she studies in her classes.

“They were highly informative,” Lau said. “I’m taking a class right now called Legislation and the Regulatory State and the talk applied very well to what I learned in class.”

NYU Law student Michael Gomm said the discussion illuminated the intricacies of conflict overseas.

“I felt that the point that there needs to be democratic accountability about these issues is really significant,” Gomm said. “There were some really interesting balancing issues they discussed about who is the enemy and, as things evolve, how the decision to fight should be made.”

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Feb. 12 print edition. Email Christine Wang at [email protected].