US, UK Just Can’t Stop Hiding Prisoners in Afghanistan

It is a tradition that goes back to the very start of the Great War on Terror. Secret detention of prisoners has been both a central feature of the US approach to its response to terrorism and a rallying point for the creation of new enemies. In order to sustain this practice, the US has resorted to remarkable levels of dissembling and language engineering. Fresh controversy has arisen in Afghanistan centering around Afghanistan’s insistence (rooted in Afghan law), that all Afghan prisoners must be under Afghan control (note: the issue of some 49 or so foreign prisoners the US maintains at Parwan prison is completely separate).

The New York Times first broke the story on this latest controversy on Saturday:

A commission appointed by President Hamid Karzai to investigate detention facilities run by American and British forces in southern Afghanistan claimed Saturday to have uncovered secret prisons on two coalition bases, an allegation that could not be immediately confirmed but that was likely to further complicate relations between the Afghan government and its allies.

“We have conducted a thorough investigation and search of Kandahar Airfield and Camp Bastion and found several illegal and unlawful detention facilities run and operated by foreign military forces,” said Abdul Shakur Dadras, the panel’s chairman.

Additional stories on the issue now have come out from both the Washington Post and AP. The Post story describes the facilities that were found:

Abdul Shokur Dadras, a member of the commission, said two of the jails were overseen by British soldiers at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, while a third jail at that base was under American military control. At Kandahar Airfield, also in the southern part of the country, three more foreign-run prisons were discovered — one controlled by American soldiers, one by the British and one managed by a joint coalition force, Dadras said.

The US, as usual, was quick to declare innocence. From the Times story:

Lt. Col. J. Todd Breasseale, a spokesman for the Defense Department, wrote in an email, “Every facility that we use for detention is well known not only by the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, but also by the I.C.R.C.,” a reference to the International Committee of the Red Cross, a nonpartisan organization that provides humanitarian care for victims of conflict.

The International Security Assistance Force, or I.S.A.F., as the coalition is known, said in a statement on Saturday that it was “aware of their investigative team looking into the detention facilities in Kandahar and Helmand and we are cooperating fully with the investigation on this matter.”

Once again, it appears that a restriction that isn’t really a restriction could be the basis for this latest controversy. From the Times story:

He [Dadras] said his team reviewed the number of prisoners as well as the details of their detention. The issue at Camp Bastion has been aired before. The British military must abide by rules that prohibit the transfer of prisoners to facilities where torture is believed to occur. For now, that concern is unresolved, and the sites where these detainees are held by the British forces could be the locations Mr. Dadras is referring to.

In Kandahar, the details are less clear. American forces are allowed to detain combatants seized on the battlefield for up to 96 hours before turning them over to the Afghan government. It was unclear whether Mr. Dadras was referring to such detainees or whether his commission had uncovered evidence of prisons that were illegally holding Afghans.

As we will see in a bit, this restriction to holding Afghan prisoners for 96 hours applies to British forces as well. Except that as with virtually all “restrictions” on coalition forces in Afghanistan, this one doesn’t apply if they don’t want it to. From the AP story:

British forces in Afghanistan are allowed to detain suspects for 96 hours but can hold them longer in “exceptional circumstances.”

Ah yes. “Exceptional circumstances” sure are useful to invoke when they get what the coalition wants. Of course, the prohibition on transferring prisoners to facilities known to torture could be behind at least some of those prisoners being held. But from the Afghan perspective, accusations of torture apply to coalition facilities as well. From AP:

Karzai has referred to the Parwan prison as a “Taliban-producing factory,” where innocent Afghans have been tortured into hating their country. He called it a “very big step regarding the sovereignty of Afghanistan” when the prison was finally handed over to Afghan control.

But even though the coalition is trying to hide behind claims that the prisoners found may be among those that can be held for 96 hours, that claim is clearly false. As AP reports:

On Tuesday, commission chief Barakzai demanded that the British immediately hand over any Afghans being held, saying the 23 detainees seen by the commission had been held for times ranging from several weeks to 31 months.

Information coming from the Afghans is not entirely consistent, according to the Post:

On Tuesday, there was still some confusion about how many Afghan prisoners were found by the fact-finding team. Dadras said detainees were found at all sites except the joint-coalition-operated facility at Kandahar Airfield.

But the Associated Press, quoting commission leader Gen. Ghalum Farooq Barakzai, reported six Afghan detainees were discovered at the British-run facility at Kandahar Airfield while 17 were at the British jail at Camp Bastion.

Barakzai told the wire service that the panel found no prisoners in any American-run jails.

It is clear that Karzai and Dadras continue to be displeased with the US and did not appreciate US protests of the release of prisoners by Afghanistan in February when they stated that there was no evidence on which those prisoners could be tried. This current controversy will be worth keeping an eye on as new claims by both sides seem likely to emerge.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
8 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    “… continue to be displeased with the US … when they stated that there was no evidence on which those prisoners could be tried.” Are we talking about Afghanistan sovereign territory, or Guantanamo?

  2. P J Evans says:

    ‘Exceptional circumstances’ seems to be the all-purpose excuse for everything done illegally, and not just in Afghanistan.

  3. Don Bacon says:

    Obama’s 2009 order directed an end to CIA detentions but (of course) didn’t affect the military, which doesn’t recognize Afghan sovereignty. The modern modus operandi of the US military is not conventional warfare, although they will continue to maintain useless conventional ground forces, but rather expanded special operations which include house raids, air attacks and detentions probably with torture.

    KABUL — President Hamid Karzai’s government is accusing the U.S. and British military of operating secret detention facilities in Afghanistan, a development that could further strain relations between Afghanistan’s leader and Western leaders.

    Not a problem. Karzai will soon be gone, probably replaced by Abdullah’s new government which will need US support to get established. There will be new province chiefs, etc — major changes in people.

    So in the short term the US will get the BSA and can do what it wants.

  4. Don Bacon says:

    Stripes, Apr 30
    COIN’s funeral
    If Iraq was, very arguably, counterinsurgency’s success story, Afghanistan looks increasingly like the place COIN went to die.
    Half of the soldiers NATO tried to train can’t read. They spent billions on roads leading nowhere, schools with no teachers and efforts to halt a heroin trade that has hit all-time highs. And in exchange for these labors and over 3,400 fatalities, we’ve seen President Hamid Karzai’s February prisoner release and bilateral security agreement negotiations — which look more like NATO is being shown the door than being asked to help stave off an all but inevitable civil war. Even leaders who implemented the strategy, most notably former U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, have been singing COIN’s funeral dirge. . .

  5. Don midwest says:

    In case someone missed the Tom Dispatch posting yesterday about the disaster we created in Afghanistan, this may be of interest. The actual article describes how from the early days we screwed up big time and we continue to repeat the same tactic of creating enemies, some become terrorists of our creation, and we seem to be doing it again in Yemen.

    This is from Tom Dispatch and the link is at the end

    [Note for TomDispatch Readers: This is really simple. If you only read one book on America’s war in Afghanistan, it has to be Anand Gopal’s just published No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes. It’s an instant classic, a brilliant piece of reportage, and a stunning exploration of the lives of three Afghans (a housewife with a remarkable story, a local warlord, and a Taliban commander) behind whom lurk the Americans (mis)fighting their “war on terror.” Mother Jones calls it “a brilliant analysis of our military’s dysfunction and a startlingly clear account of the consequences.” The New York Times describes it as “devastating,” as well as “essential reading for anyone concerned about how America got Afghanistan so wrong.” It’s a tale of the Afghan War that, so many years later, has simply never been told and it couldn’t be more dramatic.

  6. Don Bacon says:

    @Don midwest
    Yes, it’s called recruiting terrorists. One good example is Iraq. The US military was supposed to be treated as liberators, and there might have been some of that. But then the troops started going on midnight house raids, kicking in doors, trussing up MAMs (military age males), throwing them in the back of a truck to be taken to prisons and tortured. That (probably by design) caused a violent backlash and the fight was on.

    I remember reading ten years ago a comment from a young US officer who described the whole process and how destructive it was — but of course it went on. Later the terrorist-recruiting policy was amplified with the US-complicit Samarra mosque bombing, Feb 2006 which reversed the US military withdrawal plans and greatly expanded interfaith warfare in Iraq.

    The endless and profitable war on terror requires the constant recruitment of terrorists. That’s what the US does and/or supports in many countries including Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Libya ….

  7. Don Bacon says:

    Let’s tie recruiting terrorists into two prevailing emptywheel themes–
    –the endless global war on terror (GWOT), which brings control and profits, and
    –domestic repression, including loss of privacy and information control, which increases governemnt power
    **Domestic repression requires justification from the GWOT which depends upon the continuous recruitment of terrorists.**
    The basic strategy was explained almost a hundred years ago in Randolph Bourne’s seminal War is the Health of the State.

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