Conference calls for lasting peace with Taliban in bid to repair war-torn nation.
|The US detention system in Afghanistan has been overhauled in the past year [GETTY]|
In the summer of 2009, an extraordinary meeting took place in Kabul, the Afghan capital. On one side of the room sat Anthony Lieto, a retired American army colonel who had helped to oversee sweeping reforms in US detention policy in Iraq. Opposite him were two senior figures from the former Taliban government, both of whom had spent years as prisoners in US custody.
One was Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s last official envoy to Pakistan, who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for four years after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The other was Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Taliban’s former foreign minister. He surrendered after US forces toppled the Taliban government in 2001, and spent part of the next two years at the US-run prison on Bagram airbase – a facility that had been dubbed ‘Guantanamo’s more evil twin’ by campaigners.
They were there to discuss US detention policy in Afghanistan, and the meeting came at a critical time. With hundreds of Afghans languishing in US prisons, the issue of detention had become an open sore festering at the core of attempts to win “hearts and minds” in the faltering Western war effort in the country.
There was a growing consensus among policymakers that the situation in the jails had become counter-productive and that prisons full of angry, disaffected young men who had suffered at the hands of the Americans were fertile recruiting grounds for the Taliban.
Lieto told the former Taliban officials, both well-known political operators in Afghanistan after their release from US custody, that the time had come for change.
“Within one year to 18 months the US wants to get out of this detention business,” the retired colonel said, according to minutes taken by the peacebuilding organisation that brokered the meeting.
“We want to turn over this to the ministry of justice or the Afghan security forces.”
In the months prior to that meeting, General David Petraeus, the then head of US military operations in the region, had asked Major-General Douglas Stone, a marine officer who had led the overhaul of detention operations in Iraq, to carry out research on a new approach to the way the US detained prisoners in Afghanistan.
The Kabul meeting was one of dozens held over the late spring and summer of 2009 by Stone and his staff, resulting in a classified 700-page report, circulated among Washington’s top-brass and policymakers, that contained his recommendations.
A year later, substantial changes have been made to the system.
Tribal leaders and family members can now petition for the release of detainees and act as a social guarantor for recently-freed prisoners who have pledged not to fight against the Americans.
A training programme is under way to prepare Afghan authorities to take control of all US-run prisons and the first trials of American-held detainees in Afghan courts began in June.
So far this year, around 200 prisoners have been released from US prisons in Afghanistan, and officials say more will follow as newly-commissioned prisoner case reviews are completed.
Life has also changed for those who continue to be held. At Bagram, detainees have been moved from the crumbling Soviet-built prison to a new detention complex; a $60mn facility at Parwan, completed in November 2009 in a blaze of publicity.
To go with the new prison, a new military taskforce, JTF 435, has been set up to oversee the military detention programme.
This frenzy of renewal had a single, broad aim; the US wanted to signal a clear break with a detention record marred by accounts of torture, suspicious deaths, legal challenges and secrecy.
“Our first focus was to ensure that the perception of US detention operations was in line with what we did,” Vice Admiral Robert Harward, the commander of JTF 435, said last week.
“Our priority at this point is transition of those US detention facilities and operations to the government of Afghanistan.”
Old wine in new bottles?
|Around 200 people have been released from US prisons in Afghanistan this year [GETTY]|
But while progress has been made, many argue that a fundamental problem remains at the heart of the system; Afghans are still being captured and detained by a foreign power with insufficient means to challenge their detention.
“As yet, it’s too soon to tell whether the supposed ‘handover’ of Bagram is a change for the better, or just old wine in new bottles,” Cori Crider, the legal director at Reprieve, a prisoner support charity that specialises in US military detention cases, says.
“There are two key unanswered questions: First, is it real? We need to know if the US will run a smaller detention operation on Bagram, as it has suggested it may. We also need to know whether people are simply going to be held on behalf of the US after their transfer.
“Two, even if the handover is real, is it going to lead to still more problems? Will transferred prisoners be tortured in Afghan custody? Will Afghan courts be using secret evidence given to them by the Americans, that their lawyers are not allowed to see?”
Harward says there are “less than 50” foreign nationals in US detention in Afghanistan whose fate may be complicated by their nationality. While it is not his “first preference”, he admits it is conceivable that they will remain under US control after the handover.
“I would not rule that out as an option if the government of Afghanistan desired us to do that sometime down the road,” he said.
But Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador who met with Lieto last summer, says the reality of dialogue between Washington and Kabul on the issue is likely to be less consultative than Harward suggests.
He believes that the forthcoming handover, which will be completed by the end of 2011, is little more than a ploy to outsource legally problematic detentions.
“When the Americans do something, the people condemn them,” he says. “But indirectly, nobody will know what they are doing. The government of Afghanistan will do what the Americans tell it.”
The end of accountability?
Efforts by the US military to close a door on its chequered history of detentions in Afghanistan are also being met with concern by the legal community in Washington.
When the replacement prison at Bagram opened in November 2009, the old detention site, used by the Bush administration in the darkest days of the extraordinary rendition programme, was slated for destruction.
Accountability lawyers opposed demolishing the prison, arguing that to do so would be akin to destroying a crime scene.
Fearing a drawn-out legal battle, the US justice department struck a quiet deal with the lawyers; an FBI evidence recovery team would be dispatched to meticulously photograph and model the old prison before it was destroyed, and the information they gathered would be made available to legal teams working on accountability cases.
The decision was a work-around, but at its heart lay a tacit admission; that at the very least, there was conceivably a case to answer for the allegations of abuse at Bagram.
It is precisely that possibility that has made detention a live political issue in Afghanistan.
At June’s government-sponsored peace jirga, a gathering of some of the most influential tribal leaders in the country, a rare consensus formed around opposition to the current system.
“The government of Afghanistan should take immediate and solid action in freeing from various prisons those detained on the basis of inaccurate information or unsubstantiated allegations,” the resolution produced at the end of the three-day meeting said.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, immediately ordered reviews into the cases of those being held in the conflict, and the US said that it would allow its prisoners to be included in the process.
After a year of overhaul in the detention system, Afghanistan is preparing for a new era of conflict detentions.
Whether “Bagram 2.0” turns out to be any fairer or less controversial than its previous incarnation remains to be seen; but for the hundreds of men who say they are being wrongly held by US troops in Afghanistan, the reforms have offered the faintest glimmer of hope.