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Torture Now an Afghanistan Issue

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As the media and military focus shifts to the Afghan front, the issue of torture and human rights violations in Afghanistan will be spotlighted increasingly. This may be the Achilles' Heel of the Obama policy, so a fierce battle over definitions is to be expected.

The core truth is that conditions at Afghanistan's Bagram prison and other detention camps are worse than Guantanamo.

Bagram alone has 600 prisoners in a site which the New York Times calls "more Spartan" than Guantanamo. With prisoners "

having fewer privileges, less ability to challenge their detention and virtually no access to lawyers. Many are still held communally in big cages, with minimal opportunities for recreation.

"

Back in April of this year, The Times' David Rhode and Tim Golden reported on secret trials for Afghan detainees and, according to the international Red Cross in 2004, US intelligence officers admitted that 70-90 percent of tens of thousands of detainees were rounded up without evidence or by mistake.

The core issue is preventive detention itself, which guarantees that Afghans will be rounded up more on the basis of racial profiling than actual evidence. Any semblance of a criminal justice system is undermined by the existence of such large numbers of detainees rounded up in sweeps.

Both journalists and human rights lawyers have been banned from the detention facilities in keeping with the previous administration's out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach. This is likely to change with the Obama administration and new attention to the Afghan front. The Pentagon is rushing to complete a $60 million new prison to replace the makeshift Bagram airbase, partly in response to human rights criticisms. A larger prison will not erase the human rights crisis, but instead will facilitate a prolonged military occupation.

There already is a danger that the scale of the problem, long neglected, will be minimized in its framing. In a huge distortion, the Times January 27 account claims that detainees in Iraq "are afforded legal protections under the Geneva Conventions." This is not only false, but the implication is that some 50,000 Afghans held in Afghan detention camps outside of Bagram will be treated consistent with human rights norms.

As Andrew Sullivan blogged on August 28, many Iraqi detainees are routinely placed in coffin-like boxes. So-called "torture dungeons" for juveniles have been documented in the Salt Lake Tribune and by Human Rights First. A December 2008 Human Rights Watch report criticized Iraq's "preventive internment" policies as a violation of international human rights law. Last June 2, a Times report on Iraq's prison improvements still acknowledged that: 85-90 percent of the detainees will never stand trial, their internment will last 333 days on average, 80 percent of them are Sunni youth, and all are sent through "psychological assessments", described by one former detainee as waging "psychological war on you." Fully two-thirds are not considered by their captors as "imperative security risks", the United Nations criterion for internment without trial.


So it is in Iraq, so it will be in Afghanistan unless human rights groups and investigative reporters begin challenging the formulations of the Pentagon as the Afghan war expands.

Obama's Afghanistan war already stirs outrage, even from the Afghan president, over the levels of civilian casualties. Does Obama want the additional burden of defending preventive detention against critical human rights lawyers and investigative journalists? "Stabilizing" Afghanistan is one thing, but the false stability of massive detentions quite another.

US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan already may violate the 1997 Leahy Amendment banning foreign assistance to human rights violators. The Senate's top expert on the Leahy Amendment, Tim Rieser, has opined that prolonged detention without access to counsel or other due process is a violation of the law.

Obama's Afghanistan war already stirs outrage, even from the Afghan president, over the levels of civilian casualties. Does Obama want the additional burden of defending preventive detention against critical human rights lawyers and investigative journalists? "Stabilizing" Afghanistan is one thing, but the false stability of massive detentions quite another.

US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan already may violate the 1997 Leahy Amendment banning foreign assistance to human rights violators. The Senate's top expert on the Leahy Amendment, Tim Rieser, has opined that prolonged detention without access to counsel or other due process is a violation of the law.

Last May 27, fifty prominent theologians and human rights lawyers called upon the Congress to stop funding torture, in a lengthy brief covering Iraq, Afghanistan and the War on Terrorism model. [http://stopfundingtorture.com/] Now is the time for the new Obama administration to look more closely into the Afghanistan gulag before they become entangled in a web of deceit which, until now, has been avoided.