10/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bagram Prison Threatens Success in Afghanistan

The U.S. military finally seems to have learned that dropping bombs on civilians isn't the way to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. But neither is grabbing people out of their houses and throwing them in jail indefinitely with no rights.

For seven years, U.S. detention policy has undermined our military and political interests in Afghanistan, and it continues to do so to this day.

The U.S. is currently in the process of rolling out a new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. It prioritizes protecting civilians and winning back the support of Afghans confronted with a resurgent Taliban. General Stanley McChrystal's July tactical directive describes the war in Afghanistan as "different from conventional combat" and instructs soldiers to "avoid the trap of winning tactical victories -- but suffering strategic defeats-by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people."

But many Afghans rank U.S. detention policy as their biggest complaint against foreign forces -- second only to civilian casualties. President Karzai and other leading candidates in the recent election blasted U.S. detention policy during their campaigns. And the Taliban uses the Bagram detention center -- the U.S.'s central prison -- as a rallying cry to recruit Afghans.

Countless Afghans welcomed American soldiers with open arms in 2001. Many, especially ethnic Pashtuns, now see the U.S. soldier as a boogie man. "We have but one fear of Allah, but we are also scared of the U.S. When they pass through we think they will grab us and take us away," one man told me. Another man from the violent Kurangal Valley explained, "When I'm home I'm afraid they will come and arrest me. As soon as I see Americans I have fear and run away... But if I run they will think I'm doing something wrong and shoot me." These are the people the U.S. is supposed to be courting.

Bagram, which human rights and civil liberties groups have called President Obama's Guantanamo Bay, has largely moved past its darkest days of torture -- although physical abuse upon capture remains a serious problem. The growing anger of Afghans comes largely from people being detained and then trapped in an arbitrary, unfair system that fails to accurately distinguish between ordinary people and dangerous enemies. Detainees aren't told why they are held, and lack access to a lawyer. A U.S. District Court judge in April called the Bagram detention regime "less sophisticated and more error-prone" than Guantanamo.

In a series of interviews, Afghans have frequently described how U.S. forces raid family compounds in the middle of the night, blast down doors, and destroy property. Young and old men are hooded and handcuffed, and flown off in helicopters. A former detainee told me, "Some of my children still wake up at night shouting and screaming because of the raid." Another man mentioned that his brother was captured in March and "it was about two months after his detainment that the ICRC finally informed us that he was at Bagram. We didn't know where he was before this."

The Obama administration is becoming more aware of these problems. In June, U.S. Major General Douglas M. Stone traveled to Afghanistan to review U.S. detention policy. While his report is not yet public, among the snippets that have made it into the media is his recommendation to release 400 of 600 detainees and significantly reduce the U.S.'s detention role over the next 12 to 18 months.

Stone seems to understand the volatile relationship between McChrystal's new war strategy and U.S. detention policy. He also knows how bungled U.S. detention policy has been to date, telling National Public Radio, "Now you've got a bunch of moderates who really shouldn't be in [detention] in the first place. And I can hold them forever but eventually they're going to say, 'Why are you holding me? What's the fairness in this?' And eventually they'll say something about America we don't want to hear. They'll say, 'You're not here to better the population. You're here to conquer us and you're taking me hostage.'"

Some Afghans already think this way. One month before Stone's NPR interview, I spoke with a former Bagram detainee who said: "I think the Americans have come to occupy our country and to take our land from us. This isn't what I thought about Americans seven years ago. I thought the U.S. had come to build our country.... Why are people being arrested for no reason? This is why my opinions have changed about the Americans."

The Stone report may be a breath of fresh air. But with the report and other planned reforms still under wraps, it remains to be seen if all the right and necessary recommendations to generate change are being made. More importantly, all eyes will be on the administration and Congress to see how they respond.