America, Afghanistan and the prisoners they hold

April 2, 2012

As in any conflict, the prisoners that the players in Afghanistan hold are a key part of their political and military strategy as they head into 2014. For the United States, the more Taliban fighters or even potential Taliban are kept off the battlefield, the better it is. For years it has been running a regime of administrative detentions under which it can hold not only suspected combatants but even people it thinks could be a potential threat for an indefinite period.

For the Taliban, getting its commanders out has been a top priority and indeed its officials say securing the release of  some of them held in Guantanamo is the starting point of the talks that it has had with the United States for more than a year now.  A former frontline commander and cousin of the Taliban’s main negotiator in the talks with the United States told me in an interview that the Taliban would resume the negotiations only when the United States carried out its promise to release five senior Taliban figures held in the U.S. military prison in Cuba.  A prison committee is ready with the names of more comrades that it wants freed.

For the Afghan administration, which wants the Americans to hand over Afghan detainees, it  has long been an issue that impinges on the sovereignty of the nation when it cannot tell its own people where the prisoners are or when will they be freed because they are not in their control. But even more than that, as the administration faces up to to the formidable challenge of looking after its own security, control of the prisoners is a bargaining chip with the Taliban. It is also a conduit to the so-called Quetta shura or Mullah Mohammad Omar since it could potentially use at least some of the top commanders to  deliver messages back and forth.

This week it named a general to take charge of the main U.S. prison in Bagram as part of a gradual  transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forcea ahead of 2014 when NATO combat forces leave.  The two sides signed an agreement in March following months of wrangling and there is still plenty that can go wrong. The Americans worry about a premature release of some of the detainees, citing the example of a Taliban commander transferred from Guantanamo Bay in 2007 to Afghan custody who was subsequently freed only to resume fighting coalition forces. Under a compromise worked out, the transfer agreement says Afghan authorities running the detention centre will consult with the Americans before releasing any detainee and if the U.S. military feels the prisoner must remain behind , then that assessemnt must be “favourably” considered.

The Afghan administation says while  the United States can have a consultative role, it does not wield veto power over the release of any detainee.  You can see already the possibility of a rift here as Afghan -US ties already frayed by a decade  of war come under renewed strain following a series of incidents including the killing of 16 villagers in southern Kandahar for which a U.S. soldier has been charged and the burning of copies of the Koran at the base in Bagram that sparked riots. For NATO, a string of green-on-blue killings or attacks by Afghan army and police on their Western allies has underlined the growing  risk of operating in a charged atmosphere.

The United States also retains the right to access the prisoners that it has transferred to Afghan custody to ensure they are treated safely, according to the agreement the two sides signed. They may also be able to interrogate them,  which has long been a key U.S. demand.

What about the prisoners themselves ? Where do they stand in this tug-of-war ? On the one hand is detention under a prison system that they have trouble understanding and which is alien to their culture, customs and language. On the other is the Afghan system which is familiar ground and where you are more likely to be thrown together rather than kept apart. But Afghan prisons also have a chilling history of violence and abuse, built on a judicial system which leans on confessions.

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission said in a joint report with the U.S.-based Open Society Foundations last month that researchers found credible evidence of torture at nine facilities of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and many more police detention centres. It said forms of torture included beatings, suspension from the ceiling, electric shocks, threatened or actual sexual abuse, and other forms of mental and physical abuse, which were routinely used to obtain confessions or other information.

“The Americans don’t respect our culture, so transfer is a positive step. But our people don’t respect human rights and that is an equally big problem,” Waheed Mujda of the Afghan Analytical Advisory Centre, a Kabul think tank, said.

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