2 years, 10 months ago
Continuing reports on the use of prisons in counterinsurgency.
A few months after insurgents launched a rocket attack on Kandahar’s air base, US soldiers kicked down Khan Mohammed’s door and whisked the stout, ruddy-faced 27-year-old — blindfolded and handcuffed — to an American prison near Kabul.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, US forces have detained thousands of suspected enemy combatants without trial in facilities such as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and Bagram in Afghanistan. US officials say the detentions prevent attacks, but critics charge that innocent people have been unfairly held for years.
Mohammed’s story illustrates what US officials say is a dramatic shift in policy aimed at treating suspected enemies better, and releasing them sooner.
“We changed everything,’’ said Vice Admiral Robert Harward, head of US detention operations in Afghanistan, who oversees a new, modern prison outside the boundaries of the Bagram Air Base, near Kabul, which officials say emphasizes rehabilitation and release.
Mohammed was taken to the new prison and was brought be fore a military judicial panel within weeks. But his case also reveals how, despite these improvements, the military’s opaque judicial process often seems arbitrary to the local populace and continues to leave some Afghans unappeased.
Sensitive evidence against Mohammed was never shared with him, nor explained to the public. Four months after he was seized, American soldiers issued him a gray coat, a white prayer cap, and a black bag containing a toothbrush, then set him free with little explanation.
His quick release bolstered the belief among some Afghans that he should never have been arrested. Some also say an evolving system of judicial trials for detainees is unfair.
“The perception is still that it is like a black hole,’’ said Hekmat Karzai, a cousin of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and director of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, an independent, nongovernmental organization in Kabul that offers legal defense to detainees.
Numbers released by American authorities tell a tale of speedier justice, however. In 2010, as US troops pushed deep into hostile territory, the US-led coalition arrested 6,223 Afghans, the largest number on record, Harward said. But about 5,000 were let go within days, often after tribal elders vowed to keep them out of trouble.
About 1,200 — who had the most damning evidence against them — were sent to the new $60 million US prison facility outside Bagram Air Base. A quarter of them were released within months without a trial.
“There are people who think this is all rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But you have got to hope they succeed,’’ said Eugene Fidell, a professor at Yale Law School and a specialist in the subject of military justice.
Rehabilitation and release. The report goes on to say that this kinder, gentler, state-of-the-art facility was the brainchild of General McChrystal. That sounds about right. We can’t rehabilitate most of the criminals in our own U.S. prisons where we know the culture, know the language, know the people, and own the system. We can’t manage to effect this rehabilitation because criminality is a moral problem, a problem of evil. Prisons don’t change a man’s heart. Much less, then, will we be able to use prisons in Afghanistan to effect rehabilitation.
When the U.S. is seen as short-timers in the campaign and when release is usually just days or weeks away, there is no reason to befriend U.S. troops. There is no replacement for killing the enemy on the field of battle. If the naysayer responds that “This violates the Geneva Conventions,” or “That violates our own rules of engagement,” very well. There are other solutions. Simply put, kill when we can, but refuse to take prisoners. It simply does no good. Or, we can redeploy home and end the campaign. Either way, pretending that prisons work in counterinsurgency is foolish, and runs counter to the evidence from both Iraq and Afghanistan. As I have said before, “simply put, prisons … do … not … work … in … counterinsurgency.”