Afghan Prison An Insurgent Breeding Ground

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 7 months ago

From The Washington Post:

For six years, the Afghan government has held Abdul Jabar behind bars, separated from his father, a former Taliban judge, and his seven brothers, all Taliban fighters.

Being locked up for kidnapping, however, has not dulled Jabar’s love for the insurgents or hatred of the Afghan government. With so many Taliban supporters in Afghanistan’s largest prison, Jabar feels right at home.

“All of the prisoners support the Taliban. I also support the Taliban,” the 28-year-old said in a jailhouse interview inside Pol-e-Charki prison, on the outskirts of Kabul. “They will win the war in Afghanistan.”

The problems at Pol-e-Charki, with its 5,000 prisoners, point to a weakness in the American approach to detention in Afghanistan. Among those housed in Pol-e-Charki are hundreds of suspected insurgents captured by the United States and transferred to Afghan authority because an American-run prison, with a capacity of 1,350, has long been filled to capacity.

Support for the Taliban is almost universal in Pol-e-Charki prison, the largest in Afghanistan, inmates said in interviews. Inmates and Afghan officials describe the prison as a breeding ground for the insurgency, with prisoners maintaining close and regular contact with comrades outside. Last week, Afghan intelligence officials said that a 45-year-old prisoner, Talib Jan, had orchestrated the deadly bombing of a Kabul grocery store from his prison cell.

American military officials say they want to keep in custody the inmates deemed most dangerous and those who are thought to possess valuable intelligence. To address the problem, the United States is nearing completion of a project that will double to about 2,600 the number of beds at the American-run Parwan Detention Center, formerly known as Bagram prison.

But with U.S. Special Operations Forces capturing scores of prisoners each week in aggressive nighttime raids, the United States for now must choose between releasing many prisoners after a few hours and handing over others to Afghan authorities, despite what current and former Afghan officials say are real reasons for concern about the security and effectiveness of Pol-e-Charki.

Of the 3,000 people detained by the coalition between August and January, 32 percent were transferred to Afghan authorities for detention in facilities including Pol-e-Charki, and 4 percent went to the U.S.-run prison. More than half were released in the initial screening period.

“We are not de-Talibanizing them,” Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, said in a recent interview about Pol-e-Charki. “We are further radicalizing them. We are giving them control of the prison.”

U.S. officials acknowledged the problems at Pol-e-Charki but said the facility used to be worse. Earlier in the war, the prison had a wing “completely controlled” by the Taliban, where guards could not enter and left food at the door, said a U.S. official in Kabul who works on prison issues. Inside, the Taliban trained and ran a madrassa.

As we have discussed before, to believe that imprisonment is assisting in the fight against the insurgency one must believe that prisons perform a rehabilitative role, and not only is there really no prima facie reason to propose such an idea, I see no evidence of it in the history of insurgencies and counterinsurgency operations.

For my doubters.  Name me one insurgency which was defeated or even weakened by imprisonment (and no, don’t include the only example that comes to mind for you, Iraq, until you study previous posts on this issue).  In your mind, travel the world from Malaya to Algeria.  Why did this RAND study not include the word “prison” even once in 311 pages?  Same for most other studies on the Algerian insurgency.

Not only are prisons not performing a rehabilitative role in Afghanistan, they are making the problem worse.  I had previously observed that the 96-hour-catch-and-release program means that insurgents get back home before the week is out, making “detainment” irrelevant except to piss off the persons who have been detained.

Kill them or let them go (and preferably, kill them), but sending them to a catch-and-release program, or to be further radicalized, is counterproductive and wasteful of military resources.  And it keeps special operations forces troopers busy rounding up folks to be radicalized and released.  It doesn’t work to cut the head off of the insurgency.  Followers will always find leaders if they want to be led.  It must be marginalized from the bottom up by military operations.  It must be costly enough that the no one wants to follow the Taliban leaders anymore.  When leaders don’t have followers, the insurgency is over.

I have said it before, and will say it again.  Prisons … do … not … work … in … counterinsurgency.  In my daily digest of information, when I see entries like “Six Taliban fighters killed in Sangin,” or “Four Taliban killed in Pech Valley,” that’s meaningful.  When I see entries that contain the words “Taliban fighters detained …,” I summarily ignore them.  Not only does it not add anything to the campaign, it detracts from it and obfuscates what’s really important.  This simple rule helps me to avoid reading most of the ISAF entries on military operations in Afghanistan.

Prior:

Prisons Do Not Work In Counterinsurgency

Hamid Kzrzai: Defeater of the High Value Target Program

The Ineffectiveness of Prisons in Counterinsurgency

Jirgas and the Release of Taliban Prisoners

Prisons in Afghanistan

Prisons in Counterinsurgency



  • PedL2MedL

    My son was a Marine with the original surge into Helmond Province. He was in Nawa. To this day, he is furious at the lack of ability to actually do their jobs with the ROE’s put in place then. His squad practiced catch and release with numerous insurgents because of the time line rules in place during the op. They had no one to take them. He knows they were up to no good, and he really wish they just would have killed them as it haunts him to this day wondering how many killed some of his brothers. Those ROE’s were and still are a detriment to getting this job done. Frankly, I always believed in our mission in Afghanistan (and Iraq). But to fight with handcuffs, as they expect our troops to do, assures us of a never ending conflict and no chance of victory. Now I’m sad to say I just want us to bring our boys home. COIN as we have devised it is nothing more than an exercise for defeat.

  • http://biophilic.blogspot.com Burk

    Hi, CJ- This is all quite true, and these prisons become, in effect, another stable sanctuary akin to Pakistan. But.. killing prisoners doesn’t seem so bright or moral either. Killing all prisoners will..

    - Make the insurgents fight harder.
    - Motivate moderate Afghans against us, insofar as they have any sympathy with the Taliban, as most actually do, even if they don’t want to be governed by them.
    - Yield no intelligence at all.
    - Feed the narrative of Jihad and religious justification.
    - Violate Pashtun ethics as well.

    I agree that it would be more immediately effective than recycling them, but in the strategic long-term, it would be less effective as it delegitimates what little legitimacy we have left.

    The solution is to improve the imprisonment system. With the billions we are spending, we can’t house more than a thousand people? That is preposterous. More importantly, the prisoners need to be processed through a legitimate Afghan justice system. The Afghans supposedly have a government, and need to decide whether the death penalty is something they want, or some kind of rehabilitation, or long-term imprisonment. We are not fighting the insurgency for our health, but for theirs. They will then have to answer eventually at the polls(?) for their law and order policies, or lack thereof. This would require the US to have some semblance of evidence for imprisonment as well.

  • Joe

    Actually a Great study in this very problem is right here at home in the good old U.S of A.
    Take a good look at our prison system, The Gangs, drug gangs and cartels have practiaclly taken over them in “Networking” and creating super criminals once the prisoners term has ended. And how many Crimes have been committed by inmates dictating command and control with-in their own prison cell on the outside world.
    The only people that are truly being punished is the American Tax payer/ Citizen.
    So, how can we possibly run a prison system over in Afghanastan when we can’t even run one here in the US?

  • Pingback: The Captain's Journal » Night Raids, Prisons, Politics and the Afghanistan Strategy


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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Prisons in Counterinsurgency and was published March 7th, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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