Published on Thursday, January 28, 2010 by TomDispatch.com
Obama’s Secret Prisons
Night Raids, Hidden
Detention Centers, the “Black Jail,” and the Dogs of War in Afghanistan
[The research for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism .]
One quiet, wintry night last year in the eastern Afghan town of
But the hunt turned up nothing. Spring and summer came and went with no sign of Ismatullah. Then one day, long after the police and village elders had abandoned their search, a courier delivered a neat, handwritten note on Red Cross stationary to the family. In it, Ismatullah informed them that he was in Bagram, an American prison more than 200 miles away. U.S. forces had picked him up while he was on his way home from the bazaar, the terse letter stated, and he didn't know when he would be freed.
Sometime in the last few years, Pashtun villagers in
This process has become even more feared and hated in
One Dark Night in November
It was the 19th of November 2009, at 3:15 am. A loud blast awoke the villagers of a leafy neighborhood outside Ghazni city, a town of ancient provenance in the country's south. A team of
The foreign soldiers, most of them tattooed and bearded, then went on to the main compound. They threw clothes on the floor, smashed dinner plates, and forced open closets. Finally, they found the man they were looking for: Habib-ur-Rahman, a computer programmer and government employee. Rahman was responsible for converting Microsoft Windows from English to the local Pashto language so that government offices could use the software. He had spent time in
They took the barefoot Rahman and a cousin of his to a helicopter some distance away and transported them to a small American base in a neighboring province for interrogation. After two days,
"We've called his phone, but it doesn't answer," says his cousin Qarar, the spokesman for the agriculture minister. Using his powerful connections, Qarar enlisted local police, parliamentarians, the governor, and even the agriculture minister himself in the search for his cousin, but they turned up nothing. Government officials who independently investigated the scene in the aftermath of the raid and corroborated the claims of the family also pressed for an answer as to why two of Qarar's family members were killed. American forces issued a statement saying that the dead were "enemy militants [that] demonstrated hostile intent."
Weeks after the raid, the family remains bitter. "Everyone in the area knew we were a family that worked for the government," Qarar says. "Rahman couldn't even leave the city because if the Taliban caught him in the countryside they would have killed him."
Beyond the question of Rahman's guilt or innocence, however, it's how he was taken that has left such a residue of hate and anger among his family. "Did they have to kill my cousins? Did they have to destroy our house?" Qarar asks. "They knew where Rahman worked. Couldn't they have at least tried to come with a warrant in the daytime? We would have forced Rahman to comply."
"I used to go on TV and argue that people should support this government and the foreigners," he adds. "But I was wrong. Why should anyone do so? I don't care if I get fired for saying it, but that's the truth."
The Dogs of War
Night raids are only the first step in the American detention process in
In the early years of the war, these were but way stations for those en route to Bagram prison, a facility with a notorious reputation for abusive behavior. As a spotlight of international attention fell on Bagram in recent years, wardens there cleaned up their act and the mistreatment of prisoners began to shift to the little-noticed Field Detention Sites.
Of the 24 former detainees interviewed for this story, 17 claim to have been abused at or en route to these sites. Doctors, government officials, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, a body tasked with investigating abuse claims, corroborate 12 of these claims.
One of these former detainees is Noor Agha Sher Khan, who used to be a police officer in Gardez, a mud-caked town in the eastern part of the country. According to Sher Khan,
The interrogators blindfolded him, taped his mouth shut, and chained him to the ceiling, he alleges. Occasionally they unleashed a dog, which repeatedly bit him. At one point, they removed the blindfold and forced him to kneel on a long wooden bar. "They tied my hands to a pulley [above] and pushed me back and forth as the bar rolled across my shins. I screamed and screamed." They then pushed him to the ground and forced him to swallow 12 bottles worth of water. "Two people held my mouth open and they poured water down my throat until my stomach was full and I became unconscious. It was as if someone had inflated
This continued for a number of days; sometimes he was hung upside down from the ceiling, and other times blindfolded for extended periods. Eventually, he was sent on to Bagram where the torture ceased. Four months later, he was quietly released, with a letter of apology from
An investigation of Sher Khan's case by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and an independent doctor found that he had wounds consistent with the abusive treatment he alleges. U.S. forces have declined to comment on the specifics of his case, but a spokesman said that some soldiers involved in detentions in this part of the country had been given unspecified "administrative punishments." He added that "all detainees are treated humanely," except for isolated cases.
Some of those taken to the Field Detention Sites never make it to Bagram, but instead are simply released after authorities deem them to be innocuous. Even then, some allege abuse. Such was the case with Hajji Ehsanullah, snatched one winter night in 2008 from his home in the southern
Others taken to these sites never end up in Bagram for an entirely different reason. In the hardscrabble villages of the Pashtun south, where rumors grow more abundantly than the most bountiful crop, locals whisper tales of people who were captured and executed. Most have no evidence. But occasionally, a body turns up. Such was the case at a detention site on an American military base in Helmand province, where in 2003 a U.S. military coroner wrote in the autopsy report of a detainee who died in U.S. custody (later made available through the Freedom of Information Act): "Death caused by the multiple blunt force injuries to the lower torso and legs complicated by rhabdomyolysis (release of toxic byproducts into the system due to destruction of muscle). Manner of death is homicide."
In the dust-swept province of Khost one day this past December, U.S. forces launched a night raid on the village of Motai, killing six people and capturing nine, according to nearly a dozen local government authorities and witnesses. Two days later, the bodies of two of those detained -- plastic cuffs binding their hands -- were found more than a mile from the largest
The matter might be cleared up if the
One night last year,
Afghan human rights campaigners worry that
The Black Jail
Much less secret is the final stop for most captives: the Bagram Internment Facility. These days ominously dubbed "Obama's
Its modern life as a prison began in 2002, when small numbers of detainees from throughout Asia were incarcerated there on the first leg of an odyssey that would eventually bring them to the
Regular, even infamous, abuse in the style of
Then, one day, a team of soldiers dragged him to an aircraft, but refused to tell him where he was going. Eventually he landed at another prison, where the air felt thick and wet. As he walked through the row of cages, inmates began to shout, "This is
Former Bagram detainees allege that they were regularly beaten, subjected to blaring music 24 hours a day, prevented from sleeping, stripped naked, and forced to assume what interrogators term "stress positions." The nadir came in late 2002 when interrogators beat two inmates to death.
One day two years ago,
The soldiers took Muhammad to the Black Jail. "It was a tiny, narrow corridor, with lots of cells on both sides and a big steel gate and bright lights. We didn't know when it was night and when it was day." He was held in a concrete, windowless room, in complete solitary confinement. Soldiers regularly dragged him by his neck, and refused him food and water. They accused him of providing medical care to the insurgents, to which he replied, "I am a doctor. It's my duty to provide care to every human being who comes to my clinic, whether they are Taliban or from the government."
Eventually, Muhammad was released, but he has since closed his clinic and left his home village. "I am scared of the Americans and the Taliban," he says. "I'm happy my father is dead, so he doesn't have to experience this hell."
Afraid of the Dark
Unlike the Black
But human rights advocates say that concerns about the detention process still remain. The
Nonetheless, the improvement in Bagram's conditions begs the question: Can the
The American troops that operate under NATO command have begun to enforce stricter rules of engagement: they may now officially hold detainees for only 96 hours before transferring them to the Afghan authorities or freeing them, and Afghan forces must take the lead in house searches. American soldiers, when questioned, bristle at these restrictions -- and have ways of circumventing them. "Sometimes we detain people, then, when the 96 hours are up, we transfer them to the Afghans," says one
A simpler way of dancing around the rules is to call in the
The shift signals a deeper reality of war, American soldiers say: you can't fight guerrillas without invasive raids and detentions, any more than you could fight them without bullets. Through the eyes of a
An officer who has worked in the Field Detention Sites says that it takes dozens of raids to turn up a useful suspect. "Sometimes you've got to bust down doors. Sometimes you've got to twist arms. You have to cast a wide net, but when you get the right person it makes all the difference."
For Arias, it's a matter of survival. "I want to go home in one piece. If that means rounding people up, then round them up." To question this, he says, is to question whether the war itself is worth fighting. "That's not my job. The people in
If night raids and detentions are an unavoidable part of modern counterinsurgency warfare, then so is the resentment they breed. "We were all happy when the Americans first came. We thought they would bring peace and stability," says former detainee Rehmatullah. "But now most people in my village want them to leave." A year after Rehmatullah was released, his nephew was taken. Two months later, some other villagers were grabbed.
It has become a predictable pattern: Taliban forces ambush American convoys as they pass through the village, and then retreat into the thick fruit orchards that cover the area. The Americans then return at night to pick up suspects. In the last two years, 16 people have been taken and 10 killed in night raids in this single village of about 300, according to villagers. In the same period, they say, the insurgents killed one local and did not take anyone hostage.
The people of this village therefore have begun to fear the night raids more than the Taliban. There are now nights when Rehmatullah's children hear the distant thrum of a helicopter and rush into his room. He consoles them, but admits he needs solace himself. "I know I should be too old for it," he says, "but this war has made me afraid of the dark."
This piece appears in print in the latest issue of the Nation  magazine. 
© 2010 Anand Gopal
Anand Gopal has reported in
URL to article: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/01/28-11
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs