An Afghan perspective on detentions

By Erica Gaston In his recent 60-day assessment of the war in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal described detention operations, and the enmity they generate among the Afghan population, as a “strategic liability” for success in Afghanistan. Justifiably so. As Jonathan Horowitz recently pointed out on the Huffington Post, “The growing anger of Afghans comes largely ...

580301_090929_bagram22.jpg
580301_090929_bagram22.jpg

By Erica Gaston

In his recent 60-day assessment of the war in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal described detention operations, and the enmity they generate among the Afghan population, as a "strategic liability" for success in Afghanistan. Justifiably so. As Jonathan Horowitz recently pointed out on the Huffington Post, "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." 


By Erica Gaston

In his recent 60-day assessment of the war in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal described detention operations, and the enmity they generate among the Afghan population, as a “strategic liability” for success in Afghanistan. Justifiably so. As Jonathan Horowitz recently pointed out on the Huffington Post, “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.” 

The solution? Empower the Afghans to carry out detention operations. Both Gen. McChrystal’s assessment and a recent review of detention issues in Afghanistan by Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone (the “Stone Review“) highlight the importance of developing Afghan capacity for detention operations. But as Sahr MuhammedAlly recently noted on the AfPak Channel, “the devil will be in the details.”

Allowing Afghan institutions and civil society to take a bigger part in the current and future review processes might be a start. I sat down with a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the chief human rights watchdog in Afghanistan. Though he wasn’t consulted for either the Stone Review or Gen. McChrystal’s assessment, Mohammad Farid Hamidi, the Commission’s representative at the Working Group on Conflict-Related Detentions in Afghanistan, had some additional insights that U.S. reviews should have included. An edited version of the interview follows.

The United States is in the middle of reforming its detention policies in Afghanistan. What should those reforms include?

The problem with detentions starts at the beginning, from when a person is captured through his detention. The way a person is captured should be humane and in accordance with international and national human rights standards. Capture operations should not be done at night. It increases danger to children, women, and surrounding civilians. Every night children and women feel terrorized, especially in the southern region of Afghanistan.

Also, when the U.S. captures an individual they categorize how dangerous the person is. But there is no good procedure to assess whether an individual is truly a dangerous person to U.S. or national security interests.

Has your Commission documented abuses by international military forces when they capture and detain people?

The Commission does not have access to people detained at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. However, we have interviewed those who have been released, and found in some cases that during the capture, interrogation, and detention period, they have been tortured and abused. In one case [at Bagram] international forces forced a man to engage in a fight with a dog. International forces have threatened detainees, including threatening to kill a man at gunpoint. Detainees have also been forced to stand in cold temperatures without any clothes. That has happened often.

Have the detention practices of the U.S. and its allies changed the ways local Afghans view the presence of foreign troops in their country?

Two things create bad perceptions for international military forces — one is civilian casualties and the other is detentions. The policy of the U.S. detention system is at odds with the policy that the international community has come with to Afghanistan. It’s like a double standard. First they have come to bring human rights, democracy, transparency, but then their actions act against these standards.

When we go to our government to [raise concerns about] detainee issues, the Afghan government will say, “Why are you bothering us? Why don’t you ask the Americans about Bagram?” Actually, for any human rights issue, they point to U.S. actions [like detention policies] and say: “They are breaching human rights values in Afghanistan, why don’t you go talk to them?”

Do lawyers have access to Bagram detainees? Is your commission permitted to visit detention facilities in Afghanistan?

Only the U.S. government itself might have appointed lawyers — we couldn’t know. As far as we know, no legal advisor or advocates have access to the Bagram detention facility.

At Pul-e Charki [Afghanistan’s central prison] we don’t have any problems making visits. But we don’t have access to Bagram. For two years we have struggled to get access to the Bagram detention facility with high-level government officials and US authorities. But so far we have not had any success.

Do all people detained by international forces go to Bagram?

Some governments have signed agreements with the government of Afghanistan such that after they capture a detainee they transfer him to the Afghan government or other national detention sources within 96 hours. The treaties, signed by Netherlands, UK, Denmark, Canada, and Norway, also try hard to ensure the detainee’s humanity is respected. However, during the investigation and monitoring of Pul-e Charki and national security detention facilities, AIHRC has found that the standards were not at the level we were expecting. When we see something that is not right, we engage with higher authorities to make improvements. Then there is the United States. There are no treaties with the government and they are directly capturing and detaining Afghans.

Have any U.S. detainees at Bagram been exposed to Afghan law?

To my knowledge, there has been no case where Bagram detainees have been prosecuted under Afghan law. Some detainees from Guantanamo and Bagram were transferred to the Afghan government, and a commission was formed to investigate their cases, and some of those individuals have been prosecuted.

Erica Gaston is a human rights lawyer based in Kabul, Afghanistan, consulting on civilian casualties issues for the Open Society Institute.  

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.