During the recent meeting of the Afghani legislature, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld toured the country making upbeat assessments about Afghanistan's transformation into a peaceful and stable democracy.
But during a recent Amnesty International mission in which I interviewed scores of Afghans—including prisoners released from U.S. detention centers —I discovered the reality is considerably more complicated and claims of success are greatly exaggerated.
While many people voiced appreciation for coalition efforts to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, they stressed the need for continued U.S. assistance. The most elementary forms of security remain elusive for ordinary Afghans. Attacks and threats by Taliban or Al-Qaida sympathizers are a daily occurrence. And many believe that tactics developed by the Iraqi insurgency are finding their way into Afghanistan. In fact, 2005 was the most lethal year since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. More than 1,500 people killed in fighting between anti-government forces and the U.S.-led Coalition and Afghanistan National Army. Government authority hardly extends beyond Kabul, and what little had been established is quickly eroding. Many believe the Taliban are clearly on the ascendancy and that some territories are again reverting to its control.
Yet the patience of many Afghans with the U.S. presence is wearing thin. We heard repeated accounts of aggressive tactics during raids on homes or shops, particularly by U.S. troops in the southern and eastern provinces, and of torture and ill-treatment in U.S. custody. The complaints included beatings, sleep deprivation, hooding, and being stripped naked. Some of the most serious allegations concerned treatment in detention cells at U.S. Forward Operating Bases, where detainees are initially held after arrest before transfer to Bagram, the U.S. airbase where at least eight Afghans have died in U.S. custody.
We took scores of testimonies from individuals who alleged wanton destruction or theft during raids. We also heard tales of males being humiliated by, among other things, being forced to kneel on the ground with heads bowed while being blindfolded and handcuffed, sometimes hooded, in the presence of their families before being taken away for interrogation. We heard numerous accounts of deeply offensive behavior toward women by U.S. forces, such as ransacking women’s’ belongings and verbal abuse during weapons searches. “We will kill to protect the honor of our women and children,” said one released detainee whose family had allegedly endured such treatment. While clearly such measures cannot be condoned, the sentiment to strike back is part of the dialectic.
At the same time, many of the Taliban's abusive hallmarks may be returning. Many cooperating with the reconciliation process have been threatened. Rigid interpretations of Sharia continue to be imposed by Taliban sympathizers. And while the Karzai government claims that millions of students, including girls, have returned to school, we were told that hundreds of schools this year alone had been burned or forced to close because of threats.
We were told by U.S. Headquarters in Kabul that military campaign targets are carefully reviewed by lawyers to ensure they are legitimate and proportionate under international humanitarian law. We were also assured that the United States is committed to investigating allegations of abuse and to holding those responsible accountable. Yet we heard dozens of complaints about poor investigations into abusive treatment or property destruction, in which those responsible for abuse were merely slapped on the wrist.
It may not be too late to reverse the tide. But urgent steps are imperative. The use of abusive techniques during raids must finally stop. Now that the McCain amendment has passed the Senate, Congress should pass new directives that clearly set out limits in detainee treatment. The president should make an unequivocal proclamation that torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment will not be tolerated, that each credible allegation will be promptly and thoroughly investigated, and that anyone found responsible will be punished. Finally, Congress should create an independent commission to comprehensively investigate reported violations and hold anyone responsible accountable—up as well as down the chain of command.
Unless these issues are effectively addressed, it may only be a matter of time before Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy gives way to another failed state—with consequences we know too well.
Curt Goering, senior deputy executive director for policy and programs at Amnesty International USA in New York, was in Afghanistan in late November through mid-December.
© 2006 MinutemanMedia.org