WASHINGTON - The Pentagon plans to expand intelligence operations at its main prison in Afghanistan, records and interviews with military officials show.
Interrogators and analysts are being sought for a bigger Bagram prison scheduled to open next year. They will be hired to question prisoners and provide intelligence that can be used on the battlefield, according to contract solicitations reviewed by USA TODAY. The Army also is seeking a "trained Mullah" to conduct Islamic services for detainees and advise U.S. officials on religious issues.
The developments are the latest indication of U.S. plans for a long-term presence in Afghanistan, where the fundamentalist Muslim Taliban militants have regained strength since U.S. forces ousted them in 2001.
Originally built as a Soviet air base in the 1980s, the Bagram prison was meant to be a short-term holding site. Bagram has been a flash point in the debate over U.S. treatment of detainees. The International Red Cross has negotiated with U.S. officials about conditions and access to detainees.
After peaking at nearly 700 prisoners in 2006, the population at Bagram has hovered for the past year at its 600-prisoner capacity, according to Central Command figures provided in response to a USA TODAY inquiry.
The intelligence hires are to be in place before next summer's scheduled completion of the new detention center that will hold 1,000 prisoners, an increase in capacity by 65%.
"In 2001 ... we never thought we'd still be (at Bagram) today," said Brig. Gen. Robert Holmes, deputy operations chief at U.S. Central Command, which oversees Afghanistan operations. "Now that we see this as a sustained activity, there were improvements to be made."
On Monday, the Pentagon announced that 2,000 Marines will go to Afghanistan in November to deal with the increased fighting.
The new facility and staff at Bagram will allow U.S. officials to gather more diverse intelligence from the added prisoners as more U.S. forces arrive in the country to take down Taliban strongholds, said Seth Jones, a military analyst at the RAND Corp. think tank.
"One thing we have not taken advantage of is just trying to understand what is motivating people to join the insurgency," he said.
The new $60 million facility will also include more space for detainee religious services, education programs and family visits.