In the summer of 2009, an extraordinary meeting took place in Kabul,
the Afghan capital. On one side of the room sat Anthony Lieto, a retired
American army colonel who had helped to oversee sweeping reforms in US
detention policy in Iraq. Opposite him were two senior figures from the
former Taliban government, both of whom had spent years as prisoners in
One was Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's last
official envoy to Pakistan, who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay
for four years after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. The
other was Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Taliban's former foreign minister.
He surrendered after US forces toppled the Taliban government in 2001,
and spent part of the next two years at the US-run prison on Bagram
airbase - a facility that had been dubbed 'Guantanamo's more evil twin'
by campaigners. They were there to discuss US detention policy
in Afghanistan, and the meeting came at a critical time. With hundreds
of Afghans languishing in US prisons, the issue of detention had become
an open sore festering at the core of attempts to win "hearts and
minds" in the faltering Western war effort in the country. There
was a growing consensus among policymakers that the situation in the
jails had become counter-productive and that prisons full of angry,
disaffected young men who had suffered at the hands of the Americans
were fertile recruiting grounds for the Taliban.
Lieto told the former Taliban officials, both well-known
political operators in Afghanistan after their release from US custody,
that the time had come for change.
"Within one year to 18 months the US wants to get out of this
detention business," the retired colonel said, according to minutes
taken by the peacebuilding organisation that brokered the meeting.
"We want to turn over this to the ministry of justice or the Afghan security forces." Detention reform In
the months prior to that meeting, General David Petraeus, the then head
of US military operations in the region, had asked Major-General
Douglas Stone, a marine officer who had led the overhaul of detention
operations in Iraq, to carry out research on a new approach to the way
the US detained prisoners in Afghanistan.
The Kabul meeting was one of dozens held over the late spring and
summer of 2009 by Stone and his staff, resulting in a classified
700-page report, circulated among Washington's top-brass and
policymakers, that contained his recommendations.
A year later, substantial changes have been made to the system.
leaders and family members can now petition for the release
of detainees and act as a social guarantor for recently-freed prisoners
who have pledged not to fight against the Americans. A
training programme is under way to prepare Afghan authorities to
take control of all US-run prisons and the first trials of American-held
detainees in Afghan courts began in June.
So far this
year, around 200 prisoners have been released from US prisons in
Afghanistan, and officials say more will follow as newly-commissioned
prisoner case reviews are completed.
Life has also changed for those who continue to be held. At
Bagram, detainees have been moved from the crumbling Soviet-built
prison to a new detention complex; a $60mn facility at Parwan, completed
in November 2009 in a blaze of publicity. To go with the new prison, a new military taskforce, JTF 435, has been set up to oversee the military detention programme.
frenzy of renewal had a single, broad aim; the US wanted to signal a
clear break with a detention record marred by accounts of torture,
suspicious deaths, legal challenges and secrecy.
"Our first focus was to ensure that the perception of US
detention operations was in line with what we did," Vice Admiral
Robert Harward, the commander of JTF 435, said last week.
"Our priority at this point is transition of those US detention facilities and operations to the government of Afghanistan." Old wine in new bottles?
But while progress has been made, many argue that a fundamental
problem remains at the heart of the system; Afghans are
still being captured and detained by a foreign power with insufficient
means to challenge their detention. "As yet, it's too soon to
tell whether the supposed 'handover' of Bagram is a change for the
better, or just old wine in new bottles," Cori Crider, the legal
director at Reprieve, a prisoner support charity that specialises in US
military detention cases, says. "There are two key unanswered
questions: First, is it real? We need to know if the US will run a
smaller detention operation on Bagram, as it has suggested it may. We
also need to know whether people are simply going to be held on behalf
of the US after their transfer.
"Two, even if the handover is real, is it going to lead to still more
problems? Will transferred prisoners be tortured in Afghan custody?
Will Afghan courts be using secret evidence given to them by the
Americans, that their lawyers are not allowed to see?"
Harward says there are "less than 50" foreign nationals in US
detention in Afghanistan whose fate may be complicated by their
nationality. While it is not his "first preference", he admits it is
conceivable that they will remain under US control after the handover.
would not rule that out as an option if the government of
Afghanistan desired us to do that sometime down the road," he said. But
Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador who met with Lieto last
summer, says the reality of dialogue between Washington and Kabul on the
issue is likely to be less consultative than Harward suggests.
believes that the forthcoming handover, which will be completed by the
end of 2011, is little more than a ploy to outsource legally
problematic detentions. "When the Americans do something, the
people condemn them," he says. "But indirectly, nobody will know what
they are doing. The government of Afghanistan will do what the Americans
The end of accountability? Efforts by the US
military to close a door on its chequered history of detentions in
Afghanistan are also being met with concern by the legal community in
When the replacement prison at Bagram opened in November 2009, the
old detention site, used by the Bush administration in the darkest days
of the extraordinary rendition programme, was slated for destruction.
Accountability lawyers opposed demolishing the prison, arguing that to do so would be akin to destroying a crime scene.
Fearing a drawn-out legal battle, the US justice department struck a
quiet deal with the lawyers; an FBI evidence recovery team would be
dispatched to meticulously photograph and model the old prison before it
was destroyed, and the information they gathered would be made
available to legal teams working on accountability cases. The
decision was a work-around, but at its heart lay a tacit admission; that
at the very least, there was conceivably a case to answer for the
allegations of abuse at Bagram. It is precisely that possibility that has made detention a live political issue in Afghanistan.
At June's government-sponsored
peace jirga, a gathering of some of the most influential tribal leaders
in the country, a rare consensus formed around opposition to the
"The government of Afghanistan should take immediate and solid action
in freeing from various prisons those detained on the basis of
inaccurate information or unsubstantiated allegations," the resolution
produced at the end of the three-day meeting said.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, immediately ordered reviews into
the cases of those being held in the conflict, and the US said that it
would allow its prisoners to be included in the process.
After a year of overhaul in the detention system, Afghanistan is preparing for a new era of conflict detentions.
"Bagram 2.0" turns out to be any fairer or less controversial than
its previous incarnation remains to be seen; but for the hundreds of men
who say they are being wrongly held by US troops in Afghanistan, the
reforms have offered the faintest glimmer of hope.