The Magazine

Inside Our 'Secret' Afghan Prisons

A Navy SEAL and a Harvard-trained lawyer take charge of U.S. detention policy.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By WILLY STERN
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I met dozens of detainees, was often invited back into their group cells for tea (I always declined), and made chitchat with those who had some English. Did any complain of abuse? No. Is this proof that here is no abuse? Of course not, but it's a pretty decent indicator. I was briefed on classified detainee files--on the condition that actual names not be used in print--and was allowed to interview a wide array of prison employees, including interrogators, guards, wardens, and even a psychologist. Most of these interviews were unmonitored, including on-the-record and unofficial talks with two translators who work in the interrogation rooms. I asked for details on a juvenile detainee, and they were immediately provided. Planned trips to visit prisons in Herat and Kandahar were cancelled because of bad weather and the limitations military aircraft face with low cloud cover hanging over the Afghan mountain ranges.

The brain trust of this new openness is Vice Admiral Bob Harward, who heads up Task Force 435, and his deputy, Brigadier General Mark Martins. Harward, a hard-charging Navy SEAL, is a legend in the Special Forces community. (He has a long scar down his left cheek--"from a knife fight" he says without elaborating.) An engaging commander, Harward, 53, cusses like the sailor he is when hanging with the troops but can produce an admiral's spit-and-polish when needed--an engaging combination in a commander. He seems not to have an ounce of body fat and combines decent Farsi with a strategic mind.

Martins, 49, is another hard-charger. He was valedictorian of his West Point class, a Rhodes Scholar who earned a First at Oxford, and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School. The Seal and the Solicitor are less of an odd couple than one might think. For one, they are both gifted athletes (Martins has run the Marine Corps Marathon in 2:44) and exude an easy command presence. And they urgently want to upgrade the detentions and interrogations situation in Afghanistan. As Harward notes: "Perception is reality."

They both talk a lot about transparency--you hear that word about 50 times a day--but aren't able fully to practice what they preach. Official DoD policy mostly prohibits taking media into the large detention facility at Bagram, and does not allow public discussion of the even more secretive detention facility at Bagram: the Temporary Screening Facility (TSF). The Joint Special Operations Command apparently controls the TSF today; there's been no public indication to date when or how it will come under Task Force 435's oversight. Asked how he can preach transparency and yet not oversee the TSF, Harward declines to even acknowledge the facility's existence. Instead, he says, "I've been made responsible for all detention operations in Afghanistan, and I fully intend to fulfill that mission." There's little doubt that Harward and Martins are lobbying tactfully behind the scenes to gain oversight of the facility.

And make no mistake: Task Force 435's mission is essential. General Stanley McChrystal laid out the issue fairly starkly in his August assessment of the Afghan war:

 

There are more insurgents per square foot in corrections facilities than anywhere else in Afghanistan. Unchecked, Taliban/Al Qaeda leaders patiently coordinate and plan, unconcerned with interference from prison personnel or the military.

Detainees have cell phones, money, and influence. They control wide swaths of the Afghan prisons today, and they are radicalizing the other inmates.

FIELD DETENTION SITES

Despite the regular flow of stories about torture and black sites, few members of the press have been inside any of the Afghan prisons or attempted to understand the country's detainee structure. There are four separate parts to it, which in theory can take an insurgent from the battlefield through rehabilitation back into society: the Field Detention Sites; the Bagram Theater Internment Facility, which has just been replaced by the DFIP; the Temporary Screening Facility; and the Afghan-run correctional system.

There are nine FDSs in Afghanistan, mostly located in the southern and eastern parts of the country, where the insurgency is strongest. They are on forward operating bases, residing in unmarked containers. Scores of soldiers walk by them every day and have no idea what's on the other side of the metal wall. They all have a small entrance area where IDs are checked. In addition to five or six cells--divided by no more than a thick piece of plywood--most have a medical room, an open area, a small recreation yard, and an interview room. Adjacent to the interview room is another small room with a one-way mirror for observation purposes.

The interrogators, who all work in plainclothes, have done intensive 18-week interrogation courses and stick to the 19 approved methods of interrogation in the Army Field Manual (the law since the Detainee Treatment Act was passed in 2005). None of these methods includes torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. This gets hammered home hard throughout the American-run prisons.

The Red Cross can visit these facilities but does not have access to the detainees. Many of the detainees are released after initial interrogations and screenings to determine their status. The U.S. military has no obligation at this point to report their whereabouts to the Red Cross, but if they are held longer, the Red Cross is informed.

Nobody displays names or ranks on their uniforms inside an FDS. Special Forces operators, whose work is often clouded in secrecy and who use fake names, even with a visiting general, staff many of the tiny facilities. But "we have absolutely nothing to hide from anybody," says Colonel John Garrity, the straight-talking military police officer in charge of the large Bagram detention facility, as well as the man responsible for investigating any charges of abuse at the FDSs.

 

I'm not supposed to talk policy but if I had my way, we'd open up every damn facility to the media and anybody else who wanted to have a look. These are quality facilities run by trained professionals. You'll find worse problems at prisons in the U.S., but the secrecy here creates crazy myths. We have nothing--absolutely nothing--to hide from anybody. I am proud of our facilities and so would anybody else who has spent time inside them.

 

The policy of secrecy is clearly eating away at Colonel Garrity--and with good reason.

The average stay of a detainee at an FDS is six days. Some are released almost immediately, others are transferred to the Afghan police, and the rest begin moving within 10 days to the larger facilities at Bagram. Amanula was transferred to Bagram seven days after surrendering.

THE BAGRAM THEATER INTERNMENT FACILITY

Until last week, when the DFIP came on line, detainees sent to Bagram went to the Bagram Theater Internment Facility (BTIF). This facility held about 720 detainees. By comparison, at the height of the 2007 surge, we had some 27,000 detainees locked up in Iraq, and during the British campaign in Malaya from 1948 to 1960--the counterinsurgency oft cited as the most successful--nearly half-a-million people from a much smaller population pool were detained.

The BTIF was actually two facilities enclosed in one space behind walls and concertina wire. The larger of the two facilities, inside the former Soviet hangar, held two matching sets of 16 group cells (detainees sleep about 20 to a cell), as well as interrogation booths, and medical facilities. Prisoners lived in open cages with wire mesh tops for easy inspection by guards. Guards walked on a long wooden platform that runs above the cages, and a bright yellow sign on the raised platform reads "No Female Guards Beyond This Point."

In both the shuttered BTIF and the new DFIP there is at least one open latrine per cell and a group shower area with individual stalls. Detainees wear bright orange jumpsuits--making it awfully hard for them to escape unnoticed--as a sign of shame, and white caps. When it's cold (and it was cold in Afghanistan in December), they are issued blue knit caps. They have access to bottled water. When they have drunk a bottle, they may exchange it for a full one. This is a necessary security protocol as detainees have been known to cut the bottles in half and use them as weapons, or even to scoop up and throw feces at the guards. If their behavior warrants, they are rewarded with juice boxes, the same ones (apple, orange, pineapple) that are served in the dining facilities on the military base.

Prisoners have access to 40-inch HDTVs. Recently a soccer game was being shown, and when the camera panned to a crowd shot, a woman with much exposed skin came into view, jumping up and down. The shot offended many of the Muslim detainees, yet seemed to give furtive pleasure to others.

There were no windows and therefore no natural light for the detainees inside the massive BTIF hangar, a legitimate source of concern to Red Cross inspectors and a problem corrected at the new DFIP. In back of the hanger was what the troops call the "K-Span"--a hundred-foot-long Quonset hut where the hardcases were housed in segregation cells.

At least half the guards at the BTIF have had feces thrown at them, a standard way for detainees to act out, according to Chief Matthew Lacy, a Navy Guard Force commander. Corporal Kevin Johnson, 18, told me, "Yesterday, I had a guy throw urine on me, but he then apologized to me and said it was meant for another guard." (Johnson in less than five months at the BTIF has taught himself Pashto, the language of most of the detainees he looks after.) Some detainees regularly call the black MPs "niggers." The MPs, who work 12-hour shifts, complain frequently about their long hours but not about the abuse they take. They are trained not to respond to such taunting, and any claim of guard abuse is documented and investigated.

The average detainee stay at the facility is 24 months. The average weight gain is 36 pounds. For most, it is the first time in their lives they have had adequate food and access to health care. Most arrive illiterate, and many depart with elementary reading skills after taking classes in the facility. This is an effective counterinsurgency tactic; giving an insurgent the ability to read allows him access to a wider world than the narrow radical Islamic society in which most were raised. The ability to pursue independent thought should not be underestimated in this tribal society.

The clampdown on the media at Bagram hasn't just encouraged negative stories but has kept positive coverage under wraps. An internal U.S. Army document--self-serving, to be sure--reveals much decent treatment at the BTIF. There is the detainee diagnosed by an American doctor with pancreatic cancer and given compassionate release so he could spend his last days with his family. Before he left, the dying man of his own accord went from cell to cell in the facility telling his fellow detainees how decent his captors had been. Or take the young Army specialist from Missouri who oversees the segregation cells in the K-Span. He and the eight men under his care sing to each other in Pashto at bedtime, the melodies carrying through the metal cell doors. He continues his serenade each night until every detainee is asleep.

There were abuses at the BTIF in the early years of the Afghan conflict. At least two Afghans died in U.S. custody. Task Force 435 absolutely won't talk about it, but multiple interviews with other military officials, translators, private contractors, consultants, and prison experts paint a grim picture. The CIA conducted these early interrogations. Some interrogators were cowboys, and many of the military police units in the facilities in the early years were reservists--with limited training--who followed the lead of the confident CIA guys. Apparently, when CIA operators left for the day, some would tell the reservists "to soften 'em up for us before tomorrow." There is no evidence that such abuse continues today with a trained guard force.

DETENTION FACILITY IN PARWAN

Colonel Garrity was granted permission to show the unopened facility to the media in mid-November, and scores of articles and photos--some glowing, some skeptical--appeared. It's a modern wonder, replete with huge cells, basketball hoops in the recreation yard, expensive optometrist equipment, a state-of-the-art X-ray machine, and a large vocational-technical training area to help with the detainee's reintegration to society. In a bizarre twist, after the detainees are transferred in early 2010, they will have far nicer digs than the soldiers who guard them. The soldiers will continue to live in cramped canvas tents and walk long distances outside through mud to get to the latrine or shower.

The new facility has great public relations value and will aid the 435's quest for transparency. But the DFIP is also so overdone as to be borderline ridiculous. The ultimate plan is to hand over management of the facility to the Afghans, and it's a safe bet that the power tools and medical equipment will quickly be stolen and sold. What are the chances that the modern surveillance cameras and integrated computer system will still work in 10 years in this third-world country where many farmers still use oxen and Iron Age tools? A clear sign that the facility is not sustainable: The power outlets at the 40-acre facility run on the American 110-volt system, not the Afghan grid.

The detainees at the DFIP are carefully screened. A small fraction--the hard cases--are being designated for fledgling deradicalization programs. Experts are studying similar programs in places like Saudi Arabia and Singapore to adapt them for the Afghan culture. Reintegration programs--vocational training, literacy programs, etc.--will be broadly administered to almost the entire population according to individual plans drawn up for each detainee.

"But reintegration plans are still very much in the early stages," reports Marisa Porges, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations with an expertise in the rehabilitation of terrorists. She's just back from visiting the facilities in Afghanistan. Efforts are underway, says Porges, "to both design and implement programs simultaneously, which is a good sign and shows they're being aggressive." For example, moderate mullahs are working with the detainees.

THE TEMPORARY SCREENING FACILITY

This is the site that doesn't officially exist. Nobody on Task Force 435 will acknowledge it. No matter. It does exist, and it is at Bagram Airfield. It's the controversial facility over which Admiral Harward is apparently seeking jurisdiction.

The TSF, though, is hardly as sinister as it sounds. Military operations in Afghanistan legitimately require what is essentially a way station for detainees who are being screened before they are released or transferred (either to the large Bagram detention facility or directly to the Afghan prison system). It is here that Special Operations Forces interrogate detainees, just as they do at the Field Detention Sites. The Joint Special Forces Command, which reportedly runs the secret facility, is less interested in transparency than in maintaining operational and tactical secrecy in wartime. There are valid arguments on both sides of the issue, a fact not lost on Harward or Martins. While transparency is needed to win Afghan hearts and minds and is a key component of McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy, it can also aid the insurgents by revealing surveillance techniques. (I've learned of many such techniques--clever but not illegal--in my time here.) If you were a Special Forces interrogator doing your job just fine would you really want another layer of bureaucrats--including a bunch of uptight lawyers--looking over your shoulder?

But many Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan cite disappearances into the "occupier's black jail" as a good reason to pick up an AK-47 and fight the Karzai government, or try to blow up our troops on patrol. That's the reason transparency makes good sense today. It's the smart way to stop alienating the population. The facility may be top secret but any scribe could easily confirm its existence by taking a quick look Maqaleh v. Gates, a case in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia; the government's brief appealing the decision refers quite openly to a "temporary screening and processing" facility.

THE AFGHAN PRISONS

After capture and screening, many detainees are transferred into the Afghan criminal justice system for prosecution. I visited three Afghan-run prisons--Pol-i-Charkhi in eastern Kabul just beyond the Kabul River; the Jalalabad Prison in eastern Afghanistan on the corridor leading to the Khyber Pass; and Kabul's new Counter-Narcotics Justice Center.

Compare Pol-i-Charkhi or Jalalabad with a prison in Kentucky and the Afghan facilities look downright awful. Prisoners are cramped up to 18 to a small cell. The sewage system is often no more than a hole in the floor to an open trench, reliant on gravity to move the mess downhill and away from the cells. Hundreds of people were lined up outside Pol-i-Charkhi on visiting day, many with wheelbarrows piled high with food since food service inside is largely nil. At the Jalalabad Prison, the inmates sleep inside but the guards are forced to sleep outside, even in the snow, due to lack of funds to build even a single guard shack.

But compare these facilities with prisons in Africa or elsewhere in central Asia, and they look okay. There are lots of Americans floating around the facilities--corrections consultants hired by the State Department and even U.S. marshals with crew cuts and blue windbreakers. They work hard to assure proper standards. And there isn't any evidence of the torture, beatings, whippings, and rape that are standard fare in third-world prisons.

Pol-i-Charkhi has a past. It's estimated that the Afghan Communists executed 27,000 people in this hellhole--mostly political enemies--after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The main facility is built on a pin-wheel design, with the cell units forming the spokes of the wheel. I walked through one such block where the general population was housed, as well as through an open recreation yard. Dozens of prisoners could have easily walked up and attacked me. Instead, they wanted to shake hands and share tea.

To be sure, there is a separate facility at Pol-i-Charkhi, called the U-10, where the most dangerous prisoners are held. It is here that you'll find the Taliban leaders who led a riot and took over two cell blocks in 2008. Still even these violent prisoners wander freely around their cell block, meandering among the bright red garbage cans that dot the long second-floor hallway. The day I visited, several wanted to practice their English; they were polite, to be sure--and no doubt knew the consequences of creating trouble. The U-10 facility is on par with any maximum-security prison in the United States, in large part because Western contractors built it, and U.S. taxpayers fund it. It's worth noting the United States has already spent $16 million to refurbish and update Pol-i-Charkhi, one cell block at a time. Construction of a vocational tech-training center--part of Task Force 435's reintegration strategy--was underway when I visited.

There are bright spots in the Afghan system. The women's prison at Jalalabad is spacious, with doe-eyed children frolicking in the courtyard on a blue swing set, slide, and seesaw. There's also a small classroom and a huge pile of American toys--think Spiderman dolls--donated by aid groups in the United States.

Then there's the recently built Counter-Narcotics Justice Center. Inmates sleep two-to-a-room on bunk beds, and every cell has its own semi-private bathroom area. The cells I saw were clean--with toothbrushes and toothpaste left out on a shelf. A modern kitchen and industrial-sized laundry round out the facility. The recreation yard, though, isn't much to see. It's outdoors, to be sure, but is nothing more than a long narrow cage where detainees squatted on their haunches, huddled under wool blankets to ward off the winter air. Still, the facility is so nice that many accused criminals with political connections pull strings to win admission.

Corruption is a constant aspect of the Afghan prison system. Sarah Chayes, author of a brilliant book on the guileful nature of Afghan politics post-Taliban, Punishment of Virtue, believes that corruption takes at least three forms in the prison system. (Chayes, who has lived in Kandahar for the last seven years working to rebuild homes and establish an agricultural collective, serves as a special adviser to the NATO military command.) First of all, she says, top Afghan officials strive to have their rivals or enemies sent to prison and the best way of achieving this is by deliberately providing inaccurate information to international military or intelligence officers. Second, imprisonment in Afghanistan is often simply a kidnapping racket, with releases obtained for a "bribe." Finally, Chayes notes that corrupt officials and other criminals with ties to those at the summit of the Afghan government use their pull to get out of jail.

Task Force 435 has no real power within the Afghan prison system, and so the corruption will remain. Another weak link in the chain is the corruption of the greater Afghan judicial system, notes General Martins--judges, policemen, guards, etc. But the task force must play the hand it's been dealt. They don't complain--at least not much.

One of Task Force 435's most serious challenges is in its efforts to deradicalize detainees and reintegrate them into Afghan society.

Take the case of 16-year-old Abul-Aziz--the lone juvenile in detention at BTIF today. Educated in a radical madrassa in Pakistan and effectively an orphan, he's a quick study. (When he was picked up in September, Abul-Aziz was already proficient in four languages.) It quickly became apparent that the babyfaced Abul-Aziz had regular contact with senior members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)--a terrorist group operating in Afghanistan, knew the exact location of IMU safe houses, and had received advanced combat training. Although it's legal to hold him under the laws of armed conflict, he's still just a kid. On the day he was picked up, he was trying to get his cell phone fixed and went into a village to have his photo taken before a Muslim holiday. Can he be deradicalized? This is the sort of question that Admiral Harward and General Martins are trying to tackle.

With others, there is virtually no hope of getting them to lay down their arms. Agha-Gul is a senior Taliban commander with a shaved head and thick black beard. He was nabbed in late 2005 in a Kabul taxicab with $13,000 in Euros and British pounds. A courier who traveled among Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Europe, Agha-Gul has ties to multiple attacks on coalition forces. He was entirely uncooperative during interrogations and will likely be held indefinitely as "an enduring security threat."

Since 2002, about 4,000 individuals have been detained; more than 2,500 have been released. Task Force 435 would like to release many more. General Martins can often be found in his windowless office after midnight scouring detainee files for clues that could lead to eventual reintegration. "Information that reveals apparent motives for violence," he says, "is often helpful in developing a reintegration plan or path for an individual detainee." Martins is thorough. He also looks at the circumstances of the capture, the strength of evidence, local community and tribal history, sectarian and political dimensions, the detainee's cooperation, his behavior in detention and even the willingness of his home village to have a detainee back.

But before any detainees are released, they appear before a controversial body known as a Detainee Review Board (DRB). This panel of three field-grade military officers conducts administrative hearings for each detainee. The detainee does not have access to a civilian lawyer, but is instead guided both before and during his hearing by a military officer who advocates on his behalf. Human rights groups contend this is wrong.

But as one task force officer notes:

 

I would hate to have on my conscience the deaths of well-intentioned but naïve civil liberties lawyers who've been beheaded by Taliban while scouring Kunar province for evidence of their clients' innocence. So we may be in for some criticism on this score in the end. There are some things that require common sense, and armed conflict is one of them.

 

At least a third of the nation's 34 provinces are in armed conflict. A lot of folks are getting killed. In any event, as required by law and policy, every detainee receives an in-person hearing before the DRB within 60 days of arrival at Bagram and gets a further review every six months.

The DRB is required to consider all "reasonably available" evidence, a qualifier easy to understand in a war zone where collecting evidence often exposes soldiers and Marines to getting killed. The military is also required to chase down all exculpatory leads offered by a detainee who claims he was unjustly nabbed. It's not a perfect system, but it is not a terrible one either.

How can we tell if we are winning this war? One litmus test is the complex case of a detainee named Jalaludin. Relatively well educated--he completed the 11th grade--the 35-year-old had a well-paying job as the number two officer on a security detail. His job was to protect the construction workers who were building a much-needed road through Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan. This area is a stronghold of Hezb-e-Islami insurgents. (The U.S. taxpayer is funding the road, one of thousands of such reconstruction projects here that get little coverage.)

Although Jalaludin was not directly involved in attacks on coalition forces in his area, he allowed the Taliban to sneak its fighters and weapons through his security checkpoints and, worse, he had advance knowledge of terrorist attacks on coalition forces that he failed to report--hardly acceptable behavior for a top-level security officer. He was arrested based on strong evidence and quickly admitted his guilt. He now is held at the DFIP and says he desperately misses his family.

We know of Jalaludin and his uncertain future only because the new task force on detentions believes the U.S. military has nothing to hide and saw the value in opening up its doors to a visiting scribe. It's a gamble, to be sure, but a good one. In a country where virtually every issue is shrouded in uncertainty, bedeviled by deadly complexity and riddled with corruption, this much is certain: The good faith, soundness, and humanity of Joint Task Force 435's mission are unassailable. The men and women of 435 are committed to a humane and open detentions system, one that is rooted in the rule of law and grounded in basic American values.

Will these become Jalaludin's values? After all, says Martin, he wasn't

 

a trigger puller or actually part of the insurgent force. I've looked carefully at the evidence and spoken directly with Jalaludin. I think he's an accidental guerrilla, someone drawn into the larger conflict by influences that have little to do with the larger political struggle.

 

Martins thinks Jalaludin is "an important case study" since "he appears to represent a class of current detainees who, if swayed not to oppose the government, could be decisive in isolating insurgent groups and ending the armed conflict."

Ultimately, this broader conflict will be won not only on the battlefield, but also in the hearts and minds of men like Jalaludin. If he comes over to our side we'll know we're winning the war.

Willy Stern, an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University's Law School, embedded with Task Force 435 in Afghanistan in December 2009.