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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Kabul, Afghanistan

Amanula is a cold-blooded killer. But the 26-year-old unemployed tractor driver doesn't look the part. Rail thin with spindly arms, Amanula wears his black hair long, and his unkempt bangs often hang over his eyes. When you can see them, his coal-black eyes reveal a sad and contemplative man, resigned to his fate.

Like most villagers in craggy, dirt-poor Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan, Amanula is illiterate. The local mullah in Waza Khawa encouraged this young Pashtun to join in the fight against the infidels. On a crisp day in November, Amanula and three companions rode their Honda motorbikes high into the mountains to attack an American convoy. He was already a veteran of such lethal missions and had been on three in the previous month alone. His small unit carried a lot of weaponry to the fight: dynamite, a pressure plate IED trigger, a heavy machine gun, AK-47 assault rifles, a Chinese grenade, and even a rocket launcher.

Their target was a convoy of American military vehicles snaking their way through the treacherous mountain passes not far from the Pakistan border. Amanula's team quietly set up its deadly ambush. The morning was crystal clear--and eerily quiet.

Then a U.S. Army Apache attack helicopter escorting the convoy spotted Amanula's crouching team and let loose with a hail of 30-caliber machine gun fire. Within seconds, two of Amanula's accomplices were dead, sliced to bits. A bullet entered Amanula's forearm and lodged in his bicep. Dazed with pain, he clutched his AK-47 for comfort. Within minutes, he heard an American soldier--an Army sergeant actually--screaming at him in a language he didn't understand. He put his hands over his head, the universal sign of surrender. His last surviving colleague made a different choice and aimed the rocket launcher at the young American soldier. The insurgent was rapidly dispatched by the sergeant's M249 machine gun.

The sergeant faced a decision as old as war itself. He had captured an enemy combatant and had to do something with him. The options haven't changed much since Alexander the Great rampaged through Afghanistan in 329 B.C.: Let the enemy go and give him the chance to kill you tomorrow; execute him on the spot; or give him quarter and take him prisoner. In keeping with U.S. policy, the recognized laws of armed conflict, and all sense of civilized society, the sergeant took option three. In short order, he disarmed Amanula, put flex cuffs on his wrists, and gave him emergency medical care, actually stemming the bleeding by using Amanula's torn white shirt to bandage his arm. The soldier called for a Medevac helicopter and, within 35 minutes, Amanula found himself under a doctor's care at an American forward operating base, some 25 miles northward. Amanula had become a "detainee," held legally as an enduring security threat in a war zone. After his medical treatment, he was moved to a small detention facility at another forward operating base.

The facility where Amanula was held is known in military parlance as a Field Detention Site (FDS). Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have run breathless stories in recent weeks alleging that there exist secret facilities in Afghanistan operating outside the rule of law--although the correspondents were far from certain just what facilities they were writing about. No matter. "Afghans Detail Detention in 'Black Jail' at U.S. Base" read the Times's headline. The Post featured two Afghan teenagers who said they had been "beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement in concrete cells for at least two weeks while undergoing daily interrogation about their alleged links to the Taliban." Rashid, 15, claimed "his interrogator forced him to look at pornography alongside a photograph of his mother."

I have been in two Field Detention Sites, and there was absolutely nothing "black" about them. They are spartan, to be sure, with the detainees housed in small, private cells built out of simple plywood inside a nondescript and unlabeled container. (Many American soldiers sleep in similar containers.) The interrogation rooms are similar--a small table with three chairs, also fashioned out of plywood, much like what your local Cub Scout troop would bang out during a carpentry project.