Claud Monbar writes from Kabul: On Monday last, the United States handed over 3000 inmates and the new jailhouse, once the notorious Bagram, just 25 miles north of Kabul, to Afghan authorities.
The handover and others to come is a little discussed stage in the 2012-2014 NATO withdrawal calendar from Afghanistan.
The prisons will all be under the management and then governorship of Afghan authorities well before the pull-out is completed. President Hamid Karzai has declared the handover as an example of the restoration of authority to the state without the support of coalition forces. The acting Afghan Defence Minister, Enayatullah Nazari, described the handover as “a glorious ceremony that marks the handing over of responsibilities of Afghan prisoners to Afghans themselves.”
The measure of US respect for what the minister had to say, is that not many NATO and US officers attended. To them it is neither important nor a desirable duty to pull – Bagram’s reputation in American minds and Afghanistan eyes rates with the equally notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq which became known as a house of torture.
Not surprising then that as ever in Afghanistan, as in Iraq at the time for withdrawal, the story is not as simple as it sounds. The main facility of Bagram Jail has been transferred to the nearby two-year old Parwan Detention Centre. Officially, no one talks about Bagram. Unofficially everyone does talk about Bagram because ever since 2001, it has represented in most minds a disturbing factor in this war of many disturbing factors.
Most significant, although less reported, is the refusal of the Americans to hand over all the inmates; they have kept hold of “hundreds” and significantly, more than 50 non-Afghan prisoners they suspect were sent to Afghanistan to fight against NATO forces.
The US has made no secret of this hold-back and says, for example, that as many were captured during military operations, many of them come under the category of battlefield prisoners – the nearest, albeit vague, definition of a prisoner of war. However, few of the recognised Geneva Convention protocols have been applied to these detainees.
At the start of this year, Afghani officials accused the Americans of running a torture centre in Bagram, an allegation the Americans denied. A couple of weeks later, US troops were seen burning Korans at Bagram. This led to a mass protest and killings throughout the country. The fact that American officials apologised and said there was no malicious reason for the burnings did absolutely nothing to suggest that the American and Afghan authorities were at all in agreement over prisoner handling, detention and interrogation procedures at Bagram or anywhere else.
Little wonder that the American refusal to handover considerable numbers of US-classified Category A prisoners raises the point: at what stage in the withdrawal will America release these people into Afghan custody especially as they are considered in two classes: those with further interrogation values and those likely to continue terrorism if released?
But if they are so worried, why cannot the Americans hand them over with a clearly labelled security category to the Afghans? They simply do not trust Afghanistan’s security force. The US really judges that anyone of Intelligence value or anti-NATO capabilities would be released by the Afghanistan judicial system, if indeed it was used at all.
This US uncompromising stance is seen by Karzai as a matter of national integrity and even sovereignty. He’s right on both counts but, realistically, if it were not for the Americans, Karzai would not be in power and he knows that. The Americans all but ignore political sensitivities and accept that statements against the occupying forces are aimed at domestic audiences rather than being realistic criticisms.
This morning, American officials were shrugging off concerns about the hold on Afghans and foreign fighters in Bagram. They look at the Daily State Board and see this morning’s suicide attack in Kunduz in the north of the country. At least 16 killed, more than half of them policemen policing a demo. What was the demo about? Probably supporting one of the local war lords. It’s that sort of country. Many more will die and others maimed in incidences like this.
So, the US is not going to shut down its special facility at Bagram. The real suspicion is that it will become, or even has become, another Guantanamo. Plenty of military and Intelligence agency people simply shrug. If that’s what it takes, then so be it. America plans to go home on its own terms – that includes hanging on to “nasties” to make sure they don’t get back into the fight.