The events that transpired at the US run Iraqi detention center, Abu Ghraib, were a black mark on the US military and hurt the prestige and credibility of the US worldwide. And although incarceration for those captured on the battlefield can range from horrific to barely tolerable, the US military began an unusual experiment in Afghanistan that is without precedent and promises to continue under the leadership of General David Petraeus. On a recent visit to Afghanistan, as part of a California-based Pacific Council on International Policy delegation, we visited prisons and holding facilities both in the environs of Kabul as well as at Bagram Airfield. Although hosted by the US military, we were free to speak openly to American military personnel, diplomats, contractors, and Afghan detainees.
The impetus for America's emerging and unconventional detainee strategy lies in part with the Abu Ghraib experience, but a deeper explanation can be found in former commanding General Stanley McChrystal's realization that the battlefield extends far beyond traditional areas of armed conflict to encompass virtually every area in which foreign forces engage with the Afghan population.
This effort is undertaken by Joint Task Force 435 (JTF 435), a unit of 2,000 highly disciplined US military volunteers tasked with carrying out all US detainee and prisoner operations in Afghanistan under the command of Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a Navy SEAL, and Brigadier General Mark Martins, a Harvard Law School graduate.
Why is one of the highest ranking officers in Afghanistan in charge of detainee operations, a job traditionally assigned a rather low military priority and rarely within the domain of an elite special operations general officer? The reality is that one of the few places where Taliban members and US military personnel interact face to face on a daily basis is in military prisons. By starting the unorthodox practice of permitting family members to visit those in custody, there is an increasingly large group of Afghans who have experienced positive exposure to US personnel and operations in Afghanistan. In the campaign to win hearts and minds, this new sphere of engagement touches virtually every corner of the country where the US military operates.
At the Bagram facility, some 800 suspected Taliban detainees are housed in a state-of-the-art prison. The guard to inmate ratio is extraordinarily high, perhaps unsustainably so. Unlike most prisons in the US, inmates are not employed in the kitchen; rather, US military personnel prepare food for the inmates. On average inmates gain some 40 pounds while in US custody and have access to religious leaders, recreational facilities, as well as educational and vocational opportunities. Without question, security is tight with cameras everywhere and all interrogations videotaped. The US military guards are themselves heavily policed by their officers to ensure that they do not respond in kind in the face of occasional hostility.
Family visits are held next to a playground and visitors (who often travel great distances) are usually fed a meal and provided with vitamins, as Afghanistan is a country with epidemic vitamin deficiencies. Medical facilities for detainees, staff, and visiting family members are excellent, as the doctors and nurses are US military personnel. Remarkably, Bagram is a departure even from the overburdened and overcrowded penal system in the U.S. Detainees who learn tailoring while in custody are even provided with sewing machines upon their release so as to have a way to make a living upon return home.
Contrary to the widely held belief that prisoners are locked away with virtually no hope of ever seeing the light of day, five to ten tribunals are convened on a daily basis to adjudicate the release of prisoners. Each detainee is assigned an American advocate (generally a line combat officer). Conditions of the detainee's capture are reviewed in a courtroom-style setting, where village elders and family members are encouraged to testify on behalf of the detainee. Given the intense tribal and family connectivity that makes Afghanistan so decentralized, the US is eager to have tribal elders take responsibility for detainees by guaranteeing that, should they be released, detainees will not rejoin the fight. The process appears to be genuine and 42 percent of those who appear before tribunals are released.
Prisons are by definition and intention unpleasant places. Yet, the professionalism and commitment of the service people staffing JTF 435 is both noticeable and impressive. The question remains as to whether this strategy will work. Eventually, the Afghan government will take control of the prison and its detainees; thus, great optimism is probably not warranted. Yet by being sensitive to human rights concerns while broadening the battlefield so as to encompass a greater swathe of Afghan society while at the same time trying to adapt US military doctrine to Afghan culture, Vice Admiral Harward and his team have made an impressive start. How this relates to the overall strategy in Afghanistan and the prospects of success is a different question and one that continues to present the United States and its allies with great challenges. However, the fact remains that in this narrow sphere the US military is trying to do well by doing good.
Dr. Jerrold D. Green is the President and CEO of the Pacific Council on International Policy. William Loomis is a Director of the Pacific Council and former CEO of Lazard. They were members of the second PCIP fact finding delegation to visit Afghanistan with US Department of Defense support.