Salon Radio: Jonathan Horowitz in Afghanistan

Are America's detention policies at Bagram precluding success in Afghanistan?

Published July 23, 2009 4:24PM (EDT)

When President Obama reversed himself and announced that he would refuse to release photos of detainee abuse which two federal courts had ordered be released under the Freedom of Information Act, his primary argument was that release of the photos would inflame anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan and Iraq and endanger the troops.  Jonathan Horowitz -- my guest today on Salon Radio -- is with the Open Society Institute and he is currently in Afghanistan researching the impact of America's detention policies at Bagram:   specifically, our imprisonment of hundreds of Afghans and others without any due process of any kind, without any real access to the outside world, and in conditions that are, by all accounts, worse than those at Guantanamo.  The Obama administration is even currently attempting to overturn a court decision (from a Bush 43-appointed judge) which ruled that individuals abducted outside Afghanistan and shipped to Bagram have the right to a habeas corpus hearing to contest the validity of the accusations against them.

Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported that prisoners at Bagram are currently refusing to leave their cells or otherwise cooperate in protest of their indefinite detention.  That article contained this passage:

The indefinite detention of Afghan prisoners also has been a source of anger among Afghan citizens, human rights advocates say. "U.S. detention policy is destroying the trust and confidence that many Afghans had in U.S. forces when they first arrived in the country," said Jonathan Horowitz, a consultant at the Open Society Institute, which seeks to promote democracy around the world. Horowitz is in Afghanistan interviewing the relatives of Bagram detainees, as well as former Bagram prisoners.

I spoke with Horowitz from Kabul regarding his research and the impact which our detention policies generally and at Bagram specifically are having on our efforts in Afghanistan.  The discussion is roughly 15 minutes long and can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below (it can also be downloaded by MP3 here or ITunes here).  A transcript is here.

To listen to this discussion, click PLAY on the recorder below:

Glenn Greenwald: My guest today on Salon Radio is Jonathan Horowitz, who is with the Open Society Institute, and he is currently in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he is conducting some research into the impact of America's detention policies in Afghanistan. Jonathan, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.

Jonathan Horowitz: My pleasure, Glenn, thanks.

GG: I want to begin by asking you just to describe what it is that you're doing in Afghanistan, what the project is, and what it is that you're attempting to figure out.

JH: The primary work that I'm doing is really getting in touch with local Afghans; it includes legal aid providers, human rights groups, but also local villages, people really affected by US detention policy, including families of people in Bagram, the US-controlled detention facility in Afghanistan, as well as former Bagram detainees, and really trying to sketch out what they feel are the consequences of US detention policy, and also what they think would be good recommendations for making changes to this detention policy.

GG: How long have you been there doing that?

JH: This is my second trip, but I've been to Afghanistan a number of times before; I've spent about three weeks conducting the interviews thus far.

GG: Okay. Now, obviously, Guantanamo gets the overwhelming bulk of attention when it comes to debates and discussions about America's detention policies, although Bagram might be as important, and at this point even more important than Guantanamo is in the scheme of things. Could you describe what the current status of Bagram is? How many detainees are there? What appear to be the current plans for diminishing or expanding our incarceration presence there? Talk about what's going on at Bagram.

JH: Certainly. There are a little over 600 detainees there. The vast majority of them are Afghan citizens who have been picked up by US forces. They are usually captured outside of Kabul, and in some of the more violent provinces of Afghanistan, and you've got, we capture and make a determination of their threat level, and we'll send them off to Bagram if we think that they should be there.

The issues, when people are being captured, are still problematic, with respect to people being abused upon capture, property being unnecessarily destroyed, being disrespectful to family members. Then once they reach Bagram, they're held there indefinitely; they usually don't know why they're there. They haven't been presented any evidence as to why they're there, and they don't have access to lawyers, and essentially the Bagram detention facility is closed off to everyone except for US government personnel and a very, very select few members of the Afghan government.

GG: So, for example, are international human rights groups permitted there to inspect conditions?

JH: Lawyers are not permitted there. International human rights groups are not permitted there. Journalists are not permitted there.  I should make the one very important caveat that I forgot, which is the International Committee of the Red Cross is allowed to visit detainees at Bagram.

GG: But whatever it is that they find or report remains confidential, right?

JH: Yeah, absolutely. They have a strict policy of not disclosing any of the information to the public, no matter what it is that they find.

GG: Right. So anybody who, in essence, would report to the public about what's going on there - as you say, lawyers, human rights activists, other international human rights groups - are all strictly denied access?

JH: Yeah, absolutely. I'm sure you saw the story about the detainees' protesting at Bagram, and that was a very, very rare glimpse that the public had about what was going on inside at Bagram. In fact, aside from that, very, very little is known except for what comes out from maybe some court proceedings in the United States. But otherwise, it's entirely cut off from the public.

[Added by JH after the interview:  "In addition to this, as of June 2009, about forty-four families of the detainees visited Bagram in person to see their relatives via an ICRC family visit program -- but their visits are montiored, regulated, and can be censored. That's to say, it's still impossible for anyone to really know what's going on inside the facility, and there's certainly no form of public monitoring"].

GG: And how long typically are the people who are in Bagram - how long have they been there? What does it range from?

JH: Well, it's a vast range. There are people who are currently there who have been there for longer than five years, and with military operations going on day by day, there are people who enter every day. I'm sure there are people who have entered this week.

GG: Let me ask you this: the article that you just referenced was in The Washington Post from several days ago, talked about, in essence, a strike on the part of detainees there who are doing things like refusing to come out of their cells or participate or cooperate in any activities in order to protest conditions there and the denial of any judicial process. You were quoted in that article as saying that the detention policies that we are maintaining, have long maintained, in Afghanistan and at Bagram specifically, are having an extremely detrimental impact on the perception of Afghans towards the American military presence and what it is that we're trying to accomplish there.

There was a recent controversy in the US over whether we should release certain photos that are in the possession of the American government showing detainee abuse on the part of the American military, and the argument was made by Obama and others that we can't release those photos because to do so would inflame anti-American sentiment against our troops there. What is the impact that these detention policies have in terms of how we are perceived by Afghan citizens?

JH: Well, let me tell you. I just had a quick look at the detention task force interim report that just came out. And almost to my amazement, it asks in that report whether the US should be changing its detention policy in Afghanistan. Right now, if the US wants to stabilize Afghanistan, if it wants to end the conflict, the US needs to change detention policy in Afghanistan. The majority of the people who I have spoken to cite the way that the US captures and detains people as their main complaint against the US, second only to civilian casualties. They don't just complain about past torture. It's the whole present-day process that's creating problems for the relationship between the local Afghans and US troops.

People have told me that when the US first came to Afghanistan, they were basically welcomed with open arms. A man who just the other day who I spoke to said, even our children ran towards the highways and roads when they came. But after shepherds were arrested raising sheep, and farmers were arrested from the fields and teachers were arrested from schools, this has all changed. People run away from the US, when the US tries to approach them. US detention policy is having a devastating impact on the US ability to stabilize the country and the conflict.

GG: Well, talk about that. Why, what specifically is the impediment that these detention policies create for our efforts to stabilize that country?

JH: To begin with, the main problem is that people don't feel that the US is using good sources of information to detain people. They cite wrongful detentions over and over again. They cite wrongful detention, they cite problems with interpreters, and they cite sloppy or inadequate investigations that the US carries out in trying to determine if someone should be detained or if someone is innocent.

Now, you also have issues of abuse, disrespect of culture and traditions, and issues like that. But with all these problems about gathering proper information, gathering proper intelligence, conducting good investigations, then they get sent in to the Bagram military review process which Judge Bates has declared as being less sophisticated and more error-prone than the Guantanamo Bay review process. So, even with all the mistakes being made, there's then an error-prone process that supposed to fix these mistakes, and it clearly doesn't. And it's really angering a lot of people.

GG: Now, one of the arguments that's made is that the United States, that Afghanistan is a war zone, an active war zone for the United States, and it's traditional for prisoners of war, namely people who are picked up on a battlefield, to be put into confinement without any trial or charges until the end of hostilities. Obviously, some of the people in Bagram are not people who were picked up in Afghanistan at all but were picked up from around the world and then shipped to Bagram, probably because there's no review process of any meaningful type. But what about that argument, that it's both typical and lawful for an occupying force in the middle of a war zone to put people into prison as prisoners of war and not give them any trial. Why isn't that just the way that things are typically done?

JH: I think some people try to cite this as a very difficult legal question and very complicated issue. I look at it as an issue of policy - what's the smart policy for the US to be doing?  The US wants to win back the confidence and trust of Afghans as a way to stabilize the country and stabilize the government. Right now, it has a US detention policy that's basically doing the opposite of that for large swaths of the population of Afghanistan. Whether you look at it from a legal point of view, or you look at it from a policy point of view - and I'm looking at it from a policy point of view - the US really needs to change its detention policy if it wants to win back the hearts and minds of Afghans.

GG: One of the claims that Obama officials make is that they're currently in the process of reviewing these policies to determine whether changes, either marginal or fundamental changes, ought to be made. Do you have a set of recommendations or proposals that you think need to be instituted in order to solve these problems?

JH: I would say that there are the concerns that we're discussing now or that I'm describing now and the recommendations come directly from the people I've been talking to in Afghanistan, the people most affected by US detention policy. And what they complain about primarily are the wrongful detentions that are based on bad information, bad translation, sloppy investigations.

I'm talking about family rivalries that are played out by people giving false information to the US forces, and the US going and detaining these people. And then the US puts people in a review process where they're first assessed after 75 days, and then people have to wait another six months until they're assessed again. Those things need to change. The access to evidence, so people know how to respond when they're being told why they're there - that needs to be granted to them. Access to lawyers - that needs to be granted to them so that there can be a fair process whereby the US knows if it's detaining people for a threat, or if it's detaining people who are innocent and they should be released.

There's another whole half of this reform that needs to take place, however, and that's something that has to do with the Afghan detention policy, or the Afghan detention system. I would say the US and international community really need to work in a more coordinated and consolidated way to reform the Afghan justice system, to provide training in criminal investigation techniques, to make sure that people aren't being abused upon capture in a detention facility, to allow Afghan lawyers to visit their detains in Afghan custody. And also just to make sure that judges and prosecutors are following Afghan procedural law. It's a big job, but it needs to be done.

GG: Yeah, absolutely, there's a huge amount of resources being poured into this effort, and it's kind of amazing that detention policies that we recognize create such problems elsewhere may continue in Afghanistan, especially given the high risk of error, and the fact that it's so contrary to American values as you suggest, as federal courts themselves have found.

Well, we'll definitely be looking more for whatever formal report you issue or write, and I'd love to have you back on to talk about that again. I think it's an incredibly important issue, given that it seems like a pretty easy fix to address what is obviously having a major impact on our efforts in Afghanistan and I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me about it.

JH: Thanks very much, it was a pleasure.


[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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