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More Incommunicado Detentions in Afghanistan


The American conundrum in the war on terror might be summarized by a historian twenty years from now in these terms. Under George Bush, effectively drawn and implemented military plans produced victories which could not be capitalized upon due to gross political miscalculations and poor political decision-making. We see that in spades in several reports out of Afghanistan, which show how a military success which could fairly easily have been parlayed into a political transformation resurrecting a viable Afghan state, is slowly being squandered by inept political calculations. The hour is now drawing late, and the success achieved in Afghanistan is seriously threatened. It’s not beyond being salvaged, but the Bush Administration is acting feverishly to do more damage.

Let’s look at two key prongs of the policy: detention operations and crop eradication.

Today’s New York Times features another of the in-depth reports for which Tim Golden has become famous; this one looks into conditions in the massive prison facility at Bagram built by the Soviets and continued by the United States. The fact of this troubling legacy alone—like that of Bagram’s evil former twin in Iraq, Abu Ghraib–is enough to provoke concern. And in both cases there is a wide gap between official plans and reality. Golden writes that

the treatment of some prisoners on the Bagram base has prompted a strong complaint to the Pentagon from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only outside group allowed in the detention center.

In a confidential memorandum last summer, the Red Cross said dozens of prisoners had been held incommunicado for weeks or even months in a previously undisclosed warren of isolation cells at Bagram, two American officials said. The Red Cross said the prisoners were kept from its inspectors and sometimes subjected to cruel treatment in violation of the Geneva Conventions, one of the officials said.

The senior Pentagon official for detention policy, Sandra L. Hodgkinson, would not discuss the complaint, citing the confidentiality of communications with the Red Cross. She said that the organization had access to “all Department of Defense detainees” in Afghanistan, after they were formally registered, and that the military “makes every effort to register detainees as soon as practicable after capture, normally within two weeks. In some cases, due to a variety of logistical and operational circumstances, it may take longer,” Ms. Hodgkinson added.

Note the steady flow of weasel words used by Hodgkinson, the Bush Administration political flak who has responsibility for detainee affairs. First, she says that the Red Cross only has access to “DoD detainees” as if there might be other categories which are excluded. Indeed, it’s been well established for some time that the intelligence community has its own independent operations at the site, and at other sites in Afghanistan. More evidence of the treacherous rationalizations that many in the military feared some time back. The career military have every reason to be troubled by this because of course the view that the United States itself has taken going back at least as far as the end of World War II might be called “landlord’s liability.” Namely if the facility is run by the military, the military is accountable for everything that goes on there, including the dark and dirty dealings of the intelligence types.

Second, note that with respect to the imperative of registration and identification, Hodgkinson again bobs and weaves madly. They really try. She says, but it’s subject to “logistical and operational circumstances.” There’s abundant reason to be very skeptical of those “logistical and operational circumstances,” particularly in light of the fact that, as we subsequently learned, Secretary Rumsfeld personally directed the withholding of identity information from the Red Cross for certain High Value Detainees, an act which was a crime under U.S. law.

As in Iraq, the U.S. faces a ballooning prison population. But Golden writes, this is contrary to plan. Surely some skepticism is warranted on this prong as well. The military are quite expert in implementing plans. What we have here is really a clash between two plans—the real one, and the one held out as window dressing for the folks from the Red Cross and from Congress. The real plan bespeaks a lack of confidence in the Afghan legal and prison system and ultimately in the Afghan Government. Understandably that is not something that Ms. Hodgkinson or other Pentagon talking heads want to drag out.

Golden’s survey is admirably thorough, and he hits the right notes. But I am mystified at the New York Times editors who give this piece an inexplicably stupid headline, “Defying U.S. Plans, Prison Expands in Afghanistan.” In fact, I imagine that if the public affairs office had to put a caption on the piece, this is exactly what they would come up with. “We really want to do the right thing, honestly,” it says, “just somehow things never quite work out the way we intended.” This is not journalism, it is the art of apology. This is one of a number of times recently where I’ve come away from a Times article and found myself wondering whether the headline writer actually read the article?

A couple of other points in this article fall just a bit short. One is the dynamic between the United States and the Afghanistan government over detainee affairs. There has been a good deal more friction than Golden lets on to in his piece, though for obvious reasons both sides are keen to keep this out of the press. Senior figures in the Karzai administration have been concerned about the size of the prison population, the conditions maintained there, the treatment of prisoners, and the reconciliation of the U.S. detention program to the Afghan Government’s own amnesty and reconciliation efforts. The Afghan Government is interested in locking up persons who present an imminent security threat and also reaching reconciliation with clans and groups that sit in the no-man’s land between government and Taliban sympathies. The U.S. seems to support the first policy very aggressively, but not the second. Perhaps indeed they are undermining the second. They may actually be dealing a setback to the Afghan Government in its reconciliation efforts.

Another point not really explored at all, but quite significant, is the way the U.S. Government’s detention policies in Afghanistan complicate relations with our NATO allies. The U.S. approach had been to buildup in Afghanistan through an increased presence from NATO allies. Setting up and running prisons is an important part of the operations. However, America’s NATO allies uniformly are concerned about collaborating with a U.S. detention program which violates the law. In fact most had committed not to handle detentions if there was any prospect that their detainees might come under American custody. This has made coordination of detention policy into a nightmare for the Karzai Government and has provided a strong reason for NATO allies to refuse increased support levels.

Nevertheless, Golden’s article is an important contribution on a vital topic. The effort in Afghanistan is seriously in trouble, and this piece is essential to understanding how it’s gone off the tracks.

The Crop Eradication Program
In the meantime, the Bush Administration is gearing up to push through a massive crop eradication program in Afghanistan targeting the country’s opium poppy crop. Why exactly? The experts within the Administration are close to unanimity that this would be an extremely foolish step, that it would undermine the position of the Karzai Government and would essentially operate as a recruitment campaign for the Taliban. The Karzai Government is in trouble already–its political position within the country continues to weaken, and the hand of violent opponents, led by the Taliban, has been steadily strengthened. So why is the Bush Administration doing something that the Karzai Government doesn’t want and which may even prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back?

The answer to that is simple: U.S. domestic politics. The Bush Administration wants to appear to be acting firmly against the spread of narcotics. It recognizes that Afghan opium production is back. It’s determined to be able to say that it’s acting aggressively against it. And, as usual, it’s totally indifferent to the experts who say its measures will boomerang.

In a piece in the Financial Times, two well known economists, Edmund Phelps (2006 Nobel laureate in Economics), and Graciana del Castillo (formerly of the International Monetary Fund), now both at Columbia University, take a close look at the Bush Administration proposals. They say that the critics are right, and it isn’t a remotely close call. Here’s a key graph in which they point to a policy that would battle opium effectively:

Both the US and the European Union assist their farmers through loan and price support programmes and other incentives. If donors want to “do good”, they should support a two-pronged economic reconstruction strategy.

First, donors should channel reconstruction aid through the budget to enable the government to provide subsidies or other incentives (such as price support programmes) to replace poppies with lawful crops such as cotton, which was produced in the past. The UK government is at present considering price support for Afghan farmers. Other donors should do the same.

Second, once production of lawful crops increases, donors should provide know-how, technical support and credit for the local industrialisation of such crops. At the same time, donors should open their markets through special preferential tariff treatment to light, labour-intensive manufactures from Afghanistan, including textiles.

Barney Rubin offers essential insight on the point here.

In my mind, there’s little doubt that the situation in Afghanistan can be turned around and pulled out and no doubt that the United States and its allies should be focused on doing just that. But the major obstacle we face is an administration in Washington that pigheadedly pursues policies that are clearly counterproductive. As usual, they’re absolutely convinced, and absolutely wrong.

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