Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

AFGHANISTAN: US Night Raids and Secret Prisons Anger Civilians

Mohammed A. Salih

WASHINGTON, Jan 29 2010 (IPS) - An investigative report published on about U.S. forces’ operations in Afghanistan paints a gruesome picture of surprise night raids, indiscriminate killing and random detention of civilians during those raids, as well as what appears to be widespread use of torture of Afghan detainees.

The story by Anand Gopal, dated Jan. 28 and to be published in the Nation magazine as well, cites gross human rights violations just as officials from 70 nations and organisations are in London for a conference to help Afghanistan emerge from conflict.

The report shows that the violations continued well after U.S. President Barack Obama took office last year, despite U.S. and NATO emphasis on winning the hearts and minds of local Afghans as counterinsurgency operations are stepped up.

The chief U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, had promised to wage a cleaner war in which there would be fewer home raids and civilian casualties.

“If you talk to a lot of rural Pashtuns, they say they want to be protected, but they want to be protected from both the U.S. military and the Taliban,” Gopal told IPS, referring to members of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. “And if that’s the case, then I think the counterinsurgency approach hasn’t been implemented in the way that they are hoping to implement it.”

Gopal cited a number of instances, reported in his story, where U.S. troops randomly and frenziedly shot civilians in their homes during night raids on villages, generating outrage and indignation among terrified locals.

The villages were raided either because of ambushes by Taliban fighters in the area or because of the alleged presence of wanted suspects, based on intelligence which often turned out to be false.

In one case, in November 2009, a team of U.S. soldiers attacked the house of Majidullah Qarar, the spokesman for the Afghan minister of agriculture, in search of his cousin, Habib-ur-Rahman, a computer programmer and government employee.

In the process, they killed two of Qarar’s other cousins, who were unarmed. One was shot when he ran towards the door, the other as he tried to help his bleeding cousin. The soldiers finally found Rahman in the house.

Rehmatullah Muhammad, an Afghan villager from the central-eastern Wardak Province, said he and nine other villagers were rounded up in a night raid last year and were taken to a detention facility on Rish Khor, an Afghan military base.

The detention centre inside the base turned out to be run by plain-clothed Americans, although it is not clear whether they were members of the military, the Central Intelligence Agency or private contractors.

From the secret facility at Rish Khor, Muhammad and his fellow villagers were sent to the U.S.-run prison at Bagram Air Base, where they did not have access to lawyers and were made to appear before a review panel.

“I was only allowed to answer yes or no and not explain anything at my hearing,” Muhammad told Gopal.

Now, in Zaiwalat, Muhammad’s small village of 300 people, the villagers are “afraid of the dark” because of what they have undergone during night raids. During the last two years, 16 people have been killed in 10 night raids just in that village.

According to Gopal’s sources, there is another secret prison on Bagram Air Base that has got a “notorious reputation for abusive behaviour.”

IPS queried the Pentagon on the night raids and secret prisons, but military officials declined to comment, and referred IPS to the State Department, which in turn failed to return telephone calls.

Gopal reports that of the 24 people he interviewed for the story, 17 claimed they had been abused at or on route to U.S.-run prisons, in ways reminiscent of the widely-publicised abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Doctors, members of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and government officials corroborated 12 of these claims.

Torture practices included deprivation of sleep for hours or even days in some cases, suspending prisoners upside-down from the ceiling, holding them in “stress positions”, and using dogs to frighten and in some cases bite the prisoners.

Gopal’s story is the first to probe night raids in Afghanistan in detail, and one of the very few to investigate the existence of U.S.-run secret prisons in the country.

Human rights groups have repeatedly voiced concerns over the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan, in particular in the southern and eastern parts of the country where the Taliban insurgency is strongest.

“The U.S. military has made some important concessions but we currently do not have access to either detainees or the full range of sites,” said an Amnesty International staff member on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t have any means of assessing what the actual conditions are because we don’t have anyone on the ground, and we don’t have a mechanism where Afghan partners or international partners can go and find out.”

In its annual assessment of human rights conditions in Afghanistan during 2009, the New-York based Human Rights Watch criticised the U.S. for “rarely” discussing “the importance of human rights protections for Afghans” and continuing to detain hundreds of Afghans “without adequate legal process.”

With a Taliban insurgency raging in parts of Afghanistan and U.S.-led NATO forces expanding their operations, fears appear to be growing among Afghan officials regarding the likely civilian casualties.

Despite the myriad problems facing his country, from rampant corruption to lack of security and the illegal narcotics trade, Afghan President Hamid Karzai chose to echo deep public resentments over attacks on civilians as his main demand from international forces in his country.

“We’re not going to ask for more cash. We’re going to ask the international community to end nighttime raids on Afghan homes, to stop arresting Afghans, to reduce and eliminate civilian casualties,” Karzai told Al Jazeera television earlier this month ahead of the London conference. “We’re going to ask them not to have Afghan prisoners taken.”

According to the United Nations, of the 2,021 Afghan civilians killed in the first 10 months of 2009, 23 percent of the deaths were attributed to international military forces and 69 percent to “anti-government elements.”

That is less than the figure for the same period of 2008, when the international forces were responsible for more than one-third of civilian casualties.

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