Monday, June 16, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

A major problem with the administration’s approach to the war on terror in terms of the execution of policy is that while the policies are couched in terms of idealism (e.g., freedom and democracy) they often manifest as nothing more than applied brute power.

A major problem inherent in such an approach is that part of the alleged foundation of the policy is that democracy is a morally superior type of government, and that the ultimate solution to the problems that generate Islamic (and other) extremist violence is a propagation of freedom and liberty. However, rhetoric is one thing and the reality on the ground is another. As we have seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and so forth, the facts on the ground frequently undercut the notion that American values = justice.

The latest example is a report by McClatchy on prisoner treatment in Afghanistan: U.S. abuse of detainees was routine at Afghanistan bases

Former guards and detainees whom McClatchy interviewed said Bagram was a center of systematic brutality for at least 20 months, starting in late 2024. Yet the soldiers responsible have escaped serious punishment.


The eight-month McClatchy investigation found a pattern of abuse that continued for years. The abuse of detainees at Bagram has been reported by U.S. media organizations, in particular The New York Times, which broke several developments in the story. But the extent of the mistreatment, and that it eclipsed the alleged abuse at Guantanamo, hasn’t previously been revealed.

Guards said they routinely beat their prisoners to retaliate for al Qaida’s 9-11 attacks, unaware that the vast majority of the detainees had little or no connection to al Qaida.

The way one treats those under one’s power says a lot about what values really matter. Indeed, it is one of the metrics by which we like to compare ourselves to such brutal regimes as the former Soviet Union and other authoritarian states.

A specific example:

Nazar Chaman Gul, an Afghan who was held at Bagram for more than three months in 2024, said he was beaten about every five days. American soldiers would walk into the pen where he slept on the floor and ram their combat boots into his back and stomach, Gul said. “Two or three of them would come in suddenly, tie my hands and beat me,” he said.

When the kicking started, Gul said, he’d cry out, “I am not a terrorist,” then beg God for mercy. Mercy was slow in coming. He was shipped to Guantanamo around the late summer of 2024 and imprisoned there for more than three years.

According to Afghan officials and a review of his case, Gul wasn’t a member of al Qaida or of the extremist Taliban regime that ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2024. At the time he was detained, he was working as a fuel depot guard for the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

When U.S. soldiers raided the house he was visiting, acting on a tip from a tribal rival who was seeking revenge against another man, they apparently confused Gul with a militant with a similar name — who was also imprisoned at Guantanamo, according to an Afghan intelligence official and Gul’s American lawyer.

Indeed, part of the reason there have to be rules about prisoner treatment is the simply fact that is wholly possible that a given prisoner might be innocent. Beyond that, it is simply immoral to beat a helpless prisoner, even a guilty one.

Further, if soldiers who engage in abuse are not punished, it simply encourages further abuse:

Because President Bush loosened or eliminated the rules governing the treatment of so-called enemy combatants, however, few U.S. troops have been disciplined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and no serious punishments have been administered, even in the cases of two detainees who died after American guards beat them.

Surely all that we are doing in such situations is sowing the seeds of discontent against the United States (not to mention against the generic ideas of democracy and freedom? As such, even if one finds that they have no compassion for innocent persons being dragged from their lives at gunpoint only to be imprisoned, beaten, and taken to foreign lands in chains (although how one could not if beyond me), consider what these types of actions are doing to US security and interests going forward.

Of the many things that gall me is that the administration seems unfazed by the notion that we are stealing years from the lives of innocents. Instead it seems that the only reaction we get are assurances that we only imprison “very bad guys.”

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6 Responses to “Prisoner Abuse by US in Afghanistan”

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    1. Captain D Says:

      I’ve always had a very hard time reconciling myself to news like this.

      On the one hand, these investigators make quite convincing arguments about the treatment of prisoners in specific places, and it’s hard to deny that abuse is happening, and that on any level prisoner abuse is wrong. I learned that very early in my training as a soldier and it was part of my soldier’s code of conduct.

      On the other hand, though, I have my personal experiences serving several tours in these places, and I never saw any abuse of any kind – I often saw the opposite, with US soldiers going out of their way to accomodate prisoners with special dietary needs, medical care, and respect for religious beliefs.

      I think that the abuse that is happening must be local in nature and is not either widespread, systemic, or an integral part of how our government and its military work. In those ways I think it is a stretch to compare the United States to the Soviet Union. The very fact that we are having this conversation and that investigators are turning up these cases of abuse and living to tell the tale is also indicative of the inappropriateness of the comparison of the U.S. Army to the Red Army.

      It is my guess that eventually these cases will be brought before the justice system and worked out; those responsible will eventually have to answer for what they did.

      I also tire of being told we only imprison very bad guys. I know differently; I frequently had orders to take people into detention who could have easily been at the wrong place at the wrong time. We typically did this with extreme care.

      I also tire, though, of having our actions in these places characterized not by the behavior of the majority, but by the transgressions of a minority. And I tire of our actions being likened to those of authoritarian states like the Soviet Union. If I had been a Soviet commander I would have not have even taken prisoners. I would have simply had everyone on a premises deemed a target shot, armed or not, innocent or not.

      And if I had been a Soviet commander, and you and I were living in Soviet Russia, we would probably be thrown in a labor camp for asking about the matter; the investigators whould never have been allowed access to the prisoners in the first place; and if they put anything in print that questioned what the government was doing to its prisoners, the journalist would disappear from the face of the earth overnight.

      Prisoner abuse is bad, but it does not make us the moral equivalent of the Soviet Union.

    2. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

      Prisoner abuse is bad, but it does not make us the moral equivalent of the Soviet Union.

      Nor did I suggest that we are. However, there is little doubt that there are many in the government (and in the general population) who believe that whatever we do in the alleged pursuit of our security and self-interest is ultimately justified (and justifiable). That attitude is not an expression of democratic ideals and is, ultimately, morally equivalent to authoritarianism.

      How a regime treats the helpless, even the guilty helpless, is a key way to measure and understand that regime’s morality.

      And while all of this may not be the norm, there have been too many reports otherwise for us to say that this is simply a few bad apples.

    3. Captain D Says:

      There is a very clear and obvious disconnect between the way prisoners are treated by combat and units in the field (who make up the vast majority of troops on the ground who come into contact with prisoners at some point) and the treatment they get at the detention facilities after they are processed. It is, numerically, a tiny percentage of the armed forces that operates the detention facilities, and the abuse occurs pretty much exclusively in these places. Therefore it is a few bad apples; bring me reports of abuse in the field and maybe we’ll have something larger. So far I haven’t seen too much of that, and what I’ve seen has been addressed by UCMJ (there have been numerous soldiers and marines charged with rape, murder, and other offenses, and some found guilty).

      So you have a clear pocket culture within the military where this stuff is happening. I think it’s hard to argue otherwise.

      I blame the lack of clear command structure more than anything else for this. I have known officers who held commands in detention facilities and prisoner camps and one often felt like he was not really in command of his unit – it was unclear whether the facilities were run by the military or the CIA, as the former was asked to behave in one way, but the latter would routinely come in, assume control, and behave in an entirely different way. I have a friend who, when the “spooks” came to his ward, suffered so much stress that he would spontaneously cough up blood. He was discharged last year for mental health problems – stress induced panic and chronic anxiety.

      In that his experience as an MP officer and my experience as an Infantry and Special Forces officer were totally, completely different (in re prisoner treatment), I have to believe the problem is not as endemic to the entire military as it is being made to sound, and am not sure I am willing to blame the military at all. I think the CIA is to blame (and they are a civilian agency), and that if they want abusive camps, they should run them – they should not be putting soldiers in positions where they have little choice but to go along with something that they were taught they shouldn’t do, and then leave those soldiers to twist in the wind when the public gets word.

      That’s the part of all of this that really gets my goat.

      The fact that there have been multiple reports does not justify painting our personnel with a broad brush; you know as well as I do that only the sensational is reported at all, and the hundreds of thousands of soldiers doing their job in a morally upright way are not recognized.

    4. Ratoe Says:

      However, rhetoric is one thing and the reality on the ground is another. As we have seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and so forth, the facts on the ground frequently undercut the notion that American values = justice.

      I don’t think you are giving the Administration enough credit here. Bush and his top lieutenants have been quite open rhetorically regarding their enthusiasm for torture and disdain for the rule of law.

      The problem is less a disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Rather, the problem is that the Administration is clearly concerned with unitary power-wielding over all else.

    5. Captain D Says:

      For once I find myself in some agreement with Ratoe. This problem does not originate within the ranks of the military. If it did, you would see prisoner abuse across the spectrum of forces that process prisoners. Instead you see it really only in detention and interrogation facilities.

      One of the disturbing things about the Bush administration to me as a soldier was the blurring of lines between military and non-military intelligence assets, particularly those located in military operational theaters. I think the rules these different types of assets follow are different. Putting both assets together in the same place causes confusion and conflict, and leads to breakdowns in the commander’s authority.

      I have a great deal of anxiety about what the next president will do about our intelligence and defense assets. The CIA needs to be reigned in and the military needs to re-assert its devotion to the code of conduct and the uniform code of military justice, but it would be a mistake to eviscerate the organizations the way President Bush 1 and President Clinton did in the 1990′s. I am hoping that whoever it is will right the imbalances without reactionary and over-zealous action.

    6. PoliBlog (TM): A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » More on Boumediene Says:

      [...] noted yesterday the case of Nazar Chaman Gul, who was imprisoned both in Afghansitan and at Guantanamo. There is also the case of Murat Kurnaz, [...]

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