45 per cent of Afghan prisoners report being tortured or mistreated in custody. Not only is this deeply unethical, it is a global security issueby Rupert Stone / June 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
Afghanistan is collapsing. The Taliban now controls more territory than at any point since 2001. Terrorist attacks, such as the huge car bomb that killed 90 people in Kabul last week, are depressingly common. To arrest this decline in security, Donald Trump looks set to deploy thousands more American troops.
But the country is suffering from another crisis, one that pundits and policymakers rarely mention: torture. According to the UN’s latest report, prisoner abuse in Afghanistan is at its highest level since records began. Of those detained by the police from 2015 to 2016, a stunning 45 per cent reported being tortured or mistreated in custody.
The US State Department’s 2016 human rights report identified “torture and abuse of detainees by government forces” as one of the most significant human rights problems in the country. It also noted that there was “widespread disregard for the rule of law and little accountability for those who committed human rights abuses.”
Even the country’s Vice President, Abdul Rashid Dostum, has repeatedly been accused of abusing and murdering captives, most notoriously in November 2001 when he was reportedly involved in the killing of at least several hundred Taliban prisoners.
More recently, Dostum has been in the spotlight for allegedly kidnapping a political rival in northern Afghanistan last year, who was subjected to beatings and rape with an assault rifle. The Afghan government vowed to investigate the matter, and arrest warrants were issued for Dostum’s guards. But the vice president refused to cooperate.
“The government is so weak, and the warlords so strong, that it is dubious whether the administration’s laws will be enforced”
Dostum is one of the most powerful figures in Afghanistan. He was a key player in the civil war which erupted after the Soviet occupation, when various warlords fought for control of the country. Those strongmen, backed by personal militias, were eventually defeated by the Taliban, but they returned to prominence after the US-led invasion.
Dostum is now serving in Kabul’s National Unity Government, which was brokered in 2014 after a disputed election. The government is deeply divided and dysfunctional, and its president, Ashraf Ghani, is reluctant to confront the vice president over the torture allegations and risk further instability.
Indeed, when Dostum would not comply with the arrest warrants, the government backed off, allowing him and his guards to remain under house arrest. Then, in May, the Vice-President fled the country and went to Turkey, killing any hopes he may be held accountable.
True, Ashraf Ghani’s administration has made some progress. A draft law against torture is almost ready. Moreover, the sordid practice of “bacha bazi,” in which Afghan boys are used as sex slaves, is set to be criminalised. But the government is so weak, and the warlords so strong, that it is dubious whether these laws will be enforced.
Dostum is one of many strongmen who have tortured with impunity. Human Rights Watch compiled evidence that several other figures, including Asadullah Khalid, former head of Afghanistan’s spy service, the National Directorate of Security, had ordered and even participated in prisoner abuse. These men wield considerable power, and the government dare not prosecute them.
The UN recently called, without avail, for the prosecution of Abdul Raziq, police chief of Kandahar, who has been accused of multiple killings and other abuses since 2001. According to the UN’s report, it has received “numerous and credible allegations” that prisoners were tortured in Kandahar, undergoing electric shock, suffocation and other forms of abuse.
The government relies heavily on local militias to provide security. But a Guardian investigation last year found that these groups have used state funds to engage in kidnap and torture, including of political rivals. These funds originally come from the US, it is believed, but the US military ignored the abuses, according to the Guardian.
Indeed, the US does not have clean hands in Afghanistan. Since 2001 the military and CIA have tortured and abused captives repeatedly, including at a black site near Kabul, nicknamed the Salt Pit. The International Criminal Court is currently investigating the Afghan war, and its chief prosecutor has said that American forces may have committed war crimes.
“Torture may incite hatred, aid Taliban recruitment and delegitimise the Kabul government still further”
In the Obama years, US special operations forces were accused of murdering and brutalising prisoners. In 2012, for instance, a Special Forces team apparently beat and executed Afghan captives. The CIA has funded and supported its own local militia, the Khost Protection Force, which has recently committed war crimes, according to reports.
Given Donald Trump’s stated enthusiasm for torture, it is possible such incidents will only increase. If so, Afghanistan can expect more chaos and violence, not less.
Trump seems to have little interest in promoting human rights abroad. The National Security Council post formerly tasked with addressing human rights has been dropped. At his speech in Saudi Arabia in May, Trump claimed that the US was not intent on telling other people “what to do.”
His focus appears to be on security, first and foremost. But the treatment of captives is a security concern. Torture may incite hatred, aid Taliban recruitment and delegitimise the Kabul government still further. Indeed, Afghans reluctantly welcomed the Taliban in the 1990s to save them from the sort of brutal warlords now running amok.
Afghanistan has effectively been at war since the late 1970s, its people traumatised by decades of cruelty and violence. It is time for an end to their suffering.