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Americans Play Down 'Afghan Guantanamo' Fears

US military rejects accusations that it is building a local replacement for Guantanamo Bay, but Afghans are angered at plans for the new prison.
By Hafizullah Gardesh
An American military spokesperson has dismissed any suggestion that a new prison planned for Afghanistan is intended to receive prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, the detention centre in Cuba that is facing increasing criticism in the United States.

“This is not going to be Guantanamo Two,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Rumi Nielson-Green, spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force 101, based at Bagram Airfield, north of the Afghan capital Kabul. “That is absolutely false.”

Nielsen-Green also categorically rejected reports by Afghan and US human rights groups that children as young as nine years old were being held at the existing detention facility at Bagram.

“That is absolutely false,” she said. “We have no children at Bagram.”

According to Nielson-Green, the new prison is intended to receive only “unlawful enemy combatants, approximately 16 or older, apprehended by OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] in Afghanistan”.

In mid-May, the Pentagon announced plans to build a 40-acre, 60 million US dollar detention centre to replace the deteriorating facility at Bagram airfield, a base originally built and used by the Soviet Union during its war in Afghanistan in 1979-89.

The new centre will be a big step up from the present one, according to Nielson-Green.

“There will be a great deal of improvement in the quality of life [of detainees],” she said. “There will be a lot more floor space, much more room for communal activities, which is part of their culture.”

There will also be educational and recreational facilities, as well as areas where detainees can meet their families, added Nielson-Green.

The present detention facility was always intended to be temporary, she explained. It houses approximately 625 prisoners, who live in wire mesh cages.

There is no hard data on when the new facility will be up and running. The capacity of the new prison will be roughly equivalent to that of the old one.

According to a New York Times report, it will be able to accommodate up to 1,100 prisoners “in a surge”, but Nielson-Green commented, “That seems a little high.”

Increased capacity may be needed to accommodate more captives from the increasingly bloody war against the Taleban concentrated in the southern part of the country.

The news has made many Afghans uneasy. For many, Bagram conjures up images of arrest, torture and humiliation.

In 2002, two men died in US custody at Bagram. One of them, who went by the name Dilawar, became the subject of a widely acclaimed documentary called “Taxi to the Dark Side”.

Arrested on a tip-off from a man later proved to be a Taleban supporter, he was repeatedly beaten and died after two days in detention.

Since then, dozens, if not hundreds, of prisoners have passed through Bagram on their way to Guantanamo Bay. According to many of them, Bagram is worse than the prison in Cuba.

A researcher who has conducted numerous interviews with prisoners released from Bagram told IWPR that they claimed to have been humiliated, beaten, stripped naked and thrown down stairs during initial interrogations.

“The guards told the prisoners, ‘Now you are no longer in Afghanistan. We can do anything we want,’” said the researcher.

None of the detainees interviewed were ever charged with any criminal acitivity.

Nielson-Green denied that detainees at Bagram were being ill-treated.

“[They] are not being mistreated and abused,” she insisted. “We adhere to all international agreements, including the Geneva Convention.”

According to Nielson-Green, the US military go “above and beyond” what is required in their treatment of prisoners at Bagram.

“The ICRC has access,” she said, referring to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

When asked why Afghan humanitarian organisations were not allowed to visit detainees, she said she was “unaware of any requirement” that the military open its doors to anyone other than the ICRC.

One June 2, the Afghan Human Rights Organisation, AHRO, released a report alleging that ten children aged between nine and 13 were being held at Bagram.

A report by the United States government to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the United States acknowledges, delivered in May 2008 also claimed that juveniles were being held at Bagram.

But the US military has repeatedly denied that this is the case.

“It is sometimes difficult to determine the exact age,” said Nielson-Green.

Afghans often do not know the date or even year of their birth, and appearances can be deceiving. But still, Nielson-Green insisted, there were no detainees under the age of 16 at Bagram.

News of the plan for a replacement prison created a minor storm of protest in Kabul, not least from the justice ministry, which said that it had no knowledge of the US plans.

“We know nothing about a new prison being built at Bagram,” an official at the ministry’s prisons department of told IWPR, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There has been no agreement with the ministry of justice. We cannot speak about this.”

Parliament is also in the dark, according to Shukria Barakzai, a member of the Wolesi Jirga or lower house.

“This issue has not been referred to parliament,” she told IWPR.

Barakzai was in no doubt that it was a topic that should be debated by the legislature.

“According to the laws of Afghanistan, the land cannot be given away,” she told IWPR. “No country has a right to make a prison here. And not a single criminal should be handed over to foreigners. This prison at Bagram not only violates the constitution, it calls into question the legitimacy of the present government.”

President Hamed Karzai’s press office refused to comment on the issue.

According to Fazel Rahman Oria, a political analyst and editor of Erada Daily, the prison has become a stumbling block in US-Afghan relations.

“The government will not say this formally, but this issue has been raised between high-ranking authorities of Afghanistan and the United States,” he told IWPR. “It shows the climate of distrust between the two countries.”

The prison, in Oria’s opinion, will deepen the resentment that Afghans already feel towards the foreign presence in their country in general, and towards the Americans in particular.

“There will be a negative social and psychological impact,” he said. “On the one hand, it will damage the relationship between the people and the government of Afghanistan, which is bad enough already. On the other, it will provide ammunition to the opposition, who will tell the people, ‘Yes, your resistance is justified. America is here forever, the Afghan government is a puppet.’

“Hatred of the Americans, which is on the rise, will get more and more powerful.”

AHRO head Lal Gul told IWPR that the new prison was an affront to human rights. The refusal of US forces to allow Afghan human rights groups to visit prisoners has fostered distrust, he said, and the condition of those released from Bagram has given cause for worry.

“We are sure that in this new Guantanamo we will not be able to monitor the prisoners any more than we can now,” he told IWPR. “The overwhelming majority – 95 per cent – of those who are released from Bagram have psychological problems. Some of them are missing body parts. We condemn not only this prison, but all the prisons all over Afghanistan and other places made by the Americans.”

The issue has taken the lid off the long-simmering resentment of US activities in Afghanistan.

“America has been condemned all over the world for Guantanamo,” said political analyst Mohammad Qasim Akhgar. “But now it wants to open Guantanamo Two on Afghan soil, while pretending that Afghanistan is an independent country with an independent government.”

The public reaction to the prospect of the new prison has also been negative.

Sadeq Spinghar, a student at Kabul University, warns that anti-US sentiment is running high.

“The Americans should not rely too much on their military power,” he said. ”A lot of invincible powers have been brought to their knees in Afghanistan.”

Although he is too young to remember much about the Soviet occupation, he thinks the Russians were preferable to what is now happening under the Americans.

“The Russians were in Afghanistan as well, but they didn’t have private prisons. They didn’t arrest children and they didn’t treat prisoners as the Americans do. They showed respect for the civil and Islamic rights of the Afghans.”

This kind of sentiment is heard more and more frequently in Afghanistan, even though it hardly fits with the historical facts.

The official casualty count for the ten-year war with the Soviets was between one and 1.5 million, with millions more displaced. Seven years after the Taleban administration was ousted, precise figures for the number of Afghans killed are difficult to come by, but even the high-end estimates are a small fraction of the death toll from the Soviet war.

Sher Ahmad, a former mujahedin fighter against the Soviets and now a taxi driver, offered a more fatalistic view on the new prison.

“We have all accepted that one day we, or one of our relatives, will be killed or imprisoned,” he said. “If our detainees are sent to Guantanamo, we cannot see them for years. At least if they are here, we have some contact. And one day these Americans will leave, and we will get the building.”

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul. Jean MacKenzie is IWPR’s programme director for Afghanistan. Noorrahman Rahmani, IWPR’s administrative and finance director in Kabul, also contributed to this report.

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