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The Road to Abu Ghraib


Even before the Bush administration invaded Iraq in March 2003, human rights organizations were raising allegations of torture at U.S. prisons in Afghanistan.

At the time, the State Department dismissed their allegations as “ridiculous” (just as the White House recently feigned outrage when Newsweek claimed that Guantanamo interrogators flushed the Koran down the toilet–even as evidence surfaced that they urinated on it). As recently as December, military spokesperson Lt. Col. Pamela Keeton claimed an Army investigation “found no evidence of abuse taking place” in Afghanistan, according to the BBC.

All that changed last week, when the New York Times exposed the sadistic killing of two Afghan detainees in December 2002–both kicked to death, while chained to the ceiling by their wrists at the Bagram air base–based on the Army’s own leaked investigation. The Army investigation is just the tip of the iceberg, however, as mounting evidence exposes an expansive and overlapping system of torture and killing at U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.

Afghan prisons, along with Guantánamo, provided the hands-on training for the interrogation techniques made famous at Abu Ghraib. Many of the same interrogators who honed their skills at Bagram ended up at Abu Ghraib in 2003–both times under the direction of Capt. Carolyn A. Wood.

Specialist Damien “Monster” Corsetti–known affectionately as the “King of Torture” among his Bagram colleagues–was later fined and demoted for forcing an Iraqi woman to strip during an interrogation at Abu Ghraib. Yet Corsetti remains a free man. Although Army investigators found “probable cause” to charge him with assault, prisoner maltreatment and indecent acts at Bagram, he has not formally been charged.

So far, only seven soldiers have been charged with any crime related to torture at Bagram–and no one has been convicted.

According to the watchdog group Human Rights First, the U.S. admits that 108 people died while in U.S. custody–63 of them at prisons other than Abu Ghraib. But this figure is suspect, since most of those detained by U.S. forces are never entered into the military’s “system.”

Since 2001, 65,000 people have been screened at U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo, but only 30,000 were eventually categorized as “detainees.” By December 2004, the U.S. military still had no central database even for official detainees in Afghanistan.

Much of the worst abuse occurs right after arrest, in temporary holding facilities, where interrogators use torture to “soften up” prisoners to extract information. The International Committee of the Red Cross is rarely allowed access to these facilities to document treatment of prisoners–and then only after they have been held for at least 15 days. The two detainees murdered at Bagram in 2002 were dead long before then.

Nor does the U.S. command allow Afghanistan’s human rights commission–a government body–into prisons, although the commission is flooded with requests from distraught Afghan citizens seeking the whereabouts of disappeared loved ones. As Newsday recently reported, “A top U.S. officer said the U.S. command is not fully convinced that the commission’s members are all ‘good guys.'”

In addition, prisoners held by the CIA often do not enter the military’s statistics at all. The CIA runs a separate interrogation facility at Bagram, known as “the Salt Pit,” where even U.S. military interrogators are denied access. In November 2002, a detainee froze to death in the Salt Pit after being stripped naked, chained down and left overnight. Yet his name never appeared in the military’s database or even on the CIA’s “ghost detainee” list, according to Human Rights First.

The lawlessness inside Afghanistan’s detention facilities is a microcosm of Afghan society itself, where U.S. troops bomb villages, raid homes and murder at will–three-and-a-half years after “liberation.”

Last September, in the middle of the night, U.S. troops shot and killed English teacher Muhammad Rais Khan while raiding his home and detaining his brother. A day later, his brother died in U.S. custody. Army officers dismissed their deaths to Newsday, explaining that the Khan brothers were “bad guys”–according to the local warlord, anyway, who had an axe to grind against them.

U.S.-backed warlords who control most of Afghanistan’s countryside with private armies continue to enrich themselves with opium profits while the U.S. looks the other way. Far from a fledgling “democracy,” U.S.-occupied Afghanistan is an experiment in barbarism.

Just as Bagram paved the way for Abu Ghraib, the war on Afghanistan provided the launching pad for the invasion of Iraq. Now the havoc produced by the U.S. occupation of both countries provides the excuse for the U.S. to remain.

The same web of lies used to invade Iraq was used to justify the war on Afghanistan–and forms the basis for the entire “war on terror.”

SHARON SMITH’s new book is Women and Socialism. She can be reached at:


















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