The Torture Mill
Starting in late 2005, U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan began turning detainees over to the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), despite its well-known reputation for torture.
Interviews with former U.S. and NATO diplomats and other evidence now available show that United States and other NATO governments become complicit in NDS torture of detainees for two distinctly different reasons.
For the European members of NATO – especially the British and Dutch – the political driver was the need to distance themselves from a U.S. detainee policy already tainted by accounts of U.S. torture.
The U.S. and Canada supported such transfers, however, in the belief that NDS interrogators could get better intelligence from the detainees.
The transfers to the NDS were a direct violation of the United Nations Convention against Torture, which forbids the transfer of any person by a State Party to "another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."
The first official shift in policy was the adoption by NATO in December 2005 of a "96-hour rule" requiring transfer of Afghan detainees to the Afghan government within four days.
The British and Dutch unwillingness to continue turning their detainees over to the United States was in response to published reports of U.S. torture of detainees at a secret detention facility at Bagram airbase.
Ronald Neumann, then U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told us that the "initial impetus" for the 96-hour rule came from the "discomfort" of the British and Dutch about "being associated with U.S. handling of detainees".
A former NATO diplomat who served in Afghanistan at the time confirmed Neumann’s recollection. "The British and Dutch privately expressed their concerns that perceptions of U.S. detainee policy could damage the mission," he said.
But under the new 96-hour rule, the detainees were turned over the NDS, which had long had a reputation for torturing suspected enemies of the state, starting when it was the secret police and intelligence agency during the Soviet occupation. That reputation had continued under the government of President Hamid Karzai.
The impetus for the U.S. and Canadian forces in Afghanistan to transfer detainees to the NDS, however, was the desperate need for intelligence on the Taliban.
By the time U.S. and Canadian military commanders began large-unit sweeps in areas where the Taliban had been operating in 2004-2005, the George W. Bush administration had already decided to consider all Afghans in detention as "unlawful combatants".
But most of the Afghans picked up in those sweeps were not Taliban fighters. After U.S. and NATO forces began turning over detainees to the NDS, the intelligence agency’s chief Amrullah Saleh told NATO officials that the agency had to release two-thirds of the detainees who had been transferred to it, according to the NATO diplomat.
Matt Waxman, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defence for detainee affairs until the end of 2005, recalled in an interview that there had been "a lot of concern both in the Pentagon and in the field" about "over-broad detention" in Afghanistan, but also "counter-pressures" for "more aggressive detention operations".
U.S. Ambassador Neumann said that the U.S. military turned detainees over to the NDS because of "the intelligence benefit and so we didn’t have a revolving door" – a reference to the fact that many detainees who had been turned over to local authorities had been set free.
In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen published May 16, 2007, Canadian Brig. Gen. Jim Ferron, then the intelligence chief for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) command in Afghanistan, referred to the intelligence motive for both detention and transferring detainees to NDF.
"The detainees are detained for a reason," said Ferron. "They have information we need."
But he complained that much of the information provided by detainees was "not truthful and is aimed at deceiving military forces". Ferron explained that detainees went through "basic questioning" by NATO interrogators about "why they joined the insurgency" and the information was then turned over to NDS.
Ferron clearly implied that the NDS interrogators could do a better job of getting the truth out of the detainees than NATO interrogators. The "best information" was what was being gleaned by the NDS, he said, and ISAF "would like to make it more a part of our daily intelligence".
Ferron said senior NDS officials had assured him that "detainees are treated humanely." But only three weeks earlier, the Toronto Globe and Mail had published a series of investigative articles based on interviews with detainees turned over by the Canadians who had been tortured by NDS.
Even though they had just initiated the 96-hour rule under which detainees were turned over to NDS, British and Dutch diplomats were very concerned about the NDS reputation for torture, according to the NATO diplomat. "They knew if they turned their detainees over to the Afghans, they would be tortured," recalled the diplomat.
Largely because of their awareness of the risk of NDS torture, the British and Dutch turned over relatively few detainees, according to the NATO diplomat.
The British and Dutch also joined with U.S. officials in trying to get the Afghan government to shift responsibility for detainees from NDS to the Afghan Ministry of Defence, the NATO diplomat recalled.
But there were two problems: under Afghan law, there was no provision for long-term legal internment, and a 1987 Afghan law gave NDS the responsibility for handling security cases through its own "security courts".
The U.S. and its two European NATO allies wanted President Hamid Karzai to remove those legal obstacles to long-term detention by the Defence Ministry. "The idea was that Karzai would declare a state of emergency, so the government could hold people for the length of the conflict," the diplomat said.
The plan also envisioned the renovation of the Pul-I Charkhi prison to add a new wing for security detainees, for which the Ministry of Defence would be responsible.
But Karzai refused to declare a state of emergency, according to the NATO diplomat, because he didn’t want to make concessions to the Afghan parliament to get it. Meanwhile, Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak "wanted nothing to do with detainee policy", said the NATO diplomat.
In early November 2007, a detainee turned over to the NDS by Canadian forces told Canadian diplomats in an NDS jail in Kandahar in early November 2007 that he had been beaten with an electrical cable and a rubber hose, and the Canadians found the torture instruments nearby.
The Canadian government then halted its transfers of detainees to the NDS. And in February 2008, Amnesty International called on NATO defence ministers to suspend all transfers of detainees from ISAF to Afghan authorities, given the substantial risk of torture and ill- treatment.
Despite that appeal, however, the United States continued to transfer its detainees to NDS.
During 2009, ISAF transferred a total of 350 detainees to NDS, according to official data provided to IPS by a knowledgeable U.S. source. An even more detainees were transferred to NDS by U.S. troops operating separately from the NATO command, according to the source.
GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.