Suffocated, Beaten, Hooded and Shackled

The Americans take them shackled and hooded on to transport aircraft to Kandahar. They live in pens of eight or 10 men. They are given cots with blankets but no privacy. They are forced to urinate and defecate publicly because the Americans want to watch their prisoners at all times.

But United States forces have not only failed to hunt down Osama bin Laden while they are preparing for war in Iraq: they are finding it almost impossible to crack the al-Qa’ida network because Bin Laden’s men have resorted to primitive methods of communication that cut individual members of al-Qa’ida off from all information.

This extraordinary, grim scenario comes from an American intelligence officer just back from Afghanistan who agreed to talk to The Independent–and to supply his own photographs of prisoners–on condition of anonymity. His prognoses were chilling and totally at variance with the upbeat briefings of the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Even in Pakistan, he says, middle-ranking Pakistani army officers are tipping off members of al-Qa’ida to avoid American-organised raids.

“We didn’t catch whom we were supposed to catch,” the officer told me. “There was an over-expectation by us that technology could do more than it did. Al-Qa’ida are very smart. They basically found out how we track them. They realised that if they communicated electronically, our Rangers would swoop on them. So they started using couriers to hand-carry notes on paper or to repeat messages from their memory and this confused our system. Our intelligence is hi-tech–they went back to primitive methods that the Americans cannot adapt to.”

The American officer said there were originally “a lot of high-profile arrests”. But the al-Qa’ida cells didn’t know what other members were doing. “They were very adaptive and became much more decentralised. We caught a couple of really high-profile, serious al-Qa’ida leaders but they couldn’t tell us what specific operations were going to take place. They would know that something big was being planned but they would have no idea what it was.”

The officer, who spent at least six months in Afghanistan this year, was scathing in his denunciation of General Abdul Rashid Dostam, the Uzbek warlord implicated in the suffocation of up to a thousand Taliban prisoners in container trucks. “Dostam is totally culpable and the US believes he’s guilty but he’s our guy and so we won’t say so.”

Gen Dostam uses Turkish military intelligence men as bodyguards. “There was concern in the Isaf [International Security Assistance Force] that the Turks who run it would create ethnic problems, which is one reason the Turkish army does not share the Kabul Isaf compounds with other Isaf troops. But one of the things we failed to do was create a real government. We let the warlords firmly entrench themselves and now they can’t be dislodged,” he said.

According to the same officer, American security agents in Karachi were looking for the murderers of US journalist Daniel Pearl but there, as in many other cases, they would find their arrest “targets” had fled because of secret support within middle ranks of the Pakistani army. “We would go with the Pakistanis to a location but there would be no one there because once the middle level of the Pakistani military knew of our plans, they would leak the information. In the North-West Frontier province, the frontier corps is a second-rate army–they are a lot more anti-Western in sentiment than the main Pakistani army. In the end we had to co-ordinate everything through Islamabad.”

As for the hundreds of prisoners taken in Afghanistan, the American officer insisted that none were beaten “now” although he claimed ignorance about earlier evidence that soldiers based in Kandahar had broken the bones of captives after their initial arrest. “Only prisoners who were likely to be violent or unco-operative are hooded and their hands are tied behind their backs with plastic restraint bands. Sometimes we would take the hoods off prisoners when they were travelling in our helicopters, at other times not.

“In Kandahar, in what we call their living areas, the prisoners are given cots with blankets and Adidas suits and runners, but they have no privacy. There are no sides to their living areas because we have to see them all the time. They have no privacy in the bathroom. Some of them masturbate when they are looking at the female guards. Our guards had no reaction to this. They are soldiers. When the interrogations take place, the prisoners are allowed to sit. I don’t want to get into specifics about the questions we ask them.

He said: “There was non- co-operation at the beginning. But they had a misconception that ey were going to be treated the way they treated each other. When they’re not tortured, I think this has a lot to do with changing their opinion.”

But the Americans were even short of translators. “We recruited Farsi-speakers who can speak the local version of Persian in Afghanistan, Dari. They would be civilians hired in the US. But they had to go through full security procedures and out of every five, only one or two would be given security clearance.”

The American officer also had a low opinion of the Western journalists he met at Bagram. “They just hung around our base all day. Whenever we had some special operation, we’d offer the journalists some facility to go on patrol with our special forces and off they’d go–you know, ‘we’re on patrol with the special forces’–and they wouldn’t realise we were stringing them along to get them out of the way.”


Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.