As with Iraq, an upside to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was that millions of people were unshackled from a nasty, oppressive regime. That wasn't exactly the U.S.'s No. 1 priority going in, of course -- any more than it was in Iraq. But leaving aside the means and the manner, the end result looks a lot like a net gain for human rights. Who, after all, would wish the Taliban back on the Afghan people?
So it's sickening that American troops in Afghanistan have now been implicated in serious human rights abuses. A report released Sunday by Human Rights Watch charges U.S. military and intelligence units with using excessive -- sometimes deadly -- force against combatants and civilians alike, mistreating and even torturing detainees, and holding large numbers of prisoners in a system of detention that exists "outside of the rule of law."
Human Rights Watch estimates that American forces have detained at least 1,000 Afghans and other nationals over the past two years.
Much like the prisoners in Guantanamo, those held in Afghanistan at U.S. bases in Bagram, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Asadabad are in what HRW calls a "legal black hole": no tribunals, no due process, no legal counsel, no formal charges, no family visits, and no legal protections. The only outside group they are allowed to communicate with is the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"They are held at the apparent whim of U.S. authorities, in some cases for more than a year," says the report. "The general lack of due process with the U.S. detention system violates both international humanitarian law and basic standard of human rights law." And Brad Adams, executive director of HRW's Asia division. is understating things when he says, "The United States is setting a terrible example in Afghanistan on detention practices."
Once in detention, the report says, the prisoners are often subjected to harsh interrogation techniques. Released detainees report having been shackled, stripped naked, deprived of sleep for weeks, doused with water, exposed to extremes of temperature, and beaten -- all practices the U.S. State Department has condemned as torture in countries like Libya, North Korea and Iran. At least three prisoners have died under interrogation; two were confirmed by U.S. pathologists as homicides.
In a press release announcing the report, Adams said:
"There is compelling evidence suggesting that U.S. personnel have committed acts against detainees amounting to torture or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment."
The report also found that U.S. troops had made arbitrary arrests and used excessive -- sometimes fatal -- force. A U.N. official who had collected complaints said the U.S. uses "cowboy-like" tactics against people "who generally turn out to be law-abiding citizens."
One specific example the report details is a raid in July 2002 to capture Ahmed Khan, a resident of Zurmat district in Paktia province. The arrest was carried out with helicopters and machine guns; in the process, a local farmer was killed by gunfire and a neighboring woman was wounded.
The report says:
"The homes in the vicinity of Ahmed Khans house received considerable damage from bullets and other weapons, indicating that the U.S. forces used considerable firepower even though there was no evidence of any armed opposition."
Asked about the Human Rights Watch allegations, Lt Col Bryan Hilferty, the US military spokesman in Afghanistan, said:
"We've seen the report, we are taking the allegations seriously."
"We feel it shows a lack of understanding of the laws of war and of the environment we are facing in Afghanistan. They say we should be using police procedures when we carry out arrests, but this is a combat zone."
Not so, says Human Rights Watch. Many of the violations recorded by HRW were in non-combat situations and some of the abuses were "inexcusable even within the context of war."
HRW isn't optimistic there'll be a thorough investigation, though. "The US is obligated to investigate allegations and prosecute those who violated the law," said Adams. "There is no sign that serious investigations are taking place." HRW says these incidents have still not been adequately explained by the Pentagon, and the report's writer fears "appropriate criminal and disciplinary action may never take place."
The report is going to be uncomfortable for President Hamid Karzai, who has been reluctant to criticize the American military. He wants U.S. troops to remain, but reports like this make it harder for him to make that case to Afghans who don't share his view. The report warns that opinion of the U.S., already low, will suffer from the report:
"There is little doubt that U.S. policies on the detention of terrorism suspectsboth in Afghanistan and elsewherehave harmed public opinion of the United States around the world, and have damaged some of its efforts in building a coalition to combat international terrorism."
One concern is that if the U.S. defies international standards of human rights, it loses the little credibility it retains in the world today. Brad Adams, again:
"Abusive governments across the world can now point to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and say, 'If they can abuse human rights and get away with it, why can't we?"