From Bagram to Abu Ghraib

For nearly three years U.S. military authorities have been investigating evidence of torture at American prisons in Afghanistan. But instead of disciplining those involved, the Pentagon sent them to Iraq.

HUSSAIN YOUSSOUF MUSTAFA stepped off the bus outside a law office on a busy street in Amman, Jordan, on a bright day in November. The 51-year-old wore a white kaffiyeh and a white robe with square-rimmed glasses and a salt-and-pepper beard. Inside, he sat down at a table that faced a map of the Middle East, and over eight hours and two days answered questions about his two years in American captivity.

Mustafa, who is Palestinian, said he earned a master’s degree in Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, but as a young teacher he had trouble making a living in the West Bank. In 1985, he heard that Pakistan was setting up schools for Afghans who were fleeing the Soviet occupation. Mustafa and his wife moved to Peshawar, a city of 1 million near the Pakistani-Afghan border, and for 17 years they lived there and raised eight children, with Mustafa teaching Arabic and the tenets of Islam at a government-run school.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

After the American invasion of Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, Mustafa said, Peshawar became tense, with periodic police roundups of suspected militants, although he had no run-ins with the authorities and felt no threat from them. Then, on May 25, 2002, at about 8 p.m., their doorbell rang. Mustafa asked Ibrahim, his youngest son, to answer the door. The boy yelled, “Police!” and ran back into the house, several Pakistani police officers behind him with guns drawn. They took Mustafa in for questioning along with two of his sons, 18-year-old Mohammed and 23-year-old Abdullah. The young men were released later that night. But their father was blindfolded, tightly shackled, and flown to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Built in 1976 for Soviet troops, Bagram is now a heavily guarded U.S. military compound an hour’s drive from Kabul, on a desert plain beneath the snow-peaked Panjshir mountains. When he arrived, Mustafa was publicly stripped naked—a humiliation for a devout Muslim—and put into a crowded pen with more than a dozen others. A barrel in a corner served as a toilet. Mustafa stayed in the cell for about two months. From time to time, American soldiers would take one of the detainees away for interrogations. Mostly, Mustafa said, his questioners wanted to know about Al Qaeda. He told them he didn’t know anything about the group.

As he told his story, Mustafa refused to be led by Clive Stafford Smith, the human rights lawyer who interviewed him. Had he been beaten when he arrived at Bagram, Stafford Smith asked through a translator; had he been threatened with guns? Mustafa firmly answered no. It was only on the second day of the interview, after Stafford Smith had stopped pressing, that his account turned grim. “Perhaps the worst thing that has ever happened to me took place at Bagram,” he began.

During his imprisonment at the compound, Mustafa estimated that he was interrogated about 25 times. Sometimes, he said, the soldiers forced him to kneel on a concrete floor with a bag over his head. Other times they woke him from sleep or interrupted him in prayer. He said he occasionally heard detainees screaming and concluded that they were being beaten. Then one day, he recalled, “an American soldier took me blindfolded. My hands were tightly cuffed, with my ears plugged so I could not hear properly, and my mouth covered so I could only make a muffled scream. Two soldiers, one on each side, forced me to bend down, and a third pressed my face down over a table. A fourth soldier then pulled down my trousers. They rammed a stick up my rectum.”

Mustafa said that he was not told why he was brutalized. “The Americans never said anything about why they were doing it to me, so I had to think for many hours and days later, to try to work out what was going through their minds,” he told Stafford Smith, pressing the tips of his broad fingers together. “I think maybe they wanted to make me so embarrassed that it would live with me for the rest of my life.” He said other prisoners told him that they had experienced similar treatment.

Americans, and the world, have become accustomed to accounts like Mustafa’s in connection with Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. But his story hints at another scandal—one that has received little sustained media attention and sparked no public outrage. Over the past three years, numerous reports—from Afghan and American human rights groups, and from the Pentagon itself—have documented allegations of abuse inside U.S. compounds in Afghanistan. Hundreds of prisoners have come forward, often reluctantly, offering accounts of harsh interrogation techniques including sexual brutality, beatings, and other methods designed to humiliate and inflict physical pain. At least eight detainees are known to have died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, and in at least two cases military officials ruled that the deaths were homicides. Many of the incidents were known to U.S. officials long before the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted; yet instead of disciplining those involved, the Pentagon transferred key personnel from Afghanistan to the Iraqi prison. “Had the investigation and prosecution of abusive interrogators in Afghanistan proceeded in a timely manner,” Human Rights Watch executive director Brad Adams noted in an open letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last fall, “it is possible that…many of the abuses seen in Iraq could have been avoided.”

Afghanistan
Former detainees—and military officials—have reported abuses at the Bagram detention center and six smaller U.S. bases in Afghanistan.

Even now, with the attention of the media and Congress focused on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the problems in Afghanistan seem to be continuing. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, created in 2002 during the early stages of the transition to Afghan self-governance, has collected a total of 120 reports of abuse by coalition forces; 50 of them were made just since last May. Many of the complaints involve excessive force by soldiers during the course of an arrest. But others come from former detainees who say that soldiers stripped them naked and sexually abused them. The Afghan commission and Human Rights Watch, as well as a smaller group, the Washington, D.C.-based Crimes of War Project, have also gathered evidence on detainee abuse at American “forward operating bases” near Kandahar, Gardez, Khost, Orgun, Ghazni, and Jalalabad. Investigators estimate that in each of these places, between 5 and 20 prisoners are held at a time, compared to as many as 200 at Bagram.

It’s hard to explain how facts this disturbing have garnered so little attention—especially in light of the connection to Abu Ghraib. According to the U.S. military’s own investigators, it was at Bagram that interrogators devised and tested the methods that would shame the United States in Iraq. Documents and witness accounts from both detainees and soldiers starkly portray how an initially disciplined interrogation effort deteriorated, in a climate of lawlessness and pressure to produce intelligence, to the point where officers and soldiers first bent the rules, and finally broke them.


A FEW WEEKS AFTER the fall of the Taliban, in January 2002, a State Department memo described Bagram as “a temporary ‘collection center’ where some detainees stop over en route to their permanent location,” typically Guantanamo. Over the following months, however, Bagram became much more than that—in part because troops in the field kept bringing in detainees who were not deemed valuable enough to send on to Guantanamo but were nonetheless kept at the base for months at a time. Many of them were local men arrested during U.S. raids on villages, according to Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chair of the Afghan human rights commission. The problem, Hakim says, has been that the U.S. military frequently responds to tips from competing tribal factions, but isn’t in a position to assess whether those claims are credible, or simply attempts to settle scores. “The Americans get a report that a village belongs to Al Qaeda,” he explains. “When we go to check, we find nothing. The commission is very keen to share information about our cross-checking of these local accusations. But the coalition forces do not consult with us or with any other Afghan authority.”

In May 2002, a few weeks before Hussain Mustafa was flown to Bagram, a 30-year-old Connecticut reservist was posted to the base as a senior interrogator. He and his team had come from a camp in the Afghan city of Kandahar, where they’d been conducting interrogations according to the 16 methods taught in their training—standard questioning techniques, from “good cop/bad cop” to “we know all”—and become frustrated by their failure to collect abundant useful information.

In Bagram, the interrogation team’s number was cut from the 25 they’d had at Kandahar to 7. The team had about 200 prisoners to question and was processing between 35 and 40 a day. The reservist, together with Los Angeles Times reporter Greg Miller, later wrote a book about his experience, The Interrogators; the Army required that he use a pseudonym in writing the book and talking to reporters.

Chris Mackey, as the reservist is known, had been taught that harsh interrogation techniques yielded poor information because they prompted detainees to lie. Still, he recalls, “the more aggressive we were—though we never became physically violent—the more reliable the information was.” His team realized that they often got their best information in the last half-hour of a 10-hour session, and they concluded that fatigue was their best available weapon. “We decided by committee that we couldn’t get away with sleep deprivation under the Geneva Convention,” Mackey says. “So we came up with this technique we called ‘monstering.’ We said that if you put one interrogator in with one prisoner and scrupulously gave them the same water and food and bathroom breaks, the interrogation could go on as long as the interrogator could stand it. Of course, we were hoping that the interrogator would be fully rested, whereas the prisoner would have just come off the battlefield.”

Monstering wasn’t in the Army manual, and before he came to Bagram, Mackey wouldn’t have imagined improvising techniques that deviated from his training. But in Afghanistan, he increasingly felt compelled to produce intelligence that might help his fellow soldiers. “When I arrived, I would never have countenanced monstering,” he told me. “But we saw how little success we were having against a determined enemy. So we went to what we thought was the absolute edge.”

The Bush administration had decided at the beginning of the conflict that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the Afghan detainees. But Mackey’s commander never told him of that decision, and Mackey worried that he could be disciplined for breaking the rules. “As part of your training as an interrogator, it’s hardwired into your system that a violation of the Geneva Convention will bring swift justice down on you,” he says. At one point, Mackey remembers, a military police official at Bagram suggested that the interrogators use dogs to scare the detainees. “He was a reservist from Michigan, where there’s a big Arab population, and he said that Arabs are terrified of dogs,” Mackey says. “I remember sitting in a hot pizza oven of an office, arguing with everyone, trying to figure out how we could do this. But we couldn’t—not out of any love for the enemy. We just thought we would get into trouble.”

Asked about Mustafa’s story of abuse—which would have taken place while his team was based at Bagram—Mackey says the culprits couldn’t have been members of his unit, the only one formally questioning prisoners at the base (though he says he can’t be sure whether the CIA had interrogators there). Former detainees, he points out, have “everything to gain for their cause by lying or exaggerating wildly.” But, he adds, “10 months ago I would have told you, categorically, there was no way that this sort of thing could have happened. Now…the criminal abuses in Iraq—and the murders in Bagram—have robbed me of the comfort and uniformity of blanket denials.”


IN AUGUST 2002, Mackey and his team turned over the detention unit in Bagram to the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion from Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The new head of the interrogation unit was Captain Carolyn Wood, a 34-year-old officer and 10-year Army veteran. Wood rewrote the interrogation policy set by Mackey’s group, adding to it nine techniques not approved by military doctrine or included in Army field manuals. Her expanded list included “the use of dogs, stress positions, sleep management, [and] sensory deprivation,” according to an internal Pentagon investigation known as the Fay-Jones report; the report noted that other techniques, such as “removal of clothing and the use of detainee’s phobias,” were also used at Bagram.

In December 2002, four months after Wood and the 519th took over at Bagram, two detainees died in custody at the base. One was Mullah Habibullah, a 30-year-old man from the southern province of Oruzgan; the other was a 22-year-old taxi driver named Dilawar (many Afghans use only one name), who was married and had a 2-year-old daughter. The men had been hung by their arms from the ceiling and beaten so severely that, according to a report by Army investigators later leaked to the Baltimore Sun, their legs would have needed to be amputated had they lived. The Army’s Criminal Investigation command launched an inquiry, but few people outside Afghanistan took notice.

Then in March 2003, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall tracked down Dilawar’s brother in his home village. The man took from his pocket Dilawar’s death certificate, which he’d been unable to understand because it was in English. Gall read the document and discovered that the Army pathologist who signed the certificate had checked “homicide” as the cause of death. The Times buried Gall’s story on page A14; few other outlets picked it up. It wasn’t until May 2004, more than a year later, that the Army released its report on the deaths. In it, investigators implicated a total of 28 military personnel in crimes including negligent homicide, maiming, and dereliction of duty. To date, however, only one person has been charged—Sergeant James Boland, a reserve military police soldier, who is accused of denying medical care to Dilawar and watching a lower-ranking soldier beat Habibullah. “It is left up to the various commanders whether to bring legal action” against any of the other 27, says Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Pamela Hart. So far they have not.

By the summer of 2003, it was the 519th’s turn to leave Bagram. Despite Gall’s report and the ongoing criminal investigation, they were redeployed to run another prison—Abu Ghraib. There, Wood proceeded to implement new interrogation rules that, as a Pentagon report later noted, were “remarkably similar” to those she had developed at Bagram. In September 2003, the Army probed tips from other military police officers that members of the 519th had beaten prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but the investigators found the allegations unsubstantiated. Members of the 519th have not been directly implicated in the photographed abuses that set off the scandal.

Wood herself testified last summer at a military hearing in the case of Lynndie England, one of the soldiers prosecuted for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Wood said she was “outraged” by the photos she had seen.

Chris Mackey had trained with Wood before she got her command at Bagram. He says that while he was “gravely disappointed” when he found out about her changes to the interrogation rules, he understands what might have been going on. “After she took over, the stakes got very high,” he says. “We went from losing three or four soldiers a month to scores of them. She must have been under a tremendous amount of pressure.”

Mackey also says he couldn’t imagine that Wood’s superiors didn’t know what she was doing. “I don’t think it was sinister and programmatic,” Mackey says of the military’s handling of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. “But there was horrible incompetence at the leadership and oversight level. People were aware of what we were doing because we were open. [The prison] was practically a Disney ride, with lots of higher-ups and officials coming through. But the common response we got was, Aren’t you kind of babying them?”


THE DEATHS OF HABIBULLAH and Dilawar weren’t the only signals that something was going awry in the Afghan detention centers. In March 2003, just as U.S. troops were streaming into Iraq, American troops in Afghanistan arrested an 18-year-old soldier in the Afghan army, Jamal Naseer, at the behest of a provincial governor embroiled in a dispute with local warlords. The arrest wasn’t recorded and no charges were filed, but Naseer was taken to a U.S. base near Gardez. Two weeks later, he was dead. A report prepared for the Afghan attorney general, who considered bringing charges against unnamed American soldiers in the case, found that he had been severely beaten over the course of two weeks. The Afghan investigators and a report by the United Nations also recorded allegations that other prisoners at Gardez had been beaten, immersed in cold water, given electric shocks, hung upside down, and had their toenails torn off. The U.S. Army investigated the circumstances of Naseer’s death, but closed its inquiry because there were no records of who was in charge at the base, or of the names of victims and witnesses.

By the summer and fall of 2003, more and more detainees were coming forward to complain about abuse in U.S. custody. In September 2003, a former Afghan police colonel told the Afghan human rights commission that he had been sexually abused while being detained at Bagram, Gardez, and Kandahar for a total of 40 days. Another former detainee named Abdurahman Khadr, who was held at Bagram in March 2003, later testified in a Canadian federal court that U.S. soldiers “got me naked and they were taking pictures of my face and my private parts—just constantly taking pictures of my private parts.” Khadr also said that he’d seen other prisoners hung from a wall by their shackles for as long as four days. Two other detainees, Saif-ur Rahman and Abdul Qayyum, told the Associated Press that they had been deprived of sleep, forced to stand for long periods, and taunted by female soldiers during the fall and winter of 2002.

The Army report on the deaths of Dilawar and Habibullah documented similar practices. The investigators found that members of the Cincinnati-based 377th Military Police Company, which was based at Bagram along with the 519th, slammed prisoners into walls, twisted their handcuffs, shackled a detainee’s arms to the ceiling, and forced water into another detainee’s mouth “until he could not breathe.” Finally, last June, a grand jury in North Carolina indicted a private CIA contractor, David Passaro, in connection with the death of an Afghan man who had voluntarily surrendered to U.S. troops at another base in Afghanistan; the man had been savagely beaten with a flashlight.


LAST SUMMER, a small group of American lawyers began talking about the pattern of misconduct at Bagram and Abu Ghraib laid out in the Army’s Fay-Jones report; attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups are now preparing to file lawsuits on behalf of a number of detainees who claim to have been tortured in either Afghanistan or Iraq. The lawyers argue that the Bush administration laid the groundwork for abuse by claiming that those captured in Afghanistan were “enemy combatants” not covered by international law. With the restrictions of the Geneva Conventions lifted, says Priti Patel, a lawyer with the group Human Rights First, interrogators developed harsh techniques that ultimately were transferred to Iraq. (The Bush administration has not backed down from its stance on the detainees’ legal status; in fact, it has looked for additional ways to hold foreign prisoners outside the reach of American courts. In October, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would allow foreign detainees to be deported to countries that engage in torture. Also late last year, the White House helped kill a legislative provision that would have explicitly banned intelligence officers from torturing detainees.)

The lawyers also fault the military and the Pentagon for failing to track responsibility for the abuses up the chain of command. To date, only 10 soldiers have been prosecuted for crimes involving prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq—none of them above the rank of staff sergeant. “All of the investigations have looked down rather than up,” says Lucas Guttentag, a lawyer at the ACLU. “Our goal is to hold high-level officials accountable for the policies and practices that caused widespread torture, and to hold them accountable for their failure to stop the abuse once it came to light. This is really about who bears ultimate responsibility.”

Part of the challenge in assigning accountability for the Afghan abuses is that, in contrast to the uproar about Abu Ghraib, very little about them has become public. Last May, the Army assigned Brig. General Charles Jacoby to conduct a review of American detention centers in Afghanistan. Jacoby completed his report in July, but it remains classified; the only hint of its contents has come in the Washington Post, which in December reported that it had found that many of the prisons lacked clear interrogation guidelines, inviting commanders in the field to set their own limits.

Outside investigators, meanwhile, have been almost entirely barred from the Afghan detention centers. The International Committee for the Red Cross has had no access to any of them except Bagram, and even there its representatives have not been able to see all parts of the facility. Former prisoners have said the Red Cross never visited detainees being held in the upstairs cells, including Dilawar and Habibullah. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have not been allowed to visit the base at all; neither has the Afghan human rights commission, which has been asking the U.S. military for access to Bagram and other detention centers for a year. “We expected to have a friendly relationship with the coalition forces,” says deputy chair Hakim. “But what the coalition has done, the abuses, overshadows the friendly aspect of the American intervention. I ask you: What is the difference between the Americans and the Soviet forces who occupied Afghanistan?”


IN EARLY AUGUST 2002, Hussain Mustafa was flown from Bagram to Guantanamo. There, he was held mostly in the prison’s “preferred” area, reserved for detainees who were deemed to be cooperating with interrogators. At one point, Mustafa said, he went 10 months without being questioned. “I was led to believe that the frequency of the questioning depended on what they thought you had done,” he said. “So I assume from the limited number of times they bothered to question me that they knew all along that I had nothing that I could say.”

Mustafa was released from Guantanamo last August. His wife and seven of his children were waiting for him in Jordan. His son Abdullah, however, had died six months earlier. Abdullah had had a heart condition that he’d been able to keep under control in Pakistan, where visits with a specialist were relatively cheap. But when the family moved to Jordan after Mustafa’s arrest, he couldn’t afford to see a doctor regularly. “It is a nightmare to me that I did not even know Abdullah had died until I was released,” Mustafa said, and then he stopped talking.

The day after he finished his interview with Stafford Smith, Mustafa returned to read over his statement and sign it. He brought with him a document stating that he had been “determined to pose no threat to the U.S. Armed Forces or its interests in Afghanistan”—the standard release that the military gives detainees when they are allowed to return home. Mustafa said he’d been given one other thing when he left Guantanamo: a pair of white canvas sneakers. He shook Stafford Smith’s hand and walked out of the law office, the sneakers bright in the autumn sun.