Monday, February 1, 2010

United States Terror in Afghanistan

Keeping a blog carries certain risks. The biggest risk is that of turning it into a stage for personal rants, condemning and bemoaning. It's very tempting and there have been the odd times when I've given in and denounced something. When I have done I've tried not to make it a rant but to attempt some analysis and argument but I've not always been successful, I know. In my blog roll at the side I list a number of political blog sites, including my flatmate's, Larvatus Prodeo. So if you want good political analysis and discussion and not just rants, those are the places I recommend.

But in the last couple of days I read a quite appalling story over on Asia Times Online. It's by Anand Gopal, Terror Comes at Night in Afghanistan. It's an account that deserves to be read and brought to everyone's attention. Gopal describes the terror that ordinary Afghans have had to live under since the US invasion of that benighted land. It appears the US military is in the habit of raiding people's homes by night to detain suspects. Here's one instance of a night time raid from late last year

It was November 19, 2009, at 3:15 am. A loud blast awoke the villagers of a leafy neighborhood outside Ghazni city, a town of ancient provenance in the country's south. A team of US soldiers burst through the front gate of the home of Majidullah Qarar, the spokesman for the minister of agriculture. Qarar was in Kabul at the time, but his relatives were home, four of whom were sleeping in the family's one-room guesthouse.

One of them, Hamidullah, who sold carrots at the local bazaar, ran towards the door of the guesthouse. He was immediately shot, but managed to crawl back inside, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Then Azim, a baker, darted towards his injured cousin. He, too, was shot and crumpled to the floor. The fallen men cried out to the two relatives remaining in the room, but they - both children - refused to move, glued to their beds in silent horror.

The foreign soldiers, most of them tattooed and bearded, then went on to the main compound. They threw clothes on the floor, smashed dinner plates and forced open closets. Finally, they found the man they were looking for: Habib-ur-Rahman, a computer programmer and government employee. Rahman was responsible for converting Microsoft Windows from English to the local Pashto language so that government offices could use the software. He had spent time in Kuwait, and the Afghan translator accompanying the soldiers said they were acting on a tip that Rahman was a member of al-Qaeda.

They took the barefoot Rahman and a cousin of his to a helicopter some distance away and transported them to a small American base in a neighboring province for interrogation. After two days, US forces released Rahman's cousin. But Rahman has not been seen or heard from since.

"We've called his phone, but it doesn't answer," says his cousin Qarar, the spokesman for the agriculture minister. Using his powerful connections, Qarar enlisted local police, parliamentarians, the governor and even the agriculture minister himself in the search for his cousin, but they turned up nothing. Government officials who independently investigated the scene in the aftermath of the raid and corroborated the claims of the family also pressed for an answer as to why two of Qarar's family members were killed. American forces issued a statement saying that the dead were "enemy militants [that] demonstrated hostile intent".

Weeks after the raid, the family remains bitter. "Everyone in the area knew we were a family that worked for the government," Qarar says. "Rahman couldn't even leave the city because if the Taliban caught him in the countryside they would have killed him."

Beyond the question of Rahman's guilt or innocence, however, it's how he was taken that has left such a residue of hate and anger among his family. "Did they have to kill my cousins? Did they have to destroy our house?" Qarar asks. "They knew where Rahman worked. Couldn't they have at least tried to come with a warrant in the daytime? We would have forced Rahman to comply. "I used to go on TV and argue that people should support this government and the foreigners," he adds. "But I was wrong. Why should anyone do so? I don't care if I get fired for saying it, but that's the truth."

Such night time raids and "arrests" have been fairly standard since the invasion back in 2001. People abducted by US forces generally disappear into the shadow world of prisons and interrogation centres the US operates throughout the country, the most infamous at Bagram airbase. If you're really unlucky you might end up at Guantanamo or you might just be murdered and your body dumped. Torture is pretty much par for the course in the US Afghan prisons.

Night raids are only the first step in the American detentionprocess in Afghanistan. Suspects are usually sent to one among a series of prisons on US military bases around the country. There are officially nine such jails, called Field Detention Sites in military parlance. They are small holding areas, often just a clutch of cells divided by plywood, and are mainly used for prisoner interrogation.

In the early years of the war, these were but way stations for those en route to Bagram prison, a facility with a notorious reputation for abusive behavior. As a spotlight of international attention fell on Bagram in recent years, wardens there cleaned up their act and the mistreatment of prisoners began to shift to the little-noticed Field Detention Sites.

Of the 24 former detainees interviewed for this story, 17 claim to have been abused at or en route to these sites. Doctors, government officials, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. a body tasked with investigating abuse claims, corroborate 12 of these claims.

One of these former detainees is Noor Agha Sher Khan, who used to be a police officer in Gardez, a mud-caked town in the eastern part of the country. According to Sher Khan, US forces detained him in a night raid in 2003 and brought him to a Field DetentionSite at a nearby US base. "They interrogated me the whole night," he recalls, "but I had nothing to tell them." Sher Khan worked for a police commander whom US forces had detained on suspicion of having ties to the insurgency. He had occasionally acted as a driver for this commander, which made him suspicious in American eyes.

The interrogators blindfolded him, taped his mouth shut and chained him to the ceiling, he alleges. Occasionally they unleashed a dog, which repeatedly bit him. At one point, they removed the blindfold and forced him to kneel on a long wooden bar. "They tied my hands to a pulley [above] and pushed me back and forth as the bar rolled across my shins. I screamed and screamed." They then pushed him to the ground and forced him to swallow 12 bottles worth of water. "Two people held my mouth open and they poured water down my throat until my stomach was full and I became unconscious. It was as if someone had inflated me," he says. After he was roused from his torpor, he vomited the water uncontrollably.

This continued for a number of days; sometimes he was hung upside down from the ceiling, at other times blindfolded for extended periods. Eventually, he was sent to Bagram where the torture ceased. Four months later, he was quietly released, with a letter of apology from US authorities for wrongfully imprisoning him.

According to Gopal, over the last couple of years, the US has cleaned up its act in Bagram. However, prisoners can be handed over to Afghan authorities for torture and then returned after being "roughed up". This process can go on and on. There are also reports of a secret black gaol.

One day two years ago, US forces came to get Noor Muhammad outside of the town of Kajaki in the southern province of Helmand. Muhammad, a physician, was running a clinic that served all comers - including the Taliban. The soldiers raided his clinic and his home, killing five people (including two patients) and detaining both his father and him. The next day, villagers found the handcuffed corpse of Muhammad's father, apparently dead from a gunshot.

The soldiers took Muhammad to the black jail. "It was a tiny, narrow corridor, with lots of cells on both sides and a big steel gate and bright lights. We didn't know when it was night and when it was day." He was held in a concrete, windowless room, in complete solitary confinement. Soldiers regularly dragged him by his neck and refused him food and water. They accused him of providing medical care to the insurgents, to which he replied, "I am a doctor. It's my duty to provide care to every human being who comes to my clinic, whether they are Taliban or from the government."

Eventually, Muhammad was released, but he has since closed his clinic and left his home village. "I am scared of the Americans and the Taliban," he says. "I'm happy my father is dead, so he doesn't have to experience this hell."

Clearly Abu Ghraib in Iraq was not an aberration. What went wrong was that the 'grunts' got into taking trophy snaps for the folks back home. Indeed reading these reports I'm reminded first of all of accounts from the Vietnam war of US secret operations there, in which many thousands of Vietnamese civilians were arrested tortured and murdered. I'm also reminded of accounts from Latin America in the 70s and 80s, especially Argentina's war on its citizens, in which people would be abducted at night for torture and murder. The people, military and police, responsible for such crimes had been trained in the US at the School of Americas, "whose training manuals advocated torture, extortion and execution." According to School of Americas Watch

Among the SOA's nearly 60,000 graduates are notorious dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador, and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia. Lower-level SOA graduates have participated in human rights abuses that include the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the El Mozote Massacre of 900 civilians.

In other words the US has form going back decades of promoting and using torture and murder and generally waging terror campaigns against foreign populations. What was exposed in Iraq and what Gopal describes in Afghanistan is not some neo-con Cheney-Bush aberration but standard operating practice by the US military for who knows how long. It's just over a century since the US took up "the white man's burden" and invaded the Philippines who had had the temerity to declare their independence from Spain, following Spain's defeat in the Spanish-US War. The US waged a brutal war to take control of the country in which hundreds of thousands of Filipinos were killed. So no doubt the US learnt an awful lot about terrorising local populations there.

I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan and still do. I am appalled that Australia was part and parcel of it and that we seem to have been committed for the long haul to that miserable war. War is rarely a viable solution to anything and the invasion of Afghanistan is yet another catastrophe in that country's recent history of being the plaything of the big powers. The behaviour of US forces there, just like their behaviour in Iraq, is clear evidence that the US is not interested in the plight of the local people. The real issue is control of the energy resources of Central Asia.

The US military and political elites like to talk about the war in Afghanistan being a long war over many years even decades. But if it keeps up this sort of behaviour we can be sure of one thing. Just like Britain and the Soviet Union before them, the US will lose its war in Afghanistan, just as it did in Vietnam back in '75.

I strongly urge you to read Gopal's full article, Terror Comes at Night in Afghanistan.

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