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Afghan detainee releases aimed at earning goodwill

The community-release program is part of a U.S.-led effort to redress a major Afghan grievance over suspected insurgents being held for months with little or no opportunity to make their case.

March 19, 2010|By Laura King
  • Juma Gul, left, is among four Afghan detainees freed under the community-release program. A ceremony was held at an Afghan army outpost to mark their return to their home province of Kandahar.
Juma Gul, left, is among four Afghan detainees freed under the community-release… (Laura King / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Camp Hero, Afghanistan — After the Koranic verses had been chanted, after the mullahs and military commanders had talked of the need to put past mistakes behind, each detainee bent over a document written in his native Pashto, carefully affixing his thumbprint.

With that gesture -- a promise to renounce violence and shun the insurgency -- the four Afghans, all of whom had spent months in U.S. military detention, were free to return to homes and families in troubled Kandahar province.

Over the last two months, similar ceremonies in Afghanistan have marked the release of more than a dozen detainees back into their communities, where village elders, local officials and family members vouched for their promise to lead peaceful lives.

The community-release program is part of a larger U.S.-led effort to redress what has for years been a festering Afghan grievance against foreign forces here: suspected insurgents being held for months or years in military custody with little or no opportunity for the innocent among them to make their case.

When it comes to American treatment of wartime captives, any Afghan schoolchild can rattle off a roll call of notorious names: Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, the latter a military prison at an American air base north of Kabul.

The Bagram jail, scene of well-documented detainee abuses in years past, including two prisoner deaths in 2002, was closed late last year and replaced with a new facility six miles away.

Among Afghans, "there's a toxic perception of detention practices," said Michael Gottlieb, a Harvard Law School graduate. He serves as civilian deputy of a new U.S.-led task force set up to institute reforms and pave the way for handing authority over military detainees to the Afghan government.

That drive has taken on added impetus amid Western and Afghan efforts to woo Taliban foot soldiers away from the insurgency and back to civilian life. Tales of injustice against detainees makes such "reintegration" a tougher sell.

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, moved quickly after assuming the post to address the issue of detainee treatment. It is a key element of his counterinsurgency doctrine, which holds that winning over the Afghan public is the only durable bulwark against the Taliban.

Western officials recognized that military detention centers had become breeding grounds for the insurgency, as fighters mingled with those who had been wrongly accused. If detainees weren't Taliban supporters when they entered the system, the thinking went, they probably would be by the time they emerged.

In an assessment delivered in August, McChrystal wrote that military detention operations "have the potential to become a strategic liability," urging a speedy transition to Afghan control. The joint task force was set up two months later.

The community-release program, though touted as an early success, illustrates the challenges in handing over detainee responsibilities to the Afghan government. The country's justice system is rife with abuses, and security forces are not yet adequately trained to deal with potentially dangerous suspects.

Afghan human rights groups have welcomed initial reforms, such as Red Cross visits and family contacts, but say the changes do not go far enough because the detainees still do not have access to lawyers and civil trials.

Even the process of returning detainees cleared of wrongdoing to their homes -- celebratory events meant to forge ties between coalition forces and Afghan communities -- can prove unexpectedly complicated.

On Wednesday, a giant U.S. C-130 lumbered into the morning air, carrying the four released detainees back to their homes in Kandahar province and two others to Helmand, both areas in the insurgency's heartland.

Most had been detained in or near areas where fighting was taking place, some of them in the company of known Taliban men. However, a military detention review board, acting under new guidelines that suspects receive a hearing within 60 days of capture, had found insufficient evidence to hold them.

For this journey, the six were restrained with plastic cuffs and, their eyes covered with blindfold goggles. They were clad in new prison- issued civilian garb: steel-gray tunics and baggy trousers, brown wool caps and shiny black shoes.

The releases, the program's first in Afghanistan's volatile south, were supposed to be carried out with great pomp at two shuras, town-hall-type affairs with deep roots in tribal culture. But because both provinces are active battle zones, the ceremonies were held at Afghan army outposts adjacent to big coalition bases.

Either because of the danger of travel or the chronic disorganization that plagues many Afghan public events, no family members or tribal elders were present.

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