The UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) has released its October 2011 report on “Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees in Afghanistan” (PDF). Ten years after the US invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime, and ostensibly dismantle the Al Qaeda forces linked to the 9/11 attacks, the regime in place is not only hopelessly corrupt and unable to provide security for its citizens, Afghan security forces in the National Security Directorate (NDS) have been charged by UNAMA with “systematically” torturing “detainees for the purpose of obtaining confessions and information” at a number of provincial facilities.

The report alleges that fully 46 percent of prisoners held by security forces, and approximately one-third held by Afghan national police (ANP), are tortured. Furthermore, “[n]early all detainees tortured by NDS officials reported the abuse took place during interrogations and was aimed at obtaining a confession or information.” Until last month, the U.S. routinely turned prisoners over to Afghan security forces, while NATO stopped turning over prisoners to a number of different Afghan facilities last July.

Controversies over allied forces releasing prisoners to Afghan security, where they reliably knew they would be tortured, have simmered for years now. As Marcy Wheeler highlighted in an article on the UN report today, according to UNAMA, “The US has not yet put in place a monitoring programme to track detainees it hands over to Afghan authorities.”

Turning prisoners over to forces or governments that are known to commit gross human rights violations, such as torture or murder of detainees, is a violation of international law, and of the US-signed Convention Against Torture treaty.

Torture of Children

Ten percent of the prisoners examined were minors. Nearly two-thirds of the children held by the NDS and ANP (62 percent) were tortured.

UNAMA’s report was statistically derived from a random sampling. Issues of possible falsification of torture evidence is addressed in the report, and the evidence was found to be credible. (Actually, the Executive Summary says the allegations have not been judged on their credibility. But the Methodology section of the report states, “In a number of cases, UNAMA interviewers observed injuries, marks and scars that appeared to be consistent with torture and ill‐treatment or bandages and medical treatment for such injuries as well as instruments of torture described by detainees such as rubber hoses.” The report adds that “UNAMA rigorously analysed patterns of allegations in the aggregate and at specific facilities which permitted conclusions to be drawn about abusive practices at specific facilities and suggested fabricated accounts were uncommon…”

UNAMA statisticians calculated the margin of error for the different samples they used ranged from approximately 5 to 9 percent.

Torture for Confessions

A major conclusion from the report is that much of the torture was specifically aimed at obtaining confessions from prisoners during torture. UNAMA notes, “Confessions are rarely examined at trial and rarely challenged by the judge or defence counsel as having been coerced.” Hence, there’s very little to constrict government prosecutors in using torture to get their confessions, and confessions are “[i]n most cases… the sole form of evidence or corroboration submitted to courts to support prosecutions.” There are few procedural safeguards for defendant prisoners, and what few there are are routinely ignored.

The following is testimony from one prisoner cited specifically in the report, Detainee 371 at Kandahar, interviewed last May:

After two days [in a National Directorate of Security (NDS) facility in Kandahar] they transferred me to NDS headquarters [in Kandahar]. I spent one night on their veranda. On the following day, an official called me to their interrogation room. He asked if I knew the name of his office. I said it was “Khad” [Dari term for the former NDS]. “You should confess what you have done in the past as Taliban; even stones confess here,” he said. He kept insisting that I confess for the first two days. I did not confess. After two days he tied my hands on my back and start beating me with an electric wire. He also used his hands to beat me. He used his hands to beat me on my back and used electric wire to beat me on my legs and hands. I did not confess even though he was beating me very hard. During the night on the same day, another official came and interrogated me. He said “Confess or be ready to die. I will kill you.” I asked him to bring evidence against me instead of threatening to kill me. He again brought the electric wire and beat me hard on my hands. The interrogation and beating lasted for three to four hours in the night. The NDS officials abused me two more times. They asked me if I knew any Taliban commander in Kandahar. I said I did not know. During the last interrogation, they forced me to sign a paper. I did not know what they had written. They did not allow me to read it.


According to the report, forms of torture included “routine blindfolding and hooding [i.e., sensory deprivation] and denial of access to medical care,” in addition to “suspension (being hung by the wrists from chains or other devices attached to the wall, ceiling, iron bars or other fixtures for lengthy periods) and beatings, especially with rubber hoses, electric cables or wires or wooden sticks and most frequently on the soles of the feet. Electric shock, twisting and wrenching of detainees’ genitals, stress positions including forced standing, removal of toenails and threatened sexual abuse…”

Alibiing the Afghan Government

Strangely, after describing the “systematic” use of torture by Afghan security and police forces, UNAMA declares the Afghan government innocent of use of torture as government policy. The report cites the fact that the NDS cooperated with the investigation, concluding “the use of torture is not a de facto institutional policy directed or ordered by the highest levels of NDS leadership or the Government. This together with the fact that NDS cooperated with UNAMA’s detention observation programme suggests that reform is both possible and desired by elements within the NDS.”

This is a surprising assertion, and of course, the international press has highlighted this supposed reassurance about the Afghan government in its coverage of the report’s conclusions. The cooperation of the NDS appears to have been equivocal at best. For one thing, as the report concedes, the NDS refused to allow UNAMA to visit its national counter-terrorism facility in Kabul, or interview prisoners there. Known as Department 90, it is where “high-value” prisoners are held. Information on Department 90 prisoners was gathered from those held elsewhere who previously had been held at the NDS Kabul facility.

Twenty-six of 28 prisoners who were determined to have been held at Department 90 were tortured, leading to a near 100 percent probability of being tortured there. One prisoner told UNAMA investigators, “When they took me to [Department] 90, I did not know where I had been taken. . . After two days, I learned that I was in 90 from my cellmates. There is so much beating at 90 that people call it Hell.” Five of the six children interviewed who had been held at Department 90 were tortured.

The Afghan government has long promised they would clean up their act regarding abuse of prisoners, and US agencies have covered up for them in the past. A 2006 RAND study, prepared for George Soros’s Open Society Institute, that torture and extrajudicial killings were in decline by Afghan authorities, and that US assistance had “somewhat improved” human rights practices by Afghan police. (RAND has a very stringent warning about quoting its material, or even providing links, but here’s the link the New York Times gave in its article on the UNAMA report.)

One can only conclude that the US government has been more than supportive of the torture policies within Afghanistan, only withdrawing funds when it was politically expedient to do so. Most of the stories on the UNAMA report have noted UNAMA’s mention of the so-called “Leahy law.” According to UNAMA, “legal provisions in the US Foreign Appropriations Act and Defence Appropriations Act prohibit the US from providing funding, weapons or training to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross human rights violations, unless the Secretary of State determines the concerned government is taking effective remedial measures” (emphasis added).

None of the press results and analysis thus far has noted this escape from accountability clause, wherein the Secretary of State can decide a foreign government — say, Afghanistan — which has committed “gross human rights violations,” is sincerely doing the best it can to address the issue. Indeed, parts of the UNAMA report appear to be written to allow just such an interpretation by the Obama/Clinton-led State Department.

So while the Americans and their allies in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have as of last month, “in response to the findings in this report, “stopped transferring detainees to certain installations as a precautionary measure,” the report also notes that a return to the previous transfer policy “would presumably require the US to resume transfer of detainees only when the Government of Afghanistan implements appropriate remedial measures that include bringing to justice NDS and ANP officials responsible for torture and ill‐treatment.”

But this doesn’t speak to the funding or arming of the Afghan security and police forces. Indeed, by indicating that portions of the government, including the NDS, are sympathetic and trying to change the abuse/torture situation, it would appear that ammunition is being provided to Secretary Clinton to conclude that a good faith effort is being made, and bypass the provisions of the Leahy Law. This would seem to be the point in concluding the torture is not “institutional,” and that “reform is both possible and desired by elements within the NDS.”

But anyone reading this report could hardly come to this politically convenient conclusion. In fact, senior NDS officials admitted “they have investigated only two claims of torture in recent years, neither of which led to charges being pursued against the accused NDS official.” Nor would NDS officials “provide UNAMA with any information on any other disciplinary or criminal action against NDS officials for torture and abuse.” This doesn’t sound like desired elements for reform to me.

Ten years after US and foreign forces invaded Afghanistan and installed a puppet regime, all the while jockeying for alliances among various warlord forces, has not improved the human rights situation in Afghanistan. Surely the Taliban and the various warlords cannot be counted upon to provide such improvement either. But there is one big difference. The Taliban are not foreign invaders. While such foreign invaders occupy the country, killing civilians and giving political and military support to a torture regime, no progress from within Afghanistan can take place.