US forces in Afghanistan are arbitrarily detaining
civilians, using excessive, sometimes lethal force in arresting them, mistreating
detainees in ways that may meet international definitions of torture, and administering
a system of arrest and detention that is outside the rule of law, according
to a blistering new report released Monday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The 59-page report, "'Enduring Freedom:
Abuses by US Forces in Afghanistan,'" charges that mistreatment of detainees
appears to be routine in a number of U.S.-controlled detention facilities around
Afghanistan, and that the detention system itself resembles "a legal black hole"
about which almost nothing is known apart from what former prisoners say about
it once they are released.
"The United States is setting a terrible example in Afghanistan on detention
practices," said Brad Adams, executive director of HRW's Asia division.
"Civilians are being held in a legal black hole – with no tribunals, no legal
counsel, no family visits and no basic legal protections."
Indeed, the record to date is likely to give ammunition to more abusive
governments, particularly in South Asia and the Middle East, where the Bush
administration insists it wants to promote human rights and the rule of law.
"Abusive governments across the world can now point to US forces in
Afghanistan, and say, 'If they can abuse human rights and get away with it, why
can't we?'" noted Adams.
The report was released amid continuing international criticism of
Washington's treatment of the more than 600 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban
detainees at its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Bush administration has
asserted its right to hold them indefinitely and refused to grant them
prisoner-of-war (POW) status that would give them the right to appeal their
detention in an independent court. Washington has also been criticized for
"rendering" some al Qaeda suspects to their home countries' intelligence
agencies known to practice torture for interrogation.
Its release also coincides with reports of plans for a major escalation of US
military operations against Taliban forces and their allies along the Pakistani
border later this spring, in part to improve security in advance of elections
scheduled for this summer.
The report is based on research conducted in southeast and eastern
Afghanistan in 2003 and early 2004, including interviews of former prisoners
(some of whom were detained both in Afghanistan and at the US naval base at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba), US, UN, and relief officials and military officers, and
It stresses that the armed foes of the US and its allies, including the
Taliban, Hezb-e Islami, and a relatively small number of non-Afghan fighters
have shown little or no regard for international human rights standards or the
laws of war. They have carried out abductions and attacks against civilians and
humanitarian aid workers and bombings in bazaars and other civilian areas. HRW
agrees that those responsible for these acts should be brought to justice.
At the same time, however, the report insists that these activities do not
excuse violations of international human rights law, notably the Geneva
Conventions, by the US. "Abuses by one party to a conflict, no matter how
egregious, do not justify violations by the other side," according to the
The report covers three kinds of abuses committed by US forces: their use of
excessive force in apprehending suspects; arbitrary arrests and indefinite
detention; and mistreatment in detention.
Over the last two years at least 1,000 Afghans and other nationals are
believed to have been arrested and detained by U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
While some were apprehended while they were engaged in military operations, most
have been taken into custody with no apparent connection to ongoing hostilities,
according to the report.
It found that US forces regularly use military means and methods – such as
firing from helicopter gunships or using suppressing fire (firing to immobilize
possible enemy forces) from small and heavy arms – during arrest operations in
residential areas where police tactics would be more appropriate. The use of
these tactics has resulted in unnecessary civilian casualties, and in some cases
may have been so indiscriminate and disproportionate as to violate international
humanitarian law, according to the report.
One of the most damaging cases took place just last December when US forces
bombed a house belonging to a tribal leader they believed to be associated with
Hezb-e Islami. The intended target, however, was not there, and explosions set
off by the bombing killed eight people, including six children, in a nearby
The report also documents abuses committed by Afghan soldiers or militias
deployed alongside US forces, including beatings of detainees and their
families, lootings of their homes, and even seizures of their land. The report
notes that while the Afghan government is responsible for these abuses, they
should also be of concern to the US because they were committed during
operations controlled by the US military.
Once taken into custody, individuals are detained for indefinite periods at
U.S. or U.S.-controlled military bases or outposts. Except for occasional visits
to some of these bases by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the
detainees – many of whom were simply picked up for being in the vicinity of US
military operations – are essentially held incommunicado, with no way to contact
relatives and no opportunity to challenge the basis of their detentions. In the
report's words, they find themselves in a "hopeless situation."
Interviews with former detainees suggest that many have been subjected to
mistreatment, ranging from beatings, sometimes quite severe, to dousing with
cold water or exposing them to freezing temperatures, to sleep deprivation, to
forcing them to sit or kneel in painful positions for extended periods of time,
a "stress and duress" technique that has been condemned by the UN Committee
"There is compelling evidence suggesting that US personnel have committed
acts against detainees amounting to torture or cruel, inhumane, or degrading
treatment," said Adams.
Indeed, the fact that the Pentagon has still not explained adequately the
circumstances of the deaths of two Afghan detainees at Bagram airbase in
December – both were ruled homicides by US military doctors who performed
autopsies – and a similar case in June 2003 at a detention site in Kunar
province bolsters the notion that the US military is operating its detention
facilities in Afghanistan "in a climate of almost total impunity," according to
"Simply put, the United States is acting outside the rule of law," the report
states. "There are no judicial processes restraining their actions in arresting
persons in Afghanistan. The only real legal limits on their activities are
Nor is the US military the only likely offender. In addition to the Afghan
Army, which is also accused of committing serious abuses against its detainees,
the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is known to hold detainees both at
Bagram and other locations in Afghanistan, including in Kabul. Even less is
known about its practices, according to the report.
It noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has complained to US authorities
about abuses by US troops, including their use of excessive force in arrest
operations and its treatment of suspects in detention, on a number of occasions.
But "the Afghan government and the Afghan Ministry of Defense have limited
influence over US military strategies and policies..." the report asserted.
The ultimate result is a serious loss of credibility for US criticisms of
abusive practices committed by Afghan forces and foreign governments, according
to HRW. "It is now all too easy for governments to justify their failures to
uphold human rights by pointing to US violations in