The US Senate report summary on CIA torture released on Tuesday does more than expose serious human rights violations in the US “War on Terror.” It’s a chilling reminder of how the legacy of those abuses undermines human rights in the very country where that war began: Afghanistan.
Of the sites identified in the report, four are in Afghanistan, where detainees in US custody were subjected to “sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, beatings and shackling.” Feeding tubes inserted anally in detainees, resulting in rectal prolapse in at least one case, represented sexual assaults analogous to rape with an object. Many of these abuses occurred as early as 2002, when Afghan detainee Gul Rahman died from hypothermia after being shackled to a freezing concrete floor at the infamous “Salt Pit” detention center.
The accounts in the report make clear that after ending Taliban rule in 2001, the US used some of the very same abusive practices employed not only by the Taliban, but by the country’s Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and feuding warlords in the 1990s. While their scale of abuse far exceeded that of US forces, their practices – including beatings and the humiliation of detainees – were distressingly similar. From the perspective of many Afghans, the US was just repeating abusive practices of the past.
I remember how almost a decade ago US officials responded to allegations of US torture in Afghanistan with a blend of hypocrisy and disingenuous denial – the same reaction many US policymakers showed us yesterday. In 2005, I gave a briefing for Kabul-based diplomats on my report documenting war crimes by all the warring parties in Afghanistan since 1978. No US officials attended. Instead, two US officials based at Bagram airbase insisted on seeing me immediately afterwards to complain that my report included accounts of abuses by US forces. One officer was literally shaking with anger that I had dared to suggest that US military personnel were involved in torture. This was 2005. According to the Senate report, those abusive practices continued at least until 2008.
Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, responded to the revelations of the Senate report as acts that “trampled all the accepted principles of human rights, laws of the United States and accepted international morals,” and stated that “the Afghan government condemns these inhumane acts in the strongest possible terms.” And yet since 2001, Afghanistan’s government has resisted calls by human rights groups for accountability and an end to such abuses by its own security forces. As the United Nations and human rights groups have documented, not a single member of the Afghan police or other security forces has been prosecuted for torture, despite the systematic use of torture in Afghan detention centers. Given US unwillingness to prosecute torture by its own forces, the Hamid Karzai government doubtlessly felt no real pressure to see to it that its security forces were held to account. Unfortunately, President Ghani will need to tackle torture without any helpful precedents from his predecessor or the US.