Page 1 of 2 Terror comes at night in Afghanistan
By Anand Gopal
One quiet, wintry night last year in the eastern Afghan town of Khost, a young
government employee named Ismatullah simply vanished. He had last been seen in
the town's bazaar with a group of friends. Family members scoured Khost's
dust-doused streets for days. Village elders contacted Taliban commanders in
the area who were wont to kidnap government workers, but they had never heard
of the young man. Even the governor got involved, ordering his police to round
up nettlesome criminal gangs that sometimes preyed on young bazaar-goers for
But the hunt turned up nothing. Spring and summer came and went with no sign of
Ismatullah. Then one day, long after the police and village elders had
abandoned their search, a courier delivered a neat, handwritten note on Red
Cross stationary to the family. In it, Ismatullah informed them that he was in
American prison more than 320 kilometers away. United States forces had picked
him up while he was on his way home from the bazaar, the terse letter stated,
and he didn't know when he would be freed.
Sometime in the past few years, Pashtun villagers in Afghanistan's rugged
heartland began to lose faith in the American project. Many of them can point
to the precise moment of this transformation, and it usually took place in the
dead of the night, when most of the country was fast asleep. In the secretive
US detentions process, suspects are usually nabbed in the darkness and then
sent to one of a number of detention areas on military bases, often on the
slightest suspicion and without the knowledge of their families.
This process has become even more feared and hated in Afghanistan than
coalition air strikes. The night raids and detentions, little known or
understood outside of these Pashtun villages, are slowly turning Afghans
against the very forces they greeted as liberators just a few years ago.
One dark night in November
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."
The dogs of war
Night raids are only the first step in the American detention process 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
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 Detention Site 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
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
An investigation of Sher Khan's case by the Afghan Independent Human Rights
Commission and an independent doctor found that he had wounds consistent with
the abusive treatment he alleges. US forces have declined to comment on the
specifics of his case, but a spokesman said that some soldiers involved in
detentions in this part of the country had been given unspecified
"administrative punishments". He added that "all detainees are treated
humanely", except for isolated cases.
Some of those taken to the Field Detention Sites never make it to Bagram, but
instead are simply released after authorities deem them to be innocuous. Even
then, some allege abuse. Such was the case with Hajji Ehsanullah, snatched one
winter night in 2008 from his home in the southern province of Zabul. He was
taken to a detention site in Khost province, some 320 kilometers away. He
returned home 13 days later, his skin scarred by dog bites and with memory
difficulties that, according to his doctor, resulted from a blow to the head.
US forces had dropped him off at a gas station in Khost after three days of
interrogation. It took him 10 more days to find his way home.
Others taken to these sites never end up in Bagram for an entirely different
reason. In the hardscrabble villages of the Pashtun south, where rumors grow
more abundantly than the most bountiful crop, locals whisper tales of people
who were captured and executed. Most have no evidence. But occasionally, a body
Such was the case at a detention site on an American military base in Helmand
province, where in 2003 a US military coroner wrote in the autopsy report of a
detainee who died in US custody (later made available through the Freedom of
Information Act): "Death caused by multiple blunt force injuries to the lower
torso and legs complicated by rhabdomyolysis (release of toxic byproducts into
the system due to destruction of muscle). Manner of death is homicide."
In the dust-swept province of Khost one day this past December, US forces
launched a night raid on the village of Motai, killing six people and capturing
nine, according to nearly a dozen local government authorities and witnesses.
Two days later, the bodies of two of those detained - plastic cuffs binding
their hands - were found more than a kilometer from the largest US base in the
area. A US military spokesman denies any involvement in the deaths and declines
to comment on the details of the raid. Local Afghan officials and tribal
elders, however, steadfastly maintain that the two were killed while in US
custody. American authorities released four other villagers in subsequent days.
The fate of the three remaining captives is unknown.
The matter might be cleared up if the US military were less secretive about its
detention process. But secrecy has been the order of the day. The nine Field
Detention Sites are enveloped in a blanket of official secrecy, but at least
the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations are aware of them. There
may, however, be others whose existence on the scores of military bases that
dot the country have not been disclosed. One example, according to former
detainees, is the detention facility at Rish Khor, an Afghan army base that
sits atop a mountain overlooking the capital, Kabul.
One night last year, US forces raided Zaiwalat, a tiny village that fits snugly
into the mountains of Wardak province, a few dozen kilometers west of Kabul,
and netted nine locals. They brought the captives to Rish Khor and interrogated
them for three days. "They kept us in a container," recalls Rehmatullah
Muhammad, one of the nine. "It was made of steel. We were handcuffed for three
days continuously. We barely slept those days." The plain-clothed interrogators
accused Rehmatullah and the others of giving food and shelter to the Taliban.
The suspects were then sent on to Bagram and released after four months. (A
number of former detainees said they were interrogated by plainclothed
officials, but they did not know if these officials belonged to the military,
the Central Intelligence Agency, or private contractors.)
Afghan human-rights campaigners worry that US forces may be using secret
detention sites like Rish Khor to carry out interrogations away from prying
eyes. The US military, however, denies even having knowledge of the facility.
The black jail
Much less secret is the final stop for most captives: the Bagram Internment
Facility. These days ominously dubbed "Obama's Guantanamo", Bagram nonetheless
offers the best conditions for captives during the entire detention