A Letter From Afghanistan: Bagram, Afghan suffering and the futility of war by Andy Worthington

by Andy Worthington
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
12 October 2009

Last year, I received one of those special emails out of the blue, from someone wise and compassionate, who, to my great delight, wished to thank me for the courage of my writing. This woman, who has worked in rural development and post-disaster rehabilitation for 20 years, mostly in Africa, has spent the last few years in Afghanistan, and last week I unexpectedly received the following letter by email, which was so perceptive and so informative that I asked for her permission to reproduce it here, and was delighted when she said yes.

A letter from Afghanistan

I’m making a valiant attempt at watching your al-Jazeera interview on YouTube, but at this pace (about three minutes in two hours) it’ll take all night. Since our last correspondence I have, via your website, also started following the ACLU.  Together, you’re making one of my dearest hopes come true: international attention and lawsuits for the Bagram victims. I do hope that not only the foreigners will benefit, but also, and maybe mostly, the perfectly innocent random Afghans, stopped at checkpoints and too poor to bail themselves out, denounced by a neighbor who has an eye on their land or their daughter, sold for a “reward,” or others who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to the ACLU, there are some 50,000 persons, who, over the past years, have been arrested in Afghanistan by the foreign armies. Their fingerprints were taken on those occasions and transmitted to US security forces as “potential terrorists.” How many of them were released, how many have been imprisoned in some black hole, how many have died there?

Below, a “delation box”* (for whatever else can it be? After all, army field posts must have gone out with the First World War). It is placed just outside Aliabad, on the road to Kunduz, close to where some mental case from ISAF [NATO’s International Security Assistance Force] recently dropped bombs on two fuel tankers, a crime his conscience will have to live with for the rest of his life. It’s placed along the road, but in between two big announcement boards (with unrelated contents), which would conveniently shelter from public view whoever would be slipping a sheet of paper into it. The slot is too narrow for anything else:

A checkpoint in Afghanistan, with a "delation box"

How many poor buggers will have disappeared through that slot into Bagram or other such places? And whenever I pass by it, I realize that there are some advantages to having a high illiteracy rate … Later I saw another one in Kunduz bazaar, but did not have time for a picture and won’t have anymore; the area is out of bounds now, too dangerous.

Bagram military base by night:

A view of Bagram airbase by night

And this is roughly the same view, by day:

A view of Bagram airbase by day (from a distance)

Most of the local detainees are NOT persons caught red-handed at the scene of the crime, who need to be “held off the street” after “bombing poor women and children.” If the bloody ISAF and US armies would stop moving around at rush hour, when scores of innocent civilians are going to school or to work, then the “Taliban” would have no reason to detonate bombs there!

The prime targets are army targets; UN or other ex-pats are rarely targeted and usually by mistake, although that is unfortunately changing, thanks to our own aggressive attitude. As for Afghans, some schools for girls are targeted in remote areas, but mostly those who supposedly (delations work both ways) or truly (though not necessarily voluntarily) are collaborating with the foreign armies. So yes, its the “terrorists” who ignite the bomb, but the armies are co-responsible for provoking it in densely populated areas, at rush hours in the cities, going in their Rambo outfits to bazaars in country towns, etc. Sometimes I wonder whether they do that on purpose, as the civilian “collateral damage” gives them excuses to further incriminate the “Taliban.” If they traveled by night and were attacked, they would be the only victims; no women and children, because they are not out in the street at night.

An armored vehicle on the streets of Kabul

Incidentally, the Turks who left their armored vehicles so carelessly parked on one of Kabul’s main thoroughfares at rush hour, are in fact probably the most decent of all the foreign armies, as they walk around in shirtsleeves with just a handgun on their hip: no helmet, bulletproof vest or machine gun, as the other nationalities do. And, sure enough, they have fewer victims than the other nations … Aggression invites aggression. Trust invites trust.

As for the situation in Bagram now, we are TOLD that there’s no more torturing, but who’s to check that? Only the ICRC has (scarce) access, and what guarantee do we have that they have access to ALL prisoners? If there never had been any abuse there, I might agree that there probably is not any now either, but there is hard evidence that there was torture, even lethal, so now it is up to the torturers and their superiors to prove to us that these practices have stopped. They can not claim to be “presumed innocent,” as we know they are not.

And one way of showing improvement is by opening the prison(s), at least letting in UN human rights representatives, providing regular admission for the ICRC, a full list of all the prisoners, how long they’ve been there, what they are accused of, etc.

So far, the procedure apparently is that every six months a prisoner’s file is opened and they either let him go or add another six months. He himself is not heard. In the last year or so, some of them have had contact with their families, who can communicate with them through telephone and video located in ICRC HQ in Kabul. And that already is huge progress.

Even the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, who was here a year ago, was not able to ascertain who some of the uniformed Rambos were who raided houses at night, etc. No army would acknowledge them as theirs. Yet their – surviving — victims are among the prisoners. And surely Bagram is not the only lawless foreign prison here.

Tragically, even semantics are a basic problem here, for traditionally a war is either between two or more countries/states, or a civil war within one given country. This is neither. Actually it is not a war at all. Afghanistan, apart from being the more or less random victim of Bush’s need to show that he was avenging 9/11, is a live training camp for NATO and the US, as well as a huge source of income for some. Some governments with little experience of democracy and the diplomacy that goes with it, candidly say that they send their armies here in order for them to gain hands-on experience in warfare, and to gain more importance within NATO. It is cheaper and more effective than organizing training camps at home.

So there is no real war, rather an oversized militarized secret service operation, with the civil population as a hostage between the armies and the ever-increasing number of militants. And depending on our needs, we either tell them that we are here to protect them, to increase security, to stabilize the country, to introduce democracy, to rid the world of al-Qaeda (whom they thoroughly loathe) and other politically correct bullshit. However, when we are accused of prisoner abuse, then suddenly this is a country at war, which allows us to play it dirty.

But who’s the adversary? Surely not the “average Afghan” whose most ardent dream is to finally have peace, rebuild his house, plant some fruit trees, send his kids to school, enjoy something called a “normal life.” This is seemingly an extremely modest wish, but here it is more and more Utopian. Yet scores of such “average Afghans” are detained without accusation let alone a trial, and their wives and kids are literally in danger. This is not a good place for abandoned women.

Stating that you cannot have it both ways — increased security as well as humane treatment of prisoners — is too cynical for words, for in spite of the increased numbers of soldiers, sophisticated equipment etc., security is steadily decreasing, and the downward curve is getting steeper and steeper. And it is decreasing precisely because of our boundless stupidity and arrogance, because for each of the local prisoners in Bagram or elsewhere, particularly the many innocent ones, scores of new insurgents rise, often nolens volens, but if your brother has already spent long years in one of those black holes, I dare anyone to suggest what argument you could use to refuse to support the insurgents, when one night they come to claim you. They’re all over the country, they have been quietly infiltrating over the years, while our generals and politicians were holding success speeches about battles won, hearts and minds conquered.

And McChrystal is dead right when he says that our armies, by sacrificing civilians in order to save their own skins, will never win the war (provided we assume that there is a war to win, see above). However, he is tragically wrong when he thinks that victory can be achieved by pumping billions of dollars of “development” funds into those armies and to let them pretend to be Santa Claus, here to rebuild the country. If that was ever possible at all, it is certainly way too late for that now. Afghans are all but stupid, and they see through all those fairy-tales (this apart from the impossibility of having the same army killing and distributing candies).

McChrystal thinks it’s possible because he can distinguish between the different units, but the villagers cannot, as both categories appear out of the same camp gate every day. Schizophrenia must be heaven compared to that. It is true that this country desperately needs development, foremost employment (I remember in 1999 in Kosovo watching a silent march in Pristina — hundreds of young men evidently desperate for action, any action, a potential time-bomb) to fill the stomachs of their extended families and to keep them too busy to think about fighting.

At the same time this military “development” surge (absurd to start with, of course, because development is a profession, and just like I could not become a military professional after a one-week crash course, the average soldier — who, in addition, never stays longer than a maximum of six months — will still not have a clue about development even after his three or six months here) even further blurs the line between civil assistance and military interference and will make civilian work very soon completely impossible, to be replaced by military pseudo-development specialists or a handful of civilians who, for a fortune, will let themselves be hired by the armies, and won’t be able to achieve anything, as they will not be allowed to go anywhere without a bullet-proof vest, helmet and armed escort, which does not exactly facilitate functional communication with the development beneficiaries. Not to mention the fact that their “civilian” candidates will mostly be those who cannot find a decent “normal” job, and go for the outrageous income and/or CV credits, not for professional and ethical quality. The field work will be carried out by Afghans, who will be sitting ducks for the insurgents but will have no choice, as they usually need to feed extended families of some 25 persons.

Add to this the fact that, no matter what exactly the outcome of the “elections,” Karzai comes out of them as a wounded lion, with little credit from his countrymen, and publicly abandoned by his foreign supporters. And when the lion king is wounded, the hyenas, which laid low when he had strong backing, will come out. They have already started. And that’s how a beautiful country, with beautiful people, is mangled, over and over again. The only real hope left is not McChrystal’s sweet talk, but the fact that the Afghans are so utterly fed-up with war. However, will that be enough to stop them, when their stomachs are empty and someone offers “employment” in yet another war?

I’ve only been in Bagram once and swore never to set foot there again. It was for the presidential elections in 2005, when we did not yet have an embassy in Kabul.

A sprawling “village” (some 14,000 troops), with barracks, streets with regular names, a stubby female soldier in shorts walking down one of them with a machine gun over her shoulder and licking an ice-cream, McDonalds, 7-Eleven, Afghan souvenir shops: an outlandish place, completely cut-off from the reality of Afghanistan.

In those times Poland did not have a real army here, and the 50-odd Polish de-miners (only for the enlargement of the base, not for civilian territory) would invite the handful of Polish civilians for Christmas Eve. I never went. The mere idea that I would sit there stuffing myself with imported goodies and singing Christmas carols, while at that very moment somewhere on the same compound severe suffering or outright torture was inflicted on other people, made my stomach turn. Many of them will have children like these hard working kids: courageous, smiling, with great dignity, never asking for hand-outs.

Children in Kabul

It’s such kids that you are working for. They say thank you, for caring for their fathers or uncles, forgotten by the rest of the world.

* Delation: An accusation by an informer (Webster’s Dictionary).

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about my film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.


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