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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 28

US’ Violation of Human Rights in Afghanistan

Monday 30 June 2008, by Ash Narain Roy


Afghanistan has endured a quarter century of brutal wars during which human rights have been violated systematically by the occupying forces, the various regimes in power and the insurgent groups. The “war on terror” unleashed by the US promised a new dawn. But the Operation Enduring Freedom has brought neither the end of nightmare and miseries for the Afghans nor freedom of any consequence. The war on terror has led to widespread civilian deaths, often at the hands of unaccountable units led by the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies. These foreign intelligence units “operate” with “impunity” in Afghanistan.

This is not the propaganda of the Taliban or jehadi outfits. This is what the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Philip Alston, has said in his preliminary report on civilian deaths in Afghanistan a few days ago. Though he has not directly named the CIA, he has clearly alluded to the CIA and the US Special Operation Forces. The killing of 200 civilians by the US and international military forces in the first four months of 2008 is too high to escape global attention. Besides those targeted indiscriminately, Alston also refers to “a number of raids for which no state or military command appears ready to acknowledge responsibility”.

The report cites several cases of extra-judicial killings. In January 2008, two brothers were killed in Kandahar in a raid led by the international personnel. Even the Afghan Government officials admitted he had no connection to the Taliban. But Alston failed to get any international military commander to even admit that their soldiers were involved. The Alston report provides a partial glimpse into the illegal actions of intelligence agencies, occupying forces and Afghan Police. A more detailed final report will be released later this year.

The UN Security Council on June 19, 2008 described sexual violence during armed conflict as a “war crime” and a component of genocide and made a call to end it. Ironically, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chaired the Council meeting that approved the Resolution 1820 which said: “Rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.” But she was silent about the American troops and the intelligence units committing war crimes, including rape, in Iraq and Afghanistan with impunity.

After seven years of American military operations, there is no peace, human rights, democracy and freedom. The Operation Enduring Freedom has turned out to be the biggest farce. The Taliban is perhaps as strong as it was at the time of the war on terror. It hits where it hurts. It ambushes military patrols, targets NATO troops and even enforces the law in remote villages. Afghanistan is back to full-blown insurgency. The Karzai regime’s writ runs hardly beyond Kabul. The people are falling victims of jehadi infightings, the Taliban’s untargeted blasts and the US/NATO’s bombardments. In short, an ungovernable Afghanistan is reverting to what it was before the overthrow of the Taliban: a failed state that can spread instability across Central Asia.

THAT the CIA is involved in covert operations in Afghanistan is an open secret. The Bagram Air Force Base near Kabul continues to work as a transit point for prisoners captured by the US and destined for Guantanamo Bay, secret CIA prisons or other countries that practise torture.

Tens of thousands of detainees are held in Afghanistan without charge and without access to lawyers. According to a report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 70-90 per cent of detainees have been rounded up without evidence. Secret trials are held based on allegations forwarded by the Pentagon “that would never have been admissible in a US court or even a military commission in Guantanamo”. No wonder the UN Human Rights Council compares such operations to “South American death squads”. A BBC report is equally damning; it says that “this is all happening under the eyes of American commanders who seem unwilling or unable to intervene”.

Some years ago, Human Rights Watch, in a 59-page report, titled “Enduring Freedom: Abuses by US Forces in Afghanistan”, said that the Bush Administration was setting a “terrible precedent” to the rest of the world by its practices of arbitrary arrest, detention and mistreatment of detainees. It accused the US forces for using interrogation tactics that have been condemned by the State Department in the federal agency’s own Country Reports of human rights abuses.

During a hearing of the Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi case, when a Supreme Court judge wondered aloud how the court could be sure the government interrogators were not abusing the detainees, the Deputy Solicitor-General, Paul Clement, said: “You just have to trust the executive.” The Abu Ghraib exposed the farce of that policy of “trust”.

Some information is, of course, available about the US military bases at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Bagram in Afghanistan and the unlawful conduct within these bases have been widely publicised. But there are several other officially undisclosed locations, including facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordon and on Diego Garcia. Each of these centres is maintained in either partial or total secrecy. Despite being bound by international treaties, the Bush Administration has refused ICRC access to these locations.

The Human Rights First has failed to identify any official list of US detention facilities abroad employed in the course of the “war on terror”. Likewise, there is no public accounting of how many are detained or for what reason they are held. Are the detainees prisoners of war, civilians who took a direct part in hostilities, or are they suspected of criminal violations under civilian law? No one seems to have the answer. Now the US Defence and Justice Departments have come out with a weird reason, saying a key purpose of these indefinite detentions is to promote national security by developing detainees as sources of intelligence!

On June 8, 2008, several human rights leaders have written a letter to the Congress urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to stop funding torture in the so-called “war on terror”. It says:
While there continues to be considerable media and Congressional attention to torture in Guantanamo, there is comparatively little attention to the mounting evidence of human rights violations, including torture and target killings of civilians in Iraq since the 2004 Abu Ghraib revelations, and virtually none at all devoted to Afghanistan.

The letter also points to the public outcry that the “Phoenix programme” had raised during the Vietnam War as well as the death squads during the Central American wars and wonders how the top counter-insurgency adviser to General Petraeus could call for a “global Phoenix programme”. The human rights leaders further maintain that
Building a 40-acre, $ 60 million detention facility in Afghanistan, allegedly to provide better conditions for detainees, ignores the question of why our troops are sinking into a deeper quagmire in Afghanistan in the first place. There is no way to safeguard human rights or due process under an unpopular military occupation.

The human rights leaders have demanded that the Congress insist on an exit strategy from the Afghanistan war, determine whether the 1997 Leahy Amendment, which prohibits assistance to sectarian and repressive human rights violators, applies to US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and oppose the proposed $ 60 million detention facility in Afghanistan, which implies a long-term Western military occupation in violation of basic human rights, judicial due process and national sovereignty.

It is evident that the US doesn’t believe the laws of armed conflict apply to the war against terror. The US Congress and the people at large must raise questions or else the world community would think the Americans support spending their tax dollars on torture, secret prisons and death squads. That John Negroponte was charged with violating human rights in Central America was an open secret. And yet, he was made Ambassador to Iraq. Even more surprising was the fact that the Congress directed few questions at Negroponte during the Congressional hearings.

James Madison once noted: “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or Tragedy.” The “war on terrorism” has turned out to be both a farce and a tragedy.

The author is an Associate Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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