Detainees in Afghanistan are lodging numerous abuse allegations against American soldiers, spurring fresh investigations by commanders amid major reforms in detention policies here, US military officials say.
The new allegations, which some US officers here describe as opportunistic, come as attention to prisoner treatment has expanded beyond Abu Ghraib and Iraq to coalition facilities in Afghanistan.
Last week, a former CIA contractor was charged with assaulting an Afghan who died last June while in US custody in Kunar Province. The latest allegations include claims that US soldiers have punched detainees or forced them to perform humiliating acts.
While only a handful of cases of abuse in Afghanistan are now under formal investigation by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID), commanders are conducting lower-level inquiries into so many allegations of mistreatment that some military officials say they are "really slowing up the process."
Brig. Gen. Gary Harrell, commander of special operations for Central Command, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan, said on Saturday that "several different investigations" of alleged abuse are under way by the Special Operations Command. "Every allegation that has surfaced has been looked at at a fairly high level," he said in an interview released by the Pentagon.
Already the US military is overhauling interrogation and detention practices in Afghanistan, amid a top-down review of about two dozen holding centers scattered across the country. New rules cut from 10 to three days the time detainees can be held outside central facilities at Bagram and Kandahar that allow outside monitoring, says a captain who handles processing of people detained by Special Operation forces.
Critics say the US needs to go further to minimize the potential for abuse, by disclosing the names and locations of all detainees in Afghanistan and elsewhere, according to a new report called "Ending Secret Detention" by the New York-based Human Rights First. That could cause problems, however, if temporary holding facilities are at sensitive military locations. Revealing the names of detainees could also compromise their intelligence value.
For their part, citing a lack of evidence, some military officials are suspicious that the recent spate of accusations by detainees in Afghanistan are part of an "information campaign" designed to "clog the system."
They fabricate these stories to get the spotlight away from themselves "because any time an allegation like that is brought up you have to investigate," says the captain who handles detainee processing.
Another Special Operations officer dismissed many of the complaints as "propaganda." "One thing they've been saying lately - you can see it's such propaganda - [is] 'I got abused and the Americans made me touch my anus.'" He added that the behavior was childish.
However, coalition spokesman Lt. Col. Tucker Mansager said the commanders' willingness to exercise their prerogative to undertake investigations demonstrates how seriously they take any hint of wrongdoing.
Changes have also been made to approved interrogation techniques, which officials say can differ between the CIA, Special Operations Forces, and conventional US forces. "There have been numerous different guidance changes in what type of interrogation techniques they can use," says the captain. He declined to elaborate.
Military intelligence officials who worked at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have described CIA interrogation techniques as substantially harsher than the ones they were allowed to use, and say they included physical violence.
Afghan detainee Abdul Wali died in June 2003 after allegedly being beaten with a flashlight by CIA paramilitary, David Passaro. On Thursday, Mr. Passaro became the first civilian charged as a result of investigations into prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. If convicted on all charges, he faces a prison term as long as 40 years and a fine of up to $1 million.
In addition to Mr. Wali, two other detainee deaths, both from blunt-force injuries, have been confirmed at the Bagram base. Two other allegations of mistreatment are being investigated by the CID, including one by an Afghan police colonel who was in US custody last year.
Some 2,000 prisoners have been held in Afghanistan by the US military since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban regime. The current number of detainees is between 400 and 500.
Lt. Gen. David Barno, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has pledged "rapid action" on recommendations from an internal review of US holding facilities by Brig. Gen. Charles Jacoby that is scheduled for completion by the end of June.
The US military agreed this month to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to expand inspections beyond Bagram to the Kandahar detention center.