For the past few weeks, US embassy officials had become so worried about the activities of a former US Green Beret in Kabul that they took the unusual step of issuing a press release saying that Jonathan Keith Idema was not connected in any way with the US government.
Their statement came just in time. On Monday, Mr. Idema's cloak-and-dagger world collapsed onto itself, as Afghan intelligence agents and police swarmed into Idema's compound in a residential neighborhood of Kabul and placed him and two other Americans and four Afghans under arrest. What they found inside shocked them: a private prison, with eight Afghan prisoners, hung from the ceiling by their feet in makeshift torture chambers.
The arrest last week of Idema and the two other Americans - bounty hunters who passed themselves off as US special forces - comes at a difficult time for the Afghan government and for US diplomats here.
For the Afghans, Idema's freelance security efforts are evidence that the Afghan government is not in control of its own territory and is unable to protect its citizens from mistreatment. For the Americans, it is a propaganda disaster, bringing the horrors of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq to a new war theater: Afghanistan.
"People are very concerned about this event, because it has badly damaged the trust of the Afghan people for Americans," says Lutfullah Mashal, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. "This will boost the propaganda that the American forces are treating the Afghans in a bad way."
Coming on the heels of a US military investigation - a team of US Navy investigators left Bagram Air Base last week - the arrest of Idema is just the latest in a string of reports of mistreatment of Afghans by US forces and US military contractors.
• This past spring, a police colonel named Sayed Nabi Siddiqui told The New York Times he was subjected to sexual abuse and sleep deprivation while being detained at a US base in Gardez. Subsequently, Human Rights Watch conducted a survey and found numerous Afghans complaining of sexual abuse by US forces.
• On June 2003, an Afghan prisoner named Abdul Wali died at a US base near the eastern Afghan town of Asadabad. David Passaro, a CIA contractor and former US Army commando, has been charged with assault and assault with a dangerous weapon in Mr. Wali's death, and his trial begins Aug. 2. According to the Associated Press, federal authorities filed a court motion last week to restrict the disclosure of classified information that would "threaten national security."
• Local residents around Bagram Air Base say that there are increasing rumors that Afghan interpreters working for US forces at Bagram have been sexually abused by American soldiers.
The US embassy in Kabul has made intense efforts to distance itself from Idema, saying in a press release last week, "The public should be aware that Idema does not represent the American government and we do not employ him." But the fact that both the US military and intelligence agencies make use of private contractors, increasingly so as America's troop capacity is strained by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leads some to speculate that Idema's case may not be isolated.
The number of documented excesses is nowhere near the level of mistreatment at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. But in a country where half the war is won through people's perceptions - such cases can have far-reaching consequences.
Idema joined the US Army in 1975, serving in the 11th Special Forces Reserve Group for three years in the post-Vietnam period. Later, he turned himself into a kind of war entrepreneur. Known variously as Keith and "Jack," he formed a firm in his hometown of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to make vests and pouches for the US military. His business went sour, leaving him unable to pay his creditors. In 1994, he was convicted on 58 counts of wire fraud and served three years in prison.
With Sept. 11, Idema seemed to have found some redemption. He spent 10 months fighting alongside the Northern Alliance of assassinated Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Masood, and became a major character in the bestseller, "The Hunt for Bin Laden," by Robin Moore.
Since leaders of the Northern Alliance went on to control key ministries in the interim Afghan government, including the Ministry of Defense and most of the intelligence agencies, there is speculation in Kabul that Idema may have been working with at least partial cooperation of Afghan authorities. At the time of his arrest last week, he appears to have been interrogating prisoners for information leading to the capture of Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda figures, some of whom have a bounty of $25 million.
Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali refuted these rumors this weekend, telling journalists in Kabul that Idema and his US and Afghan colleagues were not operating with government approval.
"They apparently said that their aims were to act against those carrying out terrorist attacks," he said. "But they did not have a legal relationship with anyone and the United States was also chasing them."
Meanwhile, security conditions continued to tap the concerns of Afghan authorities ahead of newly announced national elections in October, as a bomb blast left five people dead in the western city of Herat and spurred calls for more international troops to safeguard the election.