In an effort to lay to rest some of the controversy surrounding its Afghanistan detention program, the US is building a new detention facility there designed to be on par with one in Iraq that came to be seen by many as a model program.
Construction has begun on a new facility for as many as 1,100 detainees to be run by Americans at a US airbase at Bagram 50 miles north of the capital of Kabul.
Although the facility will be built on a far smaller scale than the main facility in southern Iraq, Pentagon officials hope that the new center will address widespread concern among human rights groups and independent experts over alleged secret detentions and prisoner mistreatment at Bagram.
Reports of detainee mistreatment first arose in 2002.
The Bagram Theater Internment Facility has come a long way since then but is still not as suitable as it should be for holding detainees for any length of time, defense officials say.
"We think it's really going to build on our best practices and lessons learned from our operations in Iraq, but recognizing that it needs to be tailored to the local Afghan population," says Sandra Hodgkinson, who oversees detention policies for the Pentagon.
The new center will effectively replace the existing center at Bagram, which is currently holding more than 630 detainees.
Current plans do not call for an operation anywhere near the size of the one in Iraq, a reflection perhaps of the US's evolving view about what its role will be in Afghanistan in the coming years. The new facility's relatively small size indicates that, compared with Iraq, the US is not planning for a large population of detainees. But it is also a sign of a long term commitment to holding detainees overseas.
Center will be larger, with more amenities
The new facility will be designed to house about 650 detainees, but could be "surged" to hold as many as 1,100 if the need arises, says Ms. Hodgkinson.
If that were to happen, the square footage for each detainee's cell would shrink from 80 square feet per person to about 50 square feet per person, but this is well within international standards, Hodgkinson says.
Like Iraq's Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, the new facility at Bagram will have recreation areas, a large family visitation center, and other amenities to raise the quality of life for detainees, Hodgkinson says.
That will be an improvement over current conditions. Maj. Gen. Doug Stone, the commander of the task force overseeing operations in Iraq who was instrumental in successfully revamping the detention program there, was asked to go to Afghanistan earlier this year to assess detainee operations there.
The contrast was stark, says one official.
"The conditions [in Afghan detention centers] were brutal," says the defense official who spoke on background due to the sensitive nature of the issue. "The big thing that he came out of there with is they were doing a warehouse operation."
Joanne Mariner, counterterrorism director for Human Rights Watch, interviewed several former detainees who had been held at Bagram in her most recent visit to Kabul this spring. She said that her interviews seemed to indicate that the abusive treatment of detainees in Afghanistan is a thing of the past.
Their complaints related largely to the way in which they were being held, not abusive conditions or mistreatment.
"The problem seems to be more the detention than the treatment," says Ms. Mariner.
Many of the former detainees with whom she spoke said they didn't know why they were being held or didn't understand the legal process that would determine their future. The International Committee for the Red Cross also highlighted this issue in a report it prepared June.
Although she has no personal experience with detention operations in Iraq, she said her organization has found that detention operations in Afghanistan have generally trailed improvements in Iraq.
The only other substantial holding facility in Afghanistan is the Afghan National Detention Center near Kabul which is Afghan-run. Afghan nationals previously held at Guantánamo Bay have been transferred to one high-security wing of that facility, known as Pol-e-Charki. Although the legal future of US-held detainees remains unclear, detainees can be transferred to Pol-e-Charki and tried in the Afghan criminal court system.
The Iraq experience
In building a new facility in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is taking a page from General Stone's success in Iraq.
After the human rights and public relations disaster that grew from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004, defense officials knew they had to build a better system there.
Ultimately, the US military built a reasonably modern facility at Camp Cropper near Baghdad and Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. But riots, escapes, and attacks on guards were still commonplace. US officials became concerned they were creating conditions for a "mini-insurgency" inside the confines of the detention facility.
But by the summer of last year, the military officials were able to get control of the violence within the prison under Stone's direction. They separated extremist detainees from the moderate ones, brought moderate imams from Baghdad to teach the detainees, and created visitation hours for families of detainees.
In addition, each detainee was given a regular review of his case to keep him informed of the basis on which he was being held. Now all but those whom officials consider to be the most extreme of about 20,000 detainees are being released over a period of time.
US officials have already tried to incorporate some of the measures that worked in Iraq at Bagram. Several video teleconference sites have been established to link family members around the country with detainees held in Bagram.