Despite ten years of occupation and untold millions of dollars spent on rebuilding Afghanistan’s broken judicial and criminal justice system, the Afghan courts are “still too weak,” the Washington Post reported on August 12, for the United States to relinquish its control over the Parwan Detention Center on Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. On September 21, the same paper reported that the U.S. military is seeking contractors to significantly increase the capacity of the prison there.
The number of Afghans detained at Bagram has tripled over the past three years to more than 2,600 and the new construction will raise the capacity to 5,500 prisoners. Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the U.S. task force that oversees detention operations in Afghanistan, told the Post that the expansion was necessary to “accommodate an increase in the number of suspected insurgents being detained as a result of intelligence-based counter- terrorism operations, which we conduct with our Afghan partners.”
Many of those held at Bagram have been there since the U.S. occupied the former Soviet air base in 2001, and some two thirds of prisoners there have not been charged with or convicted of any crime. Corruption is rampant in Afghan courts and among police there as it is in many other places but the major fear of the United States is not that the Afghan courts will not function according to their constitution and accepted norms of law, but that they will. In order for Afghanistan to take sovereignty over its own judiciary and prison system, the Afghans must first fix the “cracks of an undeveloped legal system” and adopt essential “reforms,” including adoption of the U.S. practice of detaining suspected insurgents indefinitely without trial.
On entering the Dane County Jail, the first holding cell that Brian Terrell and I were placed in had only one other person. We previously saw this man outside the cell during our initial booking. He was a man with dark black skin and a full beard. I thought I heard one of the officers say he was from Gambia. When we entered the cell, the man was in mid-ritual in what appeared to be a Muslim’s midday prayer. A young white guard, who had the accent of a Midwesterner, looked disdainfully at the man and then somewhat positively at Brian and me. The guard said, “Just ignore that,” as if the man was insulting or threatening us by his peaceful act of prayer. To which I replied, “It’s fine with me.”
This experience was contrasted by the next encounter I had with another officer who made digital copies of my fingerprints and pictures. As this middle-aged man placed my hand on the machine, I made a remark that I was surprised that he did not already have my information handy. (This was the third time I was fingerprinted and pictured for this same charge.) He said, “Oh yeah? You arrested a lot? What are you in for?” I told him that I was arrested with a group who engaged in civil disobedience at Ft. McCoy. Getting the sense that this man may have previously been in the armed services, I explained that we were not against the men and women in the military personally, but that our goals were to enter the base to talk to the rank and file soldiers about ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to make certain the soldiers were aware of their right to refuse illegal and immoral orders.