US & World

Afghan Detainees Make An Uneasy Journey Home

A U.S.-led task force recently closed the notorious Bagram prison north of Kabul, Afghanistan, and has begun releasing detainees it no longer deems a threat. The U.S. hopes the efforts build trust with local Afghan communities, but the reality is more complicated.

For many years, the notorious Bagram prison run by the U.S. military north of Kabul has been a major point of resentment for Afghans. Cases of abuse at the prison — including two homicides in 2002 — are well documented.

But a U.S.-led task force is trying to change that image. In December, it closed Bagram prison and moved the detainees six miles away, to a modern, $60 million facility with a new name.

More recently, the task force began releasing detainees it no longer deems a threat. The United States hopes the efforts help build trust with local Afghan communities — showing them the prisoners are well treated and their concerns are being heard. But the reality is often more complicated.

Long Journey Home

U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Martins is the deputy commander of Joint Task Force 435, which is revamping how U.S. forces handle detentions in Afghanistan.

"Returning them to their communities helps us focus on those who are truly attacking the government and bringing it down by force of arms," Martins says.

On this day, he is accompanying six Afghan prisoners aboard an American C-130 that is ferrying the men from Kabul to their homes in the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan. The prisoners sit blindfolded with opaque goggles, wearing matching tunics and wool caps.

U.S. forces captured the men late last year and accused them of belonging to the Taliban. Some two months later, U.S. military tribunals found there wasn't enough evidence to hold them.

Another two months later, they are being sent home.

Two will be dropped off in Helmand province; the others will fly on to neighboring Kandahar.

Martins says the task force in recent weeks has been releasing detainees like these at traditional shuras, or councils, convened by Afghan authorities. There, he says, local residents can see firsthand their men were treated well and that Afghan grievances about raids and detentions are taken seriously.

"Families are there, friends are there, officials with various connections to the event are there," Martins says. "And it is emotional, it's a time of celebration, a time of commitment ... to avoiding [detention] in the future ... and the need for reintegration and reconciliation."

Anti-Climactic Homecoming

But on this trip, things don't go as planned.

In Helmand, no relatives or elders show up — nor do they show up at Camp Hero outside Kandahar city, because neither family nor local officials were notified of the event.

The ceremony is delayed until Kandahar's governor, Tooryalai Wesa, arrives.

He says he had just boarded a commercial flight to Kabul for a holiday weekend when he was asked to deplane and return.

The absence of relatives or elders is a problem for the detainees, who have nowhere to go. It's also a problem for the Americans, who won't release prisoners unless they have forms signed by village elders and families pledging to keep the men from breaking the law.

Wesa agrees to sign for the four men, whose thumbprints are on the forms.

"And I urged them if they have any profession in terms of teaching, training or professional work, we'll be happy to recruit them and asked them to learn from their mistakes and try not to repeat them," Wesa says.

An Afghan colonel tells the detainees in Pashto what is expected of them. They slump on folding chairs, listening as he urges them to lead productive lives. He warns them not to commit crimes or help militants.

He asks: "Do you agree?"

"Yes," they answer in Pashto.

Afghans Say Too Many Innocents Arrested

But Noor Mohammad, like the other detainees, denies doing anything wrong in the first place.

The 28-year-old farmer gets teary as he recalls his arrest as he headed to Kandahar city in a truck last November. He says he still doesn't know why he was detained.

The military says those traveling with him were suspected Taliban members.

Mullah Mohammad Din, a pro-government cleric in Kandahar, complains that coalition forces are arresting too many innocent Afghans.

But Michael Gottlieb, the task force's deputy civilian commander, says the criticism doesn't bother him.

"There was positive exchange with the mullah and detainees, and I thought there were a lot of positive conversations going on informally, not during the speeches, but outside of that as well," Gottlieb says. "All in all, I think it's still a good event, a good shura, one that we'll learn from and make improvements on in the future."

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