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The United Nations published a report about mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan in October 2011. Based on interviews with over three hundred individuals detained for questioning and coercion, the report details methods of torture, and assesses how commonly Afghan security forces use these methods. It concludes that torture in Afghan prisons is standard operating procedure. The United Nations just published a follow-up report to say the situation in 2012 and 2013 is about the same as it was in 2010 and 2011.

Kabul prison, Afghanistan

Afghan prisoners look out through an opening at Kabul prison.

Torture of prisoners in Afghanistan is not a new issue. It occurred before Barack Obama took office. It continued throughout his first term. The only difference during the last four years is that our own soldiers and CIA interrogators do not routinely use so-called enhanced interrogation techniques now. Afghan police and security forces use them.

Afghan police and security forces act under our sponsorship: we pay them, we train them, and we supply them. While we are in Afghanistan, we take general responsibility for the way they behave. We know the way Afghan police and other security forces treat prisoners. That knowledge makes us hesitant to turn our prisoners over to them, but that’s about the extent of its impact on our own behavior. Why don’t we insist they stop? What prevents us from coming down hard on the use of torture in Afghan prisons?

We don’t have any moral leverage at all in this situation. Torture existed in Afghanistan long before we arrived. Then we adopted the practice, not just in one or two cases, but as a general policy. In this war, the Afghans simply continue a practice we established under President Bush. We set the example for this war. Under the new arrangement, where we transfer leadership and other responsibilities to Afghan forces, we can deny here at home that we practice torture. Yet we watch Afghan forces treat prisoners the same way we treated them when we set up the prison at Bagram, where we tortured our prisoners as a matter of routine.

At this point the Afghans, from Hamid Karzai on down, say they want us out of their country. The people who work for Karzai – the same people who work for us – may think but won’t say, “And by the way, after you leave, we’ll treat our prisoners the way we like. You know what we mean.” We have nothing to say in response. Finger wagging admonitions won’t work here. We ran a huge torture operation at Bagram for years, and what we practiced there won’t die out merely because we changed presidents over here.

To read more about torture in Afghanistan, visit these pages:







When you read about CIA torture in a review of Zero Dark Thirty, or about Dick Cheney’s defense of torture now that he is out of office, or about Bradley Manning’s third year of solitary confinement – first in Quantico and now in Leavenworth – stop yourself if you think: “Torture… that’s something that happened a long time ago.” It’s happening now, it’s happening in jails we pay for, and it won’t stop until we rid ourselves of it. We must address this moral stain or we will live with it forever. Of all the sins we have committed since slavery and the lynching that followed it, this one is the worst.