Keeping suspected insurgents behind bars proves frustrating
Stars and Stripes
ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan -- One day this spring, soldiers found a man under a bridge who was surprisingly forthcoming: He said he was there planning to attack them.
“He told us right off the bat, ‘My name is Dangerous, and you should fear me. I’m supposed to be a suicide bomber,’ ” remembers Staff Sgt. Erik Adams, a 24-year-old squad leader.
After the man’s clothes tested positive for aluminum powder, a common ingredient in homemade bombs, U.S. troops turned him over to Afghan police, believing they had an obvious case to detain him after discovering him this spring.
Adams and other soldiers say the Afghans soon let him go.
For U.S. troops operating in tough areas like this valley northwest of Kandahar, it was a familiar pattern. Under rules that restrict them from detaining suspected insurgents in all but the most clear-cut instances, American troops must turn to Afghan forces often reluctant to pursue cases and a court system many liken to a revolving door.
While many U.S. troops describe a frustrating inability to get insurgents off the battlefield and behind bars, saying it undermines efforts to improve security, the Afghan government last week appeared to be reading from an entirely different script.
One of the concrete proposals produced by the peace conference in Kabul earlier this month — an event aimed at jump-starting negotiations with the Taliban and other groups — was a call to release some suspected insurgents as a gesture of goodwill.
On Sunday, the Afghan government said it had launched a review of the roughly 4,500 people in government custody and was working to identify those detained without sufficient evidence.
The Afghan public’s perception is that many people are being rounded up based on little more than rumors, as some delegates at the peace jirga put it. U.S. troops and their advisers in the field tell a different story, in which even carefully built cases often founder.
Mike Callan, a retired New York city detective working as a law enforcement adviser to the U.S. 101st Airborne Division in the Arghandab, said he has seen more than 20 cases in the last six months in which suspects were detained but later released — usually for lack of evidence or after tribal leaders interceded with provincial authorities. Bribes paid to Afghan judicial officials are another suspected cause, he said.
“I’ve seen good, strong cases, but those guys get released also,” he said.
Several months ago, a tip from a local man led U.S. troops to detain five members of a suspected bomb-making cell who were turned over to Afghan authorities.
Three of the men were let go after initial questioning. The other two “definitely had evidence against them,” Callan said.
“They were in about three weeks and let go,” Callan said. “I never could get a straight answer why.”
Lt. Col. Guy Jones, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, said U.S. troops and Afghan police must gather a substantial amount of evidence to make a case stick but often find that witnesses are reluctant to sign statements against suspected insurgents.
While U.S. infantry units are neither designed nor trained to serve as criminal investigators, neither are the Afghan police, who are often thrust onto the battlefield with only a few weeks of training and tend to lack the most basic law enforcement skills. Corruption was also an issue, Jones said.
Still, Jones said it would be a mistake to return to the way U.S. forces often operated in the early parts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which “you take anybody within a thousand-meter radius [after an attack] and you pull them all together and you start detaining them.”
The contrast with how U.S. troops operated during the war in Iraq could hardly be more stark. During 2007, widely seen as the turning point of the war, the number of people held in U.S. detention centers in Iraq mushroomed from just under 15,000 to nearly 25,000, dwarfing the 800 people believed to be held by the U.S. in Afghanistan.
Many officers have come to view that sort of approach as counter-productive, believing it alienates the very people they hope to win over.
But for troops facing a steady diet of anonymous attacks, often by roadside bombs and booby-trapped explosives, the inability to keep insurgents behind bars grows wearisome.
“It’s absolutely frustrating,” said Adams, with Company B.
After an operation late last month, Afghan police declined to detain a man caught with sacks of spent bullet casings, opium poppy seeds and ammonium nitrate, a banned fertilizer often used to make bombs.
“This dude is Taliban, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it,” Adams said during the operation. “The kicker is that unless we find a weapon or something, we don’t have the authority to detain the guy.”
The Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army “have to decide,” Adams said.
Spc. Bryce Esco, 25, put it in more visceral terms: “We get kicked in the ... every time we try to do something.”
When Jones hears those types of sentiments, he said he tries to keep his soldiers focused on the larger goal.
“I tell them we’re not here for the police because the police are corrupt, and we’re not here for the ANA,” he said. “It’s the average guy out here, the average Afghan who can’t protect himself.
“That’s who we’re helping, as we wait, hope and push for the Afghan government at the district, the provincial and the national levels to fix themselves.”
There, too, events in the capital offer little encouragement.
The same day the government announced its review of detainees, the country’s intelligence chief and interior minister resigned, purportedly over a small attack that marred the first day of the peace jirga.
Both men had been widely praised by Western officials for trying to tackle corruption — and both had clashed with President Hamid Karzai.