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2013-03-12

"This War is Continuing": As U.S. Prepares 2014 Pullout, No End in Sight to Afghan Occupation

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Monday marked the deadliest day for U.S. troops this year in Afghanistan after seven soldiers perished in two separate incidents. Five U.S. servicemembers were killed in a helicopter crash outside Kandahar city. Hours earlier, two U.S. soldiers were shot dead in a so-called insider attack at a special operations site in Wardak province when a person in an Afghan military uniform turned his gun on U.S. and Afghan forces. Three Afghan police officers and two army officers were also killed in the attack, according to a senior police official. The attack took place as a deadline expired for U.S. special forces to leave Wardak. Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered their departure over accusations of the torture and killing of innocent people by Afghan forces under U.S. command. We’re joined by Heather Barr, the Kabul-based Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: Monday marked the deadliest day for U.S. troops in Afghanistan after seven soldiers perished in two separate incidents. Five U.S. servicemembers were killed in a helicopter crash outside Kandahar city. Hours earlier, two soldiers were shot dead in a so-called insider attack at a special operations site in Wardak province, when a person in an Afghan military uniform turned his gun on U.S. and Afghan forces. Three Afghan police officers and two army officers were also killed in the attack, according to a senior police official. The violence took place as a deadline expired for U.S. special forces to leave Wardak. Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered their departure over accusations of the torture and killing of innocent people by Afghan forces under U.S. command.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, tensions between the U.S. and Afghan governments are again on the rise. On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the United States of colluding with the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan to justify perpetual conflict and their long-term presence. Karzai’s comments came just hours before he met with Chuck Hagel, who was on his first trip to Afghanistan as U.S. defense secretary. They ended up canceling a joint press conference. The U.S. government said it was for security reasons.

For more on Afghanistan, we’re joined now by Heather Barr. She is Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan researcher. She’s been based in Kabul since 2007, in New York for just a week.

Heather, thanks so much for joining us. What is the situation in Afghanistan now? Many people are saying this was, to say the least, not a very good beginning for Chuck Hagel. As he comes into Afghanistan, he’s being attacked by the Afghan president on all different realms, so that they didn’t even hold a news conference together.

HEATHER BARR: And the situation is terrible, and the relationship between the Afghan government and the U.S. government is more frayed every day, with no signs of getting better. I think one of the most revealing things that anyone has said recently about the situation in Afghanistan is a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who said, "Look, we’re not winding down the war in Afghanistan; we’re winding down our participation in the war, and that’s a very different thing." And Afghans are all too aware that this war is continuing. All that’s happening is that the international community is leaving them alone to deal with it themselves.

AARON MATÉ: I wanted to ask you about Wardak. So, Hamid Karzai has ordered this ban, but yet, on the day that the ban was to take effect, we have U.S. soldiers still there and being killed. And I should clarify, Monday was the deadliest day this year for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. There was some uncertainty over who was carrying out the atrocities that prompted this ban. Was it U.S. forces, or was it U.S.—was it Afghan forces under U.S. command?

HEATHER BARR: There’s absolutely no clarity about that. And that’s in spite of the fact that there’s been, supposedly, a joint effort by the—by ISAF and the U.S. military to go and investigate. But that doesn’t seem to have led to any clarity. I think that it’s a very confusing situation. It’s clear that there are covert activities going on, run by—run by the U.S. government, which, you know, we’re not aware of, the Afghan government is not aware of. At the same time, this is also happening in a context of this very difficult negotiation between the Afghan government and the U.S. government over a bilateral security agreement. And so, certainly, how the situation in Wardak is being portrayed and how it’s being played out is part of that negotiation.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, an Afghan government panel acknowledged widespread torture of detainees, but insisted there’s no evidence of, quote, "systematic torture," as the United Nations had claimed in its 2011 report. The U.N. report had stated there was compelling evidence that Afghan intelligence officials, quote, "systematically tortured detainees for the purpose of obtaining confessions and information." At the time, NATO spokesperson [Brigadier] General Carsten [Jacobson] reacted to the U.N. report on Al Jazeera by saying NATO was working with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the Afghan government to suspend the transfer of detainees to at-risk places.

BRIG. GEN. CARSTEN JACOBSON: We stopped transfer of detainees as soon as we found out in individual institutions where there was mistreatment. We did that already in July. We extended that program as soon as we worked together with UNAMA and with the government of Afghanistan. We first extended it to eight installations. We are at the moment suspend—we have at the moment suspended the transfer of detainees to 16 installations, and we will continue to work with the government of Afghanistan and with UNAMA on this matter.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a NATO spokesperson [Brigadier] General Carsten [Jacobson]. Heather Barr, what is happening in these prisons? The U.S. isn’t allowed to hand over prisoners to a place where they’ll be tortured, even if the U.S. was involved in the torture of many prisoners in different places.

HEATHER BARR: I mean, it’s absolutely clear that the Afghan justice system runs entirely on confessions. There’s virtually no ability to do any other type of investigation. And so, if police are going to or intelligence officials are going to make a case, they’re going to do it through confession. And there’s almost a sort of lack of understanding that torturing people to get a confession is unacceptable somehow.

I mean, one thing that has happened in the last month that’s actually really positive is that Hamid Karzai ordered an investigation of his own, following this UNAMA report, and his own investigation, which was done by a group of government officials, including officials from the institutions accused of torture, came back and said, yes, there is widespread torture happening in these facilities. The question is whether that leads to any change or not. And it’s difficult to see how it will without some really sustained pressure.

AARON MATÉ: And Bagram was supposed to be handed over to Afghan forces on Saturday, but that was canceled. And it appears that part of the dispute is the fact that the U.S. wants Karzai to commit to indefinitely detaining prisoners, but he said that he wants to put them on trial. How should this be worked out? Obviously, both sides have been accused of torture and violating due process. What do you see as a solution here?

HEATHER BARR: I mean, I think there will be some sort of a compromise, which will probably be a secret compromise, where the U.S. will find a way to continue holding people that they think need to be held within Afghanistan. The truth is, is that the Afghan government—while they’ve spoken out and they’ve said a lot of great things about how administrative detention violates Afghan law, the truth is, is that there are also people in Afghan prisons who have been held for years without a trial, in a situation that’s really identical.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Heather Barr, the negotiations that are going on right now, Karzai accusing the U.S. of secretly negotiating with the Taliban?

HEATHER BARR: I mean, this process of trying to negotiate with the Taliban has been really chaotic so far. There’s been, you know, different countries hosting different meetings.

AMY GOODMAN: Where?

HEATHER BARR: All over the place. There’s this office in Qatar that was set up which seems to have led to nothing. There’s this sort of constant struggle between Karzai and the U.S. over who’s in charge. And underlying all of this is the fact that there’s a real fear by a lot of Afghans that what’s on the table is particularly women’s rights, a backpedaling away from a constitution, which many people see as the only thing protecting rights in Afghanistan. The whole thing is a mess, and a very frightening one.

AMY GOODMAN: And not only the soldiers leaving, but the money.

HEATHER BARR: Exactly. The money and also the political pressure on the Afghan government to respect human rights, to respect women’s rights. I mean, this is really our fear, is that the situation for women, while there’s been a lot of progress since 2001, is still incredibly poor, and we’re afraid that this could be the high point, and things could go backwards from here.

AMY GOODMAN: Heather Barr, I want to thank you for being with us, Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan researcher. She has been in Afghanistan since 2007, just here for a week for the Human Rights Watch’s annual meeting. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we move into our last segment.

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