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Afghan President Heads to Washington Amid New Reports Of U.S. Abuse In Afghanistan

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On Monday President Bush met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington on Monday just days after the New York Times revealed that U.S. troops tortured and killed Afghan detainees at the Bagram airbase. We speak with John Sifton from Human Rights Watch. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush has ruled out handing over command of US troops in Afghanistan despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s request for more authority over them. His comments came during a White House meeting on Monday between the two leaders.

There are currently about 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Bush and Karzai endorsed an agreement allowing the United States to simply continue its policy of informing Afghan officials before launching raids.

  • Hamid Karzai, Afghan president speaking in Washington on May 23, 2005.

Bush also said Washington would not be pressured to repatriate Afghan prisoners held by the US at Guantanamo Bay and other detention centers around the world.

The days before Monday’s White House talks saw renewed controversy over the torture and killing of Afghan detainees at the Bagram airbase, details of which were published by The New York Times.

Karzai also addressed the recent violent anti-US protests in Afghanistan following allegations in Newsweek magazine–now retracted–that US guards at Guantanamo Bay had desecrated the Koran. Karzai did not address the numerous other reports of desecration of the Koran by US forces.

We are joined now by John Sifton, the Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch.

  • John Sifton, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Bush and Karzai endorsed an agreement allowing the United States to simply continue its policy of informing Afghan officials before launching raids.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: First, in terms of more say over our military, our relationship is one of cooperate and consult. Of course, our troops will respond to U.S. commanders, but our U.S. commanders and our diplomatic mission there is in a consultive (sic) relationship with the government.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush also said Washington would not be pressured to repatriate Afghan prisoners held by the U.S. at Guantanamo and other detention centers around the world. The days before Monday’s White House talks saw renewed controversy over the torture and killing of Afghan detainees at the Bagram Air Base, details of which were published by The New York Times. Karzai also addressed the recent violent anti-U.S. protests in Afghanistan, following allegations in Newsweek magazine, now retracted, that U.S. guards at Guantanamo had desecrated the Koran.

HAMID KARZAI: Of course, we are, as Muslims very much unhappy with Newsweek bringing a matter so serious in the gossip column. It’s really something that one shouldn’t do, that responsible journalism shouldn’t do at all.

AMY GOODMAN: President Karzai did not address the numerous other reports of desecration of the Koran by U.S. forces. We’re now joined on the phone by John Sifton. He is a human rights investigator for Human Rights Watch. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOHN SIFTON: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about the significance of Karzai’s trip, and then the developments from them?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, certainly, President Karzai wanted more out of this trip, in particular, I think he would have liked an agreement by the United States to cooperate more closely on military operations in Afghanistan, so that the mistakes that continue to be made again and again on the ground stop being made. That didn’t really happen. What we saw today was merely a signing ceremony for strategic partnership, which in some ways settles some of the issues about long term goals for both countries but doesn’t settle the more day-to-day issues of how commanders on the ground in places like Khost and Jalalabad go about the business of fighting a Taliban insurgency, and whether it makes sense to even have Americans in Afghanistan fighting that insurgency and whether, instead, perhaps international forces could be used for nation-building in the other provinces of Afghanistan, which are not seeing an insurgency, but which need stabilization.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Sifton, who is the Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. What about the reports coming out now, even from the U.S. military, for example, about the deaths of detainees at Bagram? Can you talk about the particular situations, for example, the cab driver, the young man who happened to drive by the base and ended up dead?

JOHN SIFTON: We have documented a lot of cases, including the two cases that Tim Goldman of The New York Times worked on for last week, cases of torture, cases of death, cases of other kinds of mistreatment and humiliation. The bottom line is that these cases have not been investigated thoroughly. In most of the cases we have encountered, especially the homicide cases, the U.S. military just swept them under the table, meting out, you know, non-judicial punishments, admonishment, reprimand, little things like that, instead of mounting a serious criminal investigation. It seemed, though, that if you report on these things and put them in the press and get it out there, make it a scandal, the army will take action. But they usually act, if left to their own devices, slowly, if at all.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the raids, of the U.S. military raids, an agreement made yesterday that the U.S. would simply continue its policy of informing Afghan officials before launching them.

JOHN SIFTON: Yeah, well, the status quo is basically that they mount raids whenever they want to mount raids. And sometimes they tell the governor of the local province, and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes they tell them too late, and sometimes they tell them not at all. So, it’s not a good policy. It’s because the U.S. is afraid of ambushes. They’re afraid of infiltration in the local command, on the local level. But the bottom line is it’s just not working. You have to mount a different — if you are going to fight an insurgency, as the U.S. wants to do, you have to do it in a more — in a way that’s more sensitive to Afghans’ concerns about these raids. It’s just not going to work if they keep doing these very insulting, very bad P.R. raids where they break down doors, search through people’s belongings. People just don’t like that.

AMY GOODMAN: The reports on the killings, just very specifically, when you talk about who is responsible — the Times reporting last week on a confidential army report with graphic details of widespread abuse, reporting the abuse was carried out to extract information used as punishment or driven by, (quote), “little more than boredom or cruelty.” These two prisoners, one the taxi driver who died as he was chained by his wrists to the top of his cell for several days, his legs pummeled by guards.

JOHN SIFTON: Well, that’s the sort of allegation that is rife throughout the investigative summaries that we have obtained, that the ACLU has obtained through their Freedom of Information request and through testimony. People have been severely mistreated at Bagram in the past. I think the situation there has gotten better, but now we’re not worried about Bagram anymore. We’re worried about other forward operating bases around the country. There have been terrible abuses that have taken place, and they just haven’t been investigated. But what the most amazing thing to me is all of this get reported on in The New York Times, and our Congress, which is probably the only vehicle for challenging the administration on these things, does nothing. I mean, they were busy with the filibuster, for sure, but it’s time to restart the investigations. I think anybody who is really concerned about this should call their senator and say, “Why aren’t there investigations and hearings into these terrible allegations?”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, instead, the press was very consumed with the controversy around Newsweek and the report that there was — army report that we haven’t seen yet, a military report, that said that there was desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo. What is your response to this controversy?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, the bottom line was the Newsweek allegation, which was then retracted because they made a minor factual error in whether the military had investigated the case or not, it was not about the underlying charge, which we ourselves have documented in case after case after case. I mean, the bottom line was this was stoked up by a Pakistani politician named Imran Khan and picked up by Afghan groups across the border, just blew out of proportion. It’s not _Newsweek_’s fault.

AMY GOODMAN: But can you talk — I don’t think people even understand the point you are making when you say there’s a small technical error. Explain what you understood happened, and the fact that they didn’t retract the underlying charge.

JOHN SIFTON: Scores of allegations have been made about this particular event, a Koran being flushed down a toilet, a Koran being kicked across the floor at Kandahar Air Base early on and other cases of desecration, tearing out pages to just mess with detainees during interrogations. These are allegations which have been made up and down throughout the Guantanamo, Afghanistan detention centers, raised by the Red Cross. So Newsweek reports on it and the claim is that the army has substantiated this charge. That was not case, it appears. It appears that the source who said that didn’t actually have the authority to say anything or really know whether it was true.

AMY GOODMAN: And we still don’t know whether the army found this, right? Because we haven’t seen the report.

JOHN SIFTON: But as a human rights investigator, I can say that the fact that the army hasn’t substantiated something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, because they have shown themselves to be very bad at investigating themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sifton, Human Rights Watch has called for a special prosecutor to look into charges of abuse. Can you talk about this?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, it’s been over a year since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, and only a handful of the people involved in the actual Abu Ghraib photo scandal have been put on trial. A couple of others have been put on trial from Iraq, but if you analyze the punishments, as we have, and the entire response to the abuse scandals, you will see what is actually quite a stunning failure of accountability. There have been hundreds of allegations of abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. The army itself has substantiated over a hundred cases of abuse, and yet, only a few dozen people have been court-martialed. The majority, 80-90 people who have been — had their cases substantiated have just been given non-judicial punishments like rank reduction, letter of reprimand in their file, things like that. Now, these are for serious offenses like beating people up, even killing people. And they’re handing out letters of reprimand. That’s not a response we think is appropriate, so we have called on the administration to appoint a special prosecutor under the Department of Justice and under the Department of Defense to look up and down the chain of command, investigate this thoroughly, independent of the chain of command, get the story straight. But this isn’t going to happen in the current political environment. It’s just not going to happen unless the Congress pressures the administration. That’s — what we’re seeing right now is stunning failure on Congress’s part to act as a check. We don’t have any hope that the administration is going to push this on their own, since they’re the ones who are implicated by it. We look to Congress, and we have seen quite a stunning failure, even from the democrats on this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sifton —

JOHN SIFTON: Quite disappointing.

AMY GOODMAN: We hardly heard descriptions detailed from the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, about the citizens of Afghanistan who are ending up in these positions detained, tortured. He has always been considered Washington’s man in Afghanistan. Are you surprised that there has been any dissent, and what do you expect him to raise? Would he have any — does he have any power?

JOHN SIFTON: He is not the puppet that a lot of people accuse him of being. He has quite a bit of power over things on the ground. And in addition, I don’t think that his public diplomatic persona is the same as his private one. President Karzai is capable of quite extreme anger, if anybody has ever met with him privately, and I think that and I hope that he delivered a sterner message in private to President Bush. He has a way of saying one thing and then saying another thing the next day that is much more diplomatic. All I can hope for is that he and the other members of his administration keep pressing on this. I mean, the anger that they showed in a press conference in Kabul a few days earlier was much more encouraging to us. Unfortunately, at the White House, I think he had no choice but to make a more diplomatic line. I mean, he is, after all, guarded by American contractors who are paid by the State Department of the United States. His life is literally in their hands. I think there is a limit to what you can expect of him.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sifton, I want to thank you for being with us, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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