A number of reports finding torture by allied Afghan forces may finally be forcing a response, but the U.S.-led mission will have to do more
An Afghan National Army soldier keeps watch outside Kandahar's main jail / Reuters
Over the last month, there has been an unprecedented series of allegations that Afghan security forces, funded and supported by the U.S. and the international community, have been engaging in the most egregious of human rights violations, including murder, rape, and torture.
On Monday, the UN released a landmark report finding that torture and abuse were widespread in the Afghan prisons that its researchers visited. On September 19, a report from the Open Society Institute on night raids by U.S. and international forces showed that non-combatants were being captured by the thousands and funneled through that same Afghan detention system. A week earlier, Human Rights Watch published a report on the new U.S.-backed militia program, the Afghan Local Police, which documented a number of atrocities committed by those forces, including rape, confirming the worst fears of the program's critics. Last week, in Time Magazine, Julius Cavendish reported on abuses by Commander Azizullah, a security force leader in Paktika Province in the employ of the U.S. And earlier this month, I published a lengthy investigative article in The Atlantic that documented an ongoing campaign of extrajudicial killing and torture carried out by the forces of General Abdul Raziq, a key U.S. ally and the acting police chief of Kandahar Province.
Together, these reports help shed light on why the insurgency in Afghanistan has been so resilient and effective at recruiting fighters. The UN report, in particular, raises serious questions about the U.S. night-raid program, which sweeps up a high proportion on non-combatants for intelligence-gathering purposes, as it suggests the U.S. has been funneling many of those non-combatants through a detention system where torture is widespread. As the Open Society Institute report notes:
International military typically release individuals by first handing them over to Afghan custody, where they can suffer poor conditions or even abuse rising to the level of torture.
This past month thus represents a pivotal moment in our understanding of the scale of human rights abuses in Afghanistan. And, to their credit, ISAF and the U.S. military have initiated investigations into these reports and are planning on instituting a series of corrective measures, including monitoring prison conditions. They've also stopped transfers to certain facilities in southern Afghanistan, after being shown a draft of the UN report last month. However, the fact remains that ISAF and the U.S. are only now taking action in response to reports from the UN, advocacy groups, and journalists, and are claiming that they had been unaware of the abuses beforehand. "I know of no one who knew about these alleged abuses as they were happening," one U.S. official told the New York Times.
It seems astonishing that that, for the last ten years, abuse on this scale could go unnoticed by the international military forces, who worked in closely partnered operations to capture many of the detainees that were later transferred and allegedly tortured -- especially given how easily a single UN team, led by the newly-arrived Georgette Gagnon, could blow the story open in less than a year's worth of investigations.
In my experience, it's been common knowledge among many aid workers, officials, journalists, and members of the military that torture and abuse were occurring in Afghan prisons. In 2010, in Kandahar, one U.S. military intelligence soldier told me that he and his colleagues would sometimes "take a cigarette break" during field interrogations and leave recalcitrant detainees alone with the Afghan National Police, with the implication they would be roughed up. Threatening detainees with transfer to the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, was another pressure tactic, as NDS' reputation for brutal interrogation methods was widely known to both the Afghans and many members of the U.S. military who worked in the field.
Moreover, both the Canadian and British militaries have experienced serious scandals back home involving the transfer of detainees who were later tortured in Afghan custody. In both countries, court orders have forced the military to respect its legal obligations by establishing programs for monitoring the detainees that they transfer to Afghan custody. In fact, according to confidential cables released by Wikleaks, the U.S. has been planning to emulate those programs as far back as February 2010:
In response to the President's executive order banning torture, the Washington interagency Task Force on Interrogation and Transfer Policies recommended that Embassy Kabul develop a plan to physically monitor the status of detainees transferred by U.S. forces under ISAF command to [Afghan government] custody.
Yet, nearly two years after these cables, the U.S. has yet to implement a detainee monitoring system. Moreover, as I show in my Atlantic article, U.S. government officials have known for the past five years of credible allegations that Abdul Raziq was involved in a massacre of civilians, and yet the U.S. military continued to support him at the highest level, with visits from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus. This raises the question of whether U.S. support for Raziq's forces has violated a 1997 law known as the Leahy Amendment, which forbids funding and training to foreign military units where credible allegations exist of gross violations of human rights.
It's true that torture and abuse by police forces and militaries are sadly commonplace in Central and South Asia. In India, for example, beatings in police custody and "encounter killings," where arrested suspects are framed in staged police encounters and shot, are still widespread. And the root causes of police abuse in Afghanistan include 30 years of traumatic conflict, poor education, extreme poverty and inequality, and systematic official corruption.
But the West's response can't simply be to do nothing and turn a blind eye. There are moral, law-abiding Afghan police officers and soldiers who deserve international support, and deserve to be able to work in a system that forbids, rather than tolerates, corruption and human rights abuses. Instead, we've thrown our support behind figures like Abdul Raziq.
The next few years will be a crucial period in the formation of Afghanistan's fledgling security forces. Our leverage, in terms of our boots on the ground and the money we spend, will only decrease from here on out. The question now is what legacy we want to leave to the people of Afghanistan.
Most presidents view inaugural addresses as a rare opportunity to appeal beyond “the base.” This was base-only.
For my sins, I have read every U.S. presidential inaugural address ever given, and played a small part in writing one of them—Jimmy Carter’s, delivered 40 years ago today.
The first one I remember hearing, John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, I saw on a fuzzy black-and-white TV from my 7th-grade American history classroom in California. The arctic conditions that day in Washington practically radiated through the TV screen. I remember seeing the revered 87-year-old poet Robert Frost hunch against the wind and squint in the low-sun glare as he tried to read the special inaugural ode he had composed. Then Richard Nixon, just defeated by Kennedy in a hair’s-breadth race, reached across to block the glare with his top hat. Frost waved him off and began reciting from memory one of his best-known poems, “The Gift Outright.”
Donald Trump will take the oath of office on Friday, becoming the 45th president of the United States.
Donald Trump takes the oath of office on Friday, to become the 45th president of the United States.
The day’s inaugural festivities will get underway in the morning and continue through Saturday. The swearing-in ceremony, which will take place outside of the Capitol, is expected to begin at 11:30 a.m., followed by an inaugural parade at 3 p.m. and inaugural balls in the evening.
Thousands of attendees are expected to descend on Washington, DC for the ceremonies, which will likely be met with celebration and protest. We’ll bring you the latest updates from the nation’s capital as events unfold. Also see our continuing coverage:
On January 20, 2017, the peaceful transfer of American power took place in Washington, DC, as Barack Obama, passed the office to Donald J. Trump.
On January 20, 2017, the peaceful transfer of American power took place in Washington, DC, as the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama passed the office to President-elect Donald J. Trump. Hundreds of thousands attended the ceremony, gathering in the National Mall to hear the swearing in and Trump’s inaugural address, while groups of protesters clashed with police in some of Washington’s streets. President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and their wives then bid farewell to former President Obama and his wife, as the Obamas headed to Air Force One for one last flight.
Recent presidential installation ceremonies have been studiously planned and free of major disasters. It hasn’t always been so.
With malice toward none. The only thing we have to fear. Ask what you can do for your country.
Presidential inaugurations will, at their best, inspire their audiences—not just in their respective moments, but for decades and centuries to come. But presidential inaugurations are also run by people, which means that, sometimes, they will go extremely wrong. Sometimes, it will be protests that will mar the best-planned ceremonies. Sometimes, it will be human pettiness (as when President Hoover, riding with Franklin Roosevelt in the motorcade to the Capitol in 1932, seems to have ignored Roosevelt’s attempts at conversation, instead staring stone-faced into the distance). Sometimes, however, inaugural exercises will encounter disasters of a more epic strain: storms, illness, death, extremely pungent cheese.
The new president borrowed from the bleak, fiery tone of his presidential campaign, but said his election represented the ascension of the people over politicians in Washington.
President Donald Trump took office on Friday with an inaugural address that was striking for both its bleakness and its fiery, populist promises for a better future.
“Today we are not transferring power not from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people,” the 45th president said.
Reciting a litany of horribles including gangs, drugs, crime, poverty, and unemployment, Trump told the nation, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
The inaugural address was unusually dark and political, delivered in a forum where new presidents have tended to reach for a language of unity, positivity, and non-partisanship. In many ways, the speech drew directly from the tone and approach of Trump’s often very-negative campaign rally speeches, once again showing that the “pivot” many observers have long expected Trump to make toward a more unifying and detached tone, is not coming. President Trump so far looks much the same as candidate Trump, and his speech was a strange milestone in a strange rise to power, one that was viewed as impossible just months ago.
Commentators love to praise the peaceful handover of power—but this year, it stands as a reminder of the system’s fragility and shortcomings.
Every presidency is different, but inaugural coverage is always the same. Commentators congratulate Americans on the peaceful transition of power and intone solemn sentences about democratic renewal.
There is something unnerving about these reassurances, something overstated, even hysterical. When a British prime minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons and must suddenly trundle out of 10 Downing Street (as some six dozen of them have done since the job was invented in the 1740s; a few more than once), nobody marvels on television how wonderful it is that he or she doesn’t try to retain power by force of arms. Nobody in Denmark thinks it extraordinary when one party relinquishes power to another. Ditto New Zealand or Switzerland—all of them treat peaceful transfers of power as the developed world norm, like reliable electricity or potable water.
He’s moved to establish his dominance of his party, of Congress, and of the media. Now, he turns to the nation.
Even for some Republicans, it is still a bit unbelievable. They have it all now—all the power. They won it fair and square. Donald Trump is assuming the presidency, and Republicans control the House and Senate.
They streamed into Washington this week to collect their reward, the activists and party hacks and true believers who helped make it happen. The members of the Republican National Committee, representing every state and territory, gathered in the ornate, slightly dowdy ballrooms of Washington’s Omni Shoreham hotel, where they took care of the party’s business between being feted at lunches, receptions, and inaugural balls. The mood was jubilant: Against all odds, after years of frustration, everything they worked for had come to pass.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
From the nosebleed section of the National Mall, Donald Trump’s supporters watched his inauguration with high hopes for his presidency.
Friday’s inauguration ceremony was the calm after the storm.
The crowd on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall could have easily turned into one last Trump campaign rally, with thousands of red-topped supporters screaming for their leader and boo-hissing any Democrat spotted on the Jumbotrons.
But the mood inside the security barricades was affable, a byproduct, perhaps, of collective exhaustion from the hassle of navigating through security lines. Or perhaps Trump’s supporters simply realized they didn’t need to shout anymore. After all, they’d already won.
“I feel amazing. I feel like this is Christmas,” Josh Hammaker, a Trump voter from Calvert County, Maryland, told me in the minutes before the ceremony began. Hammaker considers himself a Democrat, but broke for Trump in November. “This is the best day of my life.” Or, at least, “one of ‘em. We’re finally getting our country back.”