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.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
President-elect Donald Trump has committed a sharp breach of protocol—one that underscores just how weird some important protocols are.
Updated on December 2 at 7:49 p.m.
It’s hardly remembered now, having been overshadowed a few months later on September 11, but the George W. Bush administration’s first foreign-policy crisis came in the South China Sea. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet near Hainan Island. The pilot of the Chinese jet was killed, and the American plane was forced to land and its crew was held hostage for 11 days, until a diplomatic agreement was worked out. Sino-American relations remained tense for some time.
Unlike Bush, Donald Trump didn’t need to wait to be inaugurated to set off a crisis in the relationship. He managed that on Friday, with a phone call to the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. It’s a sharp breach with protocol, but it’s also just the sort that underscores how weird and incomprehensible some important protocols are.
How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?
Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.
But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.
The Daily Show host was measured, respectful, and challenging in his 26-minute conversation with TheBlaze pundit Tomi Lahren.
Tomi Lahren, the 24-year-old host of Tomi on the conservative cable network TheBlaze, feels like a pundit created by a computer algorithm, someone who primarily exists to say something provocative enough to jump to the top of a Facebook feed. She’s called the Black Lives Matter movement “the new KKK,” partly blamed the 2015 Chattanooga shootings on President Obama’s “Muslim sensitivity,” and declared Colin Kaepernick a “whiny, indulgent, attention-seeking cry-baby.” At a time when such charged political rhetoric feels increasingly like the norm, Lahren stands at one end of a widening gulf—which made her appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Wednesday night all the more fascinating.
In his first year at The Daily Show, Noah has struggled to distinguish himself in an outrage-driven late-night universe. He has sometimes seemed too flip about the failures of the country’s news media, something his predecessor Jon Stewart made a perennial target. Noah’s 26-minute conversation with Lahren, though, posted in its entirety online, set the kind of tone that Stewart frequently called for throughout his tenure. The segment never turned into a screaming match, but it also avoided platitudes and small-talk. Lahren was unapologetic about her online bombast and leaned into arguments that drew gasps and boos from Noah’s audience, but the host remained steadfastly evenhanded throughout. If Noah was looking for a specific episodethat would help him break out in his crowded field, he may have finally found it.
A single dose of magic mushrooms can make people with severe anxiety and depression better for months, according to a landmark pair of new studies.
The doom hung like an anvil over her head. In 2012, a few years after Carol Vincent was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, she was waiting to see whether her cancer would progress enough to require chemotherapy or radiation. The disease had already done a number on her, inflating lymph nodes on her chin, collar bones, and groin. She battled her symptoms while running her own marketing business. To top it all off, she was going through menopause.
“Life is just pointless stress, and then you die,” she thought. “All I’m doing is sitting here waiting for all this shit to happen.”
When one day at an intersection she mulled whether it would be so bad to get hit by a car, she realized her mental health was almost as depleted as her physical state.
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story presented an economic modeling assumption—the .01 chance of human extinction per year—as a vetted scholarly estimate. Following a correction from the Global Priorities Project, the text below has been updated.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. A new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation urges us to take them seriously.
The nonprofit began its annual report on “global catastrophic risk” with a startling provocation: If figures often used to compute human extinction risk are correct, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
A few weeks ago, I was trying to call Cuba. I got an error message—which, okay, international telephone codes are long and my fingers are clumsy—but the phone oddly started dialing again before I could hang up. A voice answered. It had a British accent and it was reading: “...the moon was shining brightly. The Martians had taken away the excavating-machine…”
Apparently, I had somehow called into an audiobook of The War of the Worlds. Suspicious of my clumsy fingers, I double-checked the number. It was correct (weird), but I tried the number again, figuring that at worst, I’d learn what happened after the Martians took away the excavating machine. This time, I got the initial error message and the call disconnected. No Martians.
Until the 19th century, hardly anyone recognized the vital role everyday buyers play in the world economy.
“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production,” Adam Smith confidently announced in The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Smith’s quote is famous, but in reality this was one of the few times he explicitly addressed the topic. Consumption is conspicuous by its absence in The Wealth of Nations, and neither Smith nor his immediate pupils treated it as a separate branch of political economy.
It was in an earlier work, 1759’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that Smith put his finger on the social and psychological impulses that push people to accumulate objects and gadgets. People, he observed, were stuffing their pockets with “little conveniences,” and then buying coats with more pockets to carry even more. By themselves, tweezer cases, elaborate snuff boxes, and other “baubles” might not have much use. But, Smith pointed out, what mattered was that people looked at them as “means of happiness." It was in people’s imagination that these objects became part of a harmonious system and made the pleasures of wealth “grand and beautiful and noble."
The Minnesota progressive’s run for DNC chair demonstrates the pressures for the party as it tries to recover from a disastrous 2016 election.
Deciding who will chair a political party probably isn’t the most effective place to fight for the soul of that party. Did Reince Priebus or any of the people who supported his run for Republican National Committee chair foresee president Trump? But DNC chair is the slot that’s open now, so that’s where Democrat are hashing out their differences.
Almost all of the pressures on and contradictions within the party can be projected onto Keith Ellison, the U.S. representative from Minnesota, who announced his bid for the spot shortly after the disastrous election for Democrats. That follows several years of disastrous cycles for the party—despite President Obama’s two terms, Democrats have been pummeled at the state and national levels—and the party stewardship of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which is widely viewed as shiftless and failed. With the Democratic field for 2020 diffuse and enigmatic, the chairmanship is one place to fight the battle.