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.
Black poverty is fundamentally distinct from white poverty—and so cannot be addressed without grappling with racism.
There have been a number of useful entries in the weeks since Senator Bernie Sanders declared himself against reparations. Perhaps the most clarifying comes from Cedric Johnson in a piece entitled, “An Open Letter To Ta-Nehisi Coates And The Liberals Who Love Him.” Johnson’s essay offers those of us interested in the problem of white supremacy and the question of economic class the chance to tease out how, and where, these two problems intersect. In Johnson’s rendition, racism, in and of itself, holds limited explanatory power when looking at the socio-economic problems which beset African Americans. “We continue to reach for old modes of analysis in the face of a changed world,” writes Johnson. “One where blackness is still derogated but anti-black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans.”
As Coldplay blandly strained for the universal, she and Bruno Mars pulled off something more specific and more daring.
What a perfect Beyoncésong name: “Formation.” All great pop involves people acting in formation. So does all great change. And while fans scream that Beyoncé’s a “queen” and “goddess,” her core appeal really is as a drill sergeant. With Beyoncé in command, greatness is scalable, achievable, for the collective. Everyone waves their hands to the same beat. Everyone walks around like they have hot sauce in their bag.
But in pop and in politics, “everyone” is a loaded term. Stars as ubiquitous as Beyoncé have haters, the “albino alligators” who “Formation” informs us she twirls upon. And in a more general historical sense, “everyone” can be a dangerous illusion that elevates one point of view as universal while minimizing others. Beyoncé gets all of this, it seems. As a pop star, she surely wants to have as broad a reach as possible. But as an artist, she has a specific message, born of a specific experience, meaningful to specific people. Rather than pretend otherwise, she’s going to make art about the tension implied by this dynamic. She’s going to show up to Super Bowl with a phalanx of women dressed as Black Panthers.
Will the Democratic Party nominate a candidate who hasn’t been a member of their party, and who has long denounced it?
When a party chooses its presidential candidate, it also chooses its party leader in the election. This year the Democrats face an unusual situation. Bernie Sanders isn’t just an outsider to the party establishment; he’s not even been a member of the party, and has long excoriated it in unsparing language. Although the media haven’t much focused on this history, the early signs suggest it could become a problem for Sanders in getting the nomination—and a problem for the party if he does get it.
According to the entrance polls at the Iowa caucuses, there was a 30-percentage-point split between self-identified Democrats and independents in their support for Sanders. Hillary Clinton won 56 percent of self-identified Democrats but only 26 percent of independents, while Sanders won only 39 percent of Democrats but 69 percent of independents.
The insects are miniature transformers that can compress to half their size and still run really fast. The creepy little buggers might even inspire a new generation of search and rescue robots.
Cockroaches get everywhere. There they are, somehow, against all odds, in that room that looked to be totally sealed from the outside world, in that cupboard you swore was tightly shut. Now, Kaushik Jayaram and Robert Full from the University of California, Berkeley have discovered the secret behind their feats of infiltration.
By confronting American cockroaches with an ever-narrower series of crevices, the duo found that although this insect typically stands 12 millimeters tall, it can squeeze through gaps of 3 millimeters—the height of two stacked U.S. pennies. It does this by squatting down and then compressing its body by half. It is the world’s worst Transformer: instantly changing shape from a cockroach into a much flatter cockroach. Delightful.
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison accomplished it in eight words: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
A photo series reveals what expectant mothers in various countries bring with them to the hospital.
For most expecting mothers in the Western world, a hospital bag is something that makes the birthing process marginally more comfortable. You’ve just brought a new being into the world; you deserve to wear your own sweatpants.
But in some parts of the world, hospitals are so bare-bones that women in labor must tote everything with them, from rubber gloves to water pans to gauze.
To draw attention to the difficulty of giving birth in regions where water is scarce, the organization WaterAid recently dispatched photographers to ask expecting and brand-new moms in various countries to open up their hospital bags. Here are their photos, as well as lightly edited interviews with the moms conducted by WaterAid.
The former president’s heated assault on Bernie Sanders is a reminder of how the Clintons have long reacted to any opposition.
One of my oldest Hillary Clinton memories: Twenty-six years ago, I stood in the second-floor rotunda of the Arkansas Capitol half-listening to a news conference by Tom McRae, an earnest Democrat challenging Governor Bill Clinton for re-election. Then I heard it: Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Click. Clack.
The sound of Hillary Clinton’s low-heeled shoes on a hidden marble hallway jarred McRae, who in 1990 was Bill Clinton’s biggest obstacle to a fifth term and a presidential bid two years later. The first lady of Arkansas rounded the corner and stormed his news conference. “Tom!” she shouted. “I think we oughta get the record straight!”
Waving a sheaf of papers, Hillary Clinton undercut McRae’s criticism of her husband’s record by pointing to McRae’s past praise of the governor. It was a brutal sandbagging. “Many of the reports you issued not only praise the governor on his environmental record,” she said, “but his education and his economic record!”
The trust people tend to feel toward others in the same ethnic, racial, and political groups makes them easy targets for scammers.
Last week’s ABC mini-series chronicled the most famous financial fraud in recent American history: Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme, which devastated elite institutions and families of the American Jewish community. The scale of Madoff’s crimes was breathtaking. There’s much to be said about his crimes—not least about the incompetence of the regulatory apparatus that failed to stop him despite repeated warnings and what researchers Greg Gregoriou and Francois Lhabitant quite appropriately called “a riot of red flags” over many years.
Tracking them down is a globe-trotting adventure that rivals any jungle expedition.
In the darkness of the Akeley Hall of Mammals, swarms of kids gawk at beautifully staged dioramas of Africa’s wildlife. The stuffed safari, nestled in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, includes taxidermied leopards stalking a bush pig, preserved ostriches strutting in front of warthogs, and long-dead baboons cautiously considering a viper. In one corner, in a display marked “Upper Nile Region,” a lone hippo grazes next to a herd of lechwe, roan antelope, and a comically stern shoebill stork.
“This is my favorite one,” says Evon Hekkala, pointing to the display. “There’s a taxidermied crocodile tucked away down there.”
It takes a while to spot it and I have to crane my head to do so, but yes, there it is—a large crocodile, in the back, mouth agape, next to the hippo. It’s mostly hidden from view, and until recently, it was hidden from science, too.