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.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
Massive hurricanes striking Miami or Houston. Earthquakes leveling Los Angeles or Seattle. Deadly epidemics. Meet the “maximums of maximums” that keep emergency planners up at night.
For years before Hurricane Katrina, storm experts warned that a big hurricane would inundate the Big Easy. Reporters noted that the levees were unstable and could fail. Yet hardly anyone paid attention to these Cassandras until after the levees had broken, the Gulf Coast had been blown to pieces, and New Orleans sat beneath feet of water.
The wall-to-wall coverage afforded to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reveals the sway that a deadly act of God or man can hold on people, even 10 years later. But it also raises uncomfortable questions about how effectively the nation is prepared for the next catastrophe, whether that be a hurricane or something else. There are plenty of people warning about the dangers that lie ahead, but that doesn’t mean that the average citizen or most levels of the government are anywhere near ready for them.
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The tension between religious liberty and same-sex marriage may eventually come to a head in the courts, but probably not through the Kentucky clerk’s case.
As Rowan County clerk Kim Davis crawls further and further out on a limb, Supreme Court experts agree that she has little chance of prevailing. District Judge David Bunning, on August 12 ordered Davis, in her capacity as county clerk, to issue marriage licenses to all couples who meet the statutory criteria for marriage in Kentucky—a definition that, since the Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, includes same-sex couples.
Davis has refused, citing “the authority of God.” The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied her emergency request for a stay. This throws the case back to the Sixth Circuit, which will hear the appeal of Judge Bunning’s order. Assuming she loses in the Sixth Circuit—a fairly good assumption—she would then have the alternative of petitioning the Supreme Court to hear her religious freedom claim. The Court will eventually hear a case about religious freedom and same-sex marriage, but I don’t think it will be this one.
How the Islamic State uses economic persecution as a recruitment tactic
Before Islamic State militants overran her hometown of Mosul in June 2014, Fahima Omar ran a hairdressing salon. But ISIS gunmen made Omar close her business—and lose her only source of income. Salons like hers encouraged “debauchery,” the militants said.
Omar is one of many business owners—male and female—who say ISIS has forced them to shut up shop and lose their livelihoods in the process. The extremist group has also prevented those who refuse to join it from finding jobs, and has imposed heavy taxes on civilians.
“ISIS controls every detail of the economy,” says Abu Mujahed, who fled with his family from ISIS-controlled Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. “Only their people or those who swear allegiance to them have a good life.” When they took over Deir al-Zor, ISIS gunmen systematically took control of the local economy, looting factories and confiscating properties, says Mujahed. Then they moved in, taking over local business networks.
Though it wasn’t pretty, Minaj was really teaching a lesson in civility.
Nicki Minaj didn’t, in the end, say much to Miley Cyrus at all. If you only read the comments that lit up the Internet at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, you might think she was kidding, or got cut off, when she “called out” the former Disney star who was hosting: “And now, back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what’s good?”
To summarize: When Minaj’s “Anaconda” won the award for Best Hip-Hop Video, she took to the stage in a slow shuffle, shook her booty with presenter Rebel Wilson, and then gave an acceptance speech in which she switched vocal personas as amusingly as she does in her best raps—street-preacher-like when telling women “don’t you be out here depending on these little snotty-nosed boys”; sweetness and light when thanking her fans and pastor. Then a wave of nausea seemed to come over her, and she turned her gaze toward Cyrus. To me, the look on her face, not the words that she said, was the news of the night:
The past is beautiful until you’re reminded it’s ugly.
Taylor Swift’s music video for “Wildest Dreams” isn’t about the world as it exists; it’s about the world as seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment. In the song, Swift sings that she wants to live on in an ex’s memory as an idealized image of glamour—“standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset.” In the video, her character, an actress, falls in love with her already-coupled costar, for whom she’ll live on as an idealized image of glamour—standing in a nice dress, staring at a giant fan that’s making the fabric swirl in the wind.
The setting for the most part is Africa, but, again, the video isn’t about Africa as it exists, but as it’s seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment—a very particular nostalgia and kind of entertainment. Though set in 1950, the video is in the literary and cinematic tradition of white savannah romances, the most important recent incarnation of which might be the 1985 Meryl Streep film Out of Africa, whose story begins in 1913. Its familiarity is part of its appeal, and also part of why it’s now drawing flack for being insensitive. As James Kassaga Arinaitwe and Viviane Rutabingwa write at NPR:
Beijing’s top five scapegoats, from journalists to hedge funds to the U.S. federal reserve
China’s stock markets continue to stumble, despite the massive stimulus that the government has unleashed to prop them up. The Shanghai benchmark index fell by 1.23 percent Tuesday, after closing down slightly Monday. The index has fallen by nearly 40 percent from its mid-June peak.
In some ways, the slide isn’t surprising—after all, Chinese stocks were trading at extremely rich valuations before they started to fall, even as signs emerged that China’s economy was slowing.