Over the past few months, senior US military figures have been taking to the airways to reassure the public that the bulk of American and NATO forces will be ready to leave Afghanistan by 2014. Newspaper, cable news, broadcast networks -- they've all carried prominently positioned and optimistic accounts of the excellent training the Afghan army and police are receiving and how this will make the Afghans ready to defend their country and establish the rule of law.
But then I came across a recent UN report that caused me to question everything I thought I knew. Here's what it said:
Nearly half the prisoners in Afghan jails -- including children under 18 -- have been tortured to extract confessions and deprived of the most basic due process protections, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The UN body is calling on Afghan authorities to "take all possible steps to end and prevent torture, and provide accountability for all acts of torture."
The Mission's conclusions are based on interviews conducted from October 2010 to August 2011 with 379 pre-trial detainees and convicted prisoners at 47 detention facilities in 22 provinces across Afghanistan.
In total, 324 of the 379 persons interviewed were detained by National Directorate of Security (NDS) or Afghan National Police (ANP) forces for national security crimes -- suspected of being Taliban fighters, suicide attack facilitators, producers of improvised explosive devices, and others implicated in crimes associated with the armed conflict in Afghanistan.
The US and its NATO allies are currently training both the police force and the security services to keep the peace and maintain law and order in the country. It is unclear whether their training extends to professional prison procedures.
In situations where torture occurred, it typically took the form of abusive interrogation practices used to obtain confessions from individuals detained on suspicion of crimes against the State. The practices documented meet the international definition of torture.
Torture occurs when State officials, acting in their official capacity inflict or order, consent or acquiesce to the infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering against an individual to obtain a confession or information, or to punish or discriminate against the individual.
Such practices amounting to torture are among the most serious human rights violations under international law, are crimes under Afghan law and are strictly prohibited under both Afghan and international law.
Detainees described experiencing torture in the form of suspension being hung by the wrists from chains or other devices attached to the wall, ceiling, iron bars or other fixtures for lengthy periods) and beatings, especially with rubber hoses, electric cables or wires or wooden sticks and most frequently on the soles of the feet.
Electric shock, twisting and wrenching of detainees' genitals, stress positions including forced standing, removal of toenails and threatened sexual abuse were among other forms of torture that detainees reported. Routine blindfolding and hooding and denial of access to medical care in some facilities were also reported.
UNAMA documented one death in ANP and NDS custody from torture in Kandahar in April 2011.
UNAMA's detention observation found compelling evidence that 125 detainees (46 percent) of the 273 detainees interviewed who had been in NDS detention experienced interrogation techniques at the hands of NDS officials that constituted torture, and that torture is practiced systematically in a number of NDS detention facilities throughout Afghanistan.
Nearly all detainees tortured by NDS officials reported the abuse took place during interrogations and was aimed at obtaining a confession or information. In almost every case, NDS officials stopped the use of torture once detainees confessed to the crime of which they were accused or provided the requested information.
UNAMA also found that children under the age of 18 years experienced torture by NDS officials.
More than one third of the 117 conflict-related detainees UNAMA interviewed who had been in ANP detention experienced treatment that amounted to torture or to other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatme