Politics & Government

Task force created to combat al Qaida in Afghan prisons

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration took steps Thursday toward confronting a troubling al Qaida presence in Afghanistan's prison system, announcing the creation of a military task force to oversee detention operations there and naming a prominent military lawyer to be its deputy commander.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, had called for the task force's creation last month in a strategic assessment that included dire warnings about the prison system.

"There are more insurgents per square foot in corrections facilities than anywhere else in Afghanistan," McChrystal wrote. "Unchecked, Taliban/al Qaida leaders patiently coordinate and plan, unconcerned with interference from prison personnel or the military."

The Afghan prison system, including a U.S-operated detention center at Bagram Air Base, also helps create future insurgents, McChrystal said. That's because "the Afghan people see U.S. detention operations as secretive and lacking in due process" and because "hardened, committed Islamists are indiscriminately mixed with petty criminals and sex offenders," McChrystal said.

"They are using the opportunity to radicalize and indoctrinate them," McChrystal warned.

The Pentagon made no mention of McChrystal's assessment in its brief announcement Thursday that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had created Joint Task Force 435 on Sept. 18.

The purpose of the task force, the statement said, was "to provide care and custody for detainees, oversee detainee review processes and reconciliation programs, and to ensure U.S. detainee operations in Afghanistan are aligned effectively with Afghan criminal justice efforts to support the overall strategy of defeating the Taliban insurgents."

The task force's significance, however, was suggested by the separate announcement that Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins would be its deputy commander. Who'll command the task force has yet to be decided, a Pentagon spokesman said.

Until Thursday, Martins had been one of two executive secretaries of a commission President Barack Obama appointed on his first day in office to determine what legal options exist for the detention of suspected terrorists. The commission issued a preliminary report in July — signed by Martins and Brad Wiegmann, the principal deputy attorney general for national security — that called for the use of both traditional federal courts and military commissions to try suspected terrorists.

Previously, Martins had been Army Gen. David Petraeus's legal adviser in Iraq and had been instrumental in working with Iraqi officials on detention and criminal justice issues there. He also was recently named chief judge of U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals.

On Wednesday, both Attorney General Eric Holder and Petraeus attended a ceremony at the Justice Department where Martins was promoted to brigadier general.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Wright said he didn't know if Martins had played a role in McChrystal's assessment of Afghanistan's prison system.

McChrystal said that eight years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, there's still no systematic way to separate al Qaida members from less radical prisoners and that al Qaida leaders have used the prison system to plot a number of high-profile terrorist attacks, including a 2008 assault on the Hotel Serena in Kabul, where Norwegian diplomats were housed. Six people were killed, including a Norwegian journalist.

The problem extends to the U.S.-operated Bagram Theater Internment Facility, where "productive interrogations and detainee intelligence collection have been reduced," and where "hundreds are held without charge or without a defined way a head."

"This allows the enemy to radicalize them far beyond their pre-capture orientation," McChrystal wrote.

The Bagram detention center is also under assault from lawyers in the U.S. In April, a federal district judge in Washington ruled that non-Afghan prisoners there were entitled to the same rights to sue for their freedom in American courts as prisoners being held at Guantanamo.

The Obama administration appealed the ruling and in September said it was issuing new due process guidelines for prisoners at Bagram that were similar to Bush administration efforts to head off adverse court rulings at Guantanamo, including the appointment of non-attorney "representatives" to help Bagram inmates fight their detention.

Those guidelines, however, were greeted with derision by Tina Foster, the executive director of the International Justice Network, which represented the three Bagram detainees who successful sued in a Washington federal district court. "It's shocking to me that (the Obama administration) would adopt a policy that has already been rejected by the Supreme Court," she said. "It's not addressing at all the reason we're losing the hearts and minds of the people in Afghanistan."


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