Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 11/2010

Fixing Bagram: Strengthening Detention Reforms to Align with U.S. Strategic Priorities

November 2009

Human Rights First


Eight years after launching Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan—with a mission to kill and capture “high-value” al Qaeda and Taliban members and destroy the safe havens from which al Qaeda planned and directed the 9/11 attacks—the United States government has announced several significant detention reforms in Afghanistan. Human Rights First has closely monitored U.S. detention policies and practices since September 11, 2001. In this paper, we analyze the new detention reforms announced in September 2009 and make recommendations for further improvement in U.S. detention practices in line with U.S. policy interests and legal obligations. We base our recommendations on an analysis of the applicable humanitarian and human rights law and field visits to Afghanistan. In September 2009, the Pentagon announced improved detainee review board (DRB) procedures for detainees being held by the U.S. military at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility (BTIF) at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. The Pentagon also announced reforms to both U.S. and Afghan prisons focused on rehabilitation and skills training of prisoners in order to prevent radicalization, as well as an assessment on evidentiary gaps that hinder successful and fair prosecution of suspected insurgents transferred by international military forces to Afghan courts. These reforms reflect an understanding on the part of the Obama administration that the role of detention must be carefully calibrated to provide optimal protection to U.S. troops and to the Afghan population, while at the same time, minimizing the risk of alienating the very population U.S. troops are there to protect. Time will tell whether these reforms will be implemented effectively and can resolve the underlying problems of arbitrary and indefinite detention, mistaken captures, and lack of evidence for legitimate prosecutions in Afghan courts.