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Published in The Drum 15 September 2011

In Australia there is a truth vacuum around the war in Afghanistan. The “information” our Government regularly excretes at press conferences describes events and circumstances in Orwellian language so devoid of meaning and precision that its only purpose can be to give the Government the maximum amount of wriggle room.

Helicopters drop out of the sky, killing young Australians, and we have to wait, and wait, and we are still waiting, to be told whether it was due to pilot error or some technical malfunction or whether it was (ssshhhh….!) shot down.

Prisoners are being tortured in Afghan jails, not for information but for money and sex. The out of control Afghan police are running hundreds of prisons beyond the scrutiny of the ‘state’ and concerned instrumentalities, such as the Red Cross, Red Crescent and local and overseas human rights organisations.

Young boys have been detained by the low life police for sex and people kidnapped and detained for ransom money.

Australian and US troops are engaged in missions to kill Taliban leaders, never mind about the niceties of the Geneva Convention, they have taken out the wrong people on the basis of incorrect information deliberately given to them by rival war lords, businessmen and others from within the many competing groups for money, influence and power within the complex that is the social and political structure of Afghanistan, a structure that appears way beyond the comprehension and analytical abilities of Australian agencies, DFAT and Defence.

Last night we learnt that the Taliban mounted a series of attacks inside Kabul, detonating explosive devices near the US Embassy and NATO Headquarters. Fighting continued for at least twelve hours after the initial attacks. This followed an earlier attack this month on the British Council building in Kabul. These attacks appeared designed to show that Kabul was vulnerable, and it is.

Attackers in the most recent incident positioned themselves inside a multi-story building under construction next to the US Embassy, a building with an over-view of the Embassy complex. Here they enjoyed commanding fields of fire and they used this advantage to devastating effect. Why wasn’t this building under the security of US forces? This basic oversight is illustrative of the incompetence of the US command structure, a point illustrated by Sebastian Junger in his book ‘War’.

The war in Afghanistan is a mess, militarily, politically and morally, and getting messier.

In 2009 Daniel Clune reported to Hillary Clinton from the US Embassy in Canberra that:
“..Most important to Rudd…was the domestic political context; he needed to demonstrate to the Australian people, a majority of whom now opposed military involvement in Afghanistan, the importance of maintaining their commitment, which meant leader-level engagement…” (WikiLeaks cable 09CANBERRA156)

This is another example of one power elite working compliantly to assist another, pulling out a star attraction to engender popular support against a majority view, and probably with equally little concern for our real national security interests? It is an example of “the Canberra malaise”, a virulent disease of disinformation and constructed denial afflicting Australian governance.

Press conferences are constructed to further reduce the opportunity for already lazy and compliant journalists to ask elected representatives important questions; for example, whether Afghanistan is still of importance to Al Qaeda?

In the 9/11 anniversary week, there are plenty of questions that need answers. What capability does Al Qaeda – which analysis now reveals to be fractured – have to inflict harm? Where is the evidence to substantiate the alleged ongoing relationship between the post-September 11 Taliban and post-September 11 Al Qaeda? Is there any evidence that if the Taliban returns to power Al Qaeda will be able to reconstitute its training camps in Afghanistan? What is our Government’s official position about our foremost ally condoning torture? What is our Government’s knowledge of the extent to which depleted uranium weapons and white phosphorous are used by ISAF forces, as the US did in the Iraq war, with concomitant loss of life and birth defects? If the United Nations Security Council mandate was initially limited to providing security in and around Kabul (UNSC resolution 1386 of December 2001) why were farm villages being bombed 15 miles outside of Kandahar and elsewhere in 2001?

The Government and Opposition are unable to articulate reasons for our continued presence in Afghanistan. If, as ‘The Australian’ implies, it is to shore up our alliance with the US, what guarantees are there that a weakened, war weary and financially strapped America would and could come to our assistance if required? Important political issues are never ventilated; equally important moral and ethical questions, unasked, remain unanswered.

This week Human Rights Watch released its report documenting serious abuses, such as killings, rape, arbitrary detention, abductions, forcible land grabs, and illegal raids by irregular armed groups in northern Kunduz province and by the Afghan Local Police (ALP) force in Baghlan, Herat, and Uruzgan provinces. It’s not the first time the ALP program has been described as a major threat to civilians and stability.

A UN report, as yet unpublished but scheduled for release this month, alleges widespread torture of prisoners in Afghanistan and already has resulted in NATO deciding to suspend transferring detainees to Afghan forces. The suspension involves facilities including police-run prisons in Kunduz and Tarin Kowt, as well as prisons in Herat, Khost, Lagman, Kapisa and Takhar run by the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) and a counter-terrorism facility known as Department 124.

Others have pointed out that you can’t have transition without ensuring that the security forces you leave behind are properly vetted and trained and know they will be held accountable for abuses.

So where does this leave us? And perhaps more importantly, what does our government know and when did it find out?

Most people don’t need reminding that there is an absolute legal prohibition on torture, so it’s hard to see how the notion of acting in self-defence or in our national interests can possibly extend to any complicity in establishing facilities that will be used for torturing people. Similarly, it’s common knowledge that the Afghans whom the invading powers – including us – embraced and helped to gain power after September 11 are the very people who committed atrocities against minorities and against women before the rise of the Taliban, and who were allied to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. We have helped to arm and train and vest power in the wrong people in Afghanistan, and the Afghan people will pay the price for that when we withdraw, even more than they do today.

Allegations of torture in Afghanistan prisons should not have come as a surprise. They were part and parcel of Afghan operating procedures under the Russian occupation.

In November 2007 Amnesty International released a report ‘Afghanistan Detainees transferred to torture: ISAF complicity?’. Three years later The Nation released its explosive report on ‘America’s Secret Afghan Prisons’.

The 2010 Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission report confirmed that:
….Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are common in the majority of law enforcement institutions and at least 98.5% of interviewed victims have been tortured. Institutions where torture has occurred include police (security, justice, traffic), prosecution office, national security, detention centres, custody, prison and national army…

Late last year Amnesty International warned our government that its newly announced policy of transferring prisoners detained in Afghanistan to Afghan and United States forces could violate international law.

Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, said the new arrangement was for low level or low risk detainees to be handed over to Afghan authorities and for high risk or high level detainees to be handed over to the United States for detention in the Parwan facility.

Earlier this year, responding to a question put to him by Jim Middleton about his confidence that detainees handed over by Australian forces wouldn’t be subjected to torture, Stephen Smith said:
…What I am confident of is that in terms of the processes that we have put in place, in the terms of the arrangements that we have made for people within our care and responsibility we have taken every reasonable sensible and necessary step that we can to do our best to ensure that people are treated in a humane civilised and dignified manner if they are detained by Australian forces. We are very vigilant about that…

It has been reported that the Parwan Detention Facility at the US airbase at Bagram has a suspect area which is distinct from its main prison.

Minister Smith provided an update on detainee management in July this year. He confirmed that detainees apprehended by the ADF are transferred either to Afghan custody in Tarin Kot, or to US custody at the Detention Facility in Parwan, or released if there is insufficient evidence to seek their prosecution through the Afghan judicial system. He said arrangements in place with both the Afghan and US Governments include assurances on the humane treatment of detainees and access to those detainees by Australian officials and humanitarian organisations to monitor their ongoing welfare.

Yet the ADF response to questions about the coming UN report was to say that no Afghans detained by Australian troops have been handed over to the police run prison in Tarin Kot in the past two years. Is this inconsistent with Minister Smith’s update on detainee management? How many facilities, run by whom, exist in Tarin Kot?

The often misleading and selective spin of information relating to the war in Afghanistan, highlights the Government’s weakening position in terms of our being there. The forthcoming visit of President Obama will change nothing on the ground in Afghanistan, although he might ask us to stay long enough to turn the lights out, and it will change nothing on the floor of the ASX.

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and activist, Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.