A Test Case for Obama: After Guantanamo, What Next for Bagram?

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While the world celebrates the planned closure of Guantanamo there is another US military prison full of terror suspects -- at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. How Obama deals with the camp will indicate how serious he is about breaking with his predecessor.

Everyone is talking about Guantanamo these days. Almost every country in the world reacted with relief, if not outright euphoria, to one of the very first announcements by the new President Barack Obama: The US military prison for terror suspects on Cuba would be closed. Torture and CIA secret prisons were finally to be a thing of the past.

One week after Obama's inauguration another black mark on the US war on terror is in the headlines, another of the sins of his predecessor George W. Bush. On Monday the New York Times devoted its top story to the Bagram prison in Afghanistan.

Bagram Air Base.
Google Earth / DigitalGlobe

Bagram Air Base.

Far less well known than its Cuban counterpart, Bagram is based at the US military airport of the same name located around 60 kilometers north of the Afghan capital Kabul. The newspaper's stark but justified warning is that this camp could present Obama with far greater problems than the one at Guantanamo Bay.

Bagram could indeed become a test of how serious Obama is about altering the US anti-terror policy. He will soon have to say what is going to happen with the camp -- and more fundamentally how the US army under its new commander-in-chief is supposed to deal with terror suspects around the world.

One of the issues facing Obama is what to do about the plan to construct a new prison complex to replace the provisional camp at Bagram, a project that would cost millions of dollars.

And now a US court is reviewing the camp after four of the inmates challenged their detention there. The judge is holding off on his decision until Feb. 20 -- waiting for at least a signal from the White House on Bagram.

So far, Obama has kept quiet on Bagram. He has set up a commission to look at the issue of terror suspects held abroad. The commission, though, has been given just six months, likely only enough time to obtain an idea of the current state of affairs. At a Guantanamo briefing last week, a senior Obama administration official said not to expect any changes in operations at Bagram before the commission is finished with its review.

The American base at Bagram has been around ever since the US-led war in Afghanistan began. Right after the 2001 invasion, the army took over the former Russian airbase and completely rebuilt it. Now transport planes, military jets and unmanned drones take off and land here 24 hours a day. The site is huge and is surrounded by three security walls. Bright spotlights illuminate every corner of the base -- it is so bright, the halo of light can be seen from Kabul, some 50 kilometers away.

Bagram, known as BAF (Bagram Airfield) in the US Army, is the most important logistical base in the region -- alongside Baghdad Airport. Weapons supplies, soldiers, cars, food: Almost everything the army needs in Afghanistan is transported through BAF. And many wounded soldiers are flown out from the base to the US military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

In military circles, the camp at Bagram is well known, but it gets little publicity. Still, there are three times as many prisoners held there as at Guantanamo -- though the figure of 650 is more an estimate than a fact. Only the Red Cross has been allowed to visit the camp and it has not made anything public about its mission there. Human rights campaigners and journalists are strictly forbidden.

'More Isolated Than Guantanamo'

Almost all the prisoners are Afghans or Pakistanis who are suspected of being terrorists. Most have been detained by US soldiers during battles in Afghanistan. Unlike the Guantanamo inmates, those held at Bagram have almost no rights. Although there have recently been some hearings before a military judge, none of the prisoners have access to lawyers.

The prisoners differ in another important aspect from those in Guantanamo: In legal terms they were arrested in a war zone, thus making martial law applicable. The Bush administration consistently argued that the Bagram prisoners could thus be held indefinitely -- or at least until the war in Afghanistan was over. Obama now has to decide if he wants to continue to follow the policy set by the hardliners in the military and the intelligence services.

U.S. soldiers at the Bagram Air Base.
AP

U.S. soldiers at the Bagram Air Base.

There is little known about the conditions in Bagram. "Bagram is still a black hole," says Carroll Bogert from Human Rights Watch. "The camp is more isolated than Guantanamo."

Former inmates who were subsequently transferred to Guantanomo speak of maltreatment and torture during interrogations. In December 2002 two Afghan prisoners died as a result of blows from US soldiers.

The case of taxi driver Dilawar, allegedly a courier for al-Qaida, is described in detail in the impressive documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side." The filmmakers spoke with the US soldiers and the prisoners involved and showed terrible images of the interrogation room -- with hooks on the wall from which prisoners could be hung up and tortured. A few soldiers were punished after the case came to light but their commander was not reprimanded.

At the beginning of the war the prison in Bagram was a kind of transit station -- a "screening point" in military jargon. Any suspects detained in Afghanistan were flown there and most quickly ended up on another plane to Guantanamo. That changed in the autumn of 2004 when the US government decided not to send any more prisoners to the Cuban base. Since then the number of those held in Bagram has risen steadily.

The camp was also an important station in the CIA's "extraordinary renditions" program. All the important masterminds behind the Sept. 11 attacks were funnelled through Bagram after their arrests. Other suspects were briefly held at the camp on the way to secret CIA prisons elsewhere. When the CIA arrested suspected terrorists in Somalia in 2007, for example, they were brought to the secure base in Afghanistan first.

German diplomats got a brief look at the camp last year. After the US army detained an Afghan-born German citizen in January 2008 and held him for months before establishing his innocence, the German deputy ambassador went to the base to pick him up.

The former prisoner spoke of beatings, solitary confinement and threats from the military personnel. He is still undergoing psychological treatment. The German diplomat's report about his visit to Bagram provides only a small glimpse of the camp -- but it is reminiscent of the early days in Guantanamo. The German-Afghan man was led out in an orange jumpsuit, his hands and feet were fettered in steel chains, his eyes were covered by a black ski mask. It was only possible to speak with the prisoner in a small wooden box while heavily armed soldiers never left his side.

'Top Military Priority'

The few people who have seen the prison describe it as spartan. The prisoners are held in wire cages inside an aircraft hangar and unlike in Guantanamo there are no communal rooms. The sanitary facilities are said to be inadequate.

That is all supposed to change with the construction of the new prison. The Bush administration, though, also wanted to continue to prevent prisoners from having access to standard legal proceedings.

Now the world is watching to see what President Obama is going to do about Bagram. It is going to be a delicate balancing act. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Afghanistan is the new president's "top military priority." Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said that it was the greatest challenge facing the US military. Obama wants to see a massive build up of military activities in Afghanistan. That, though, will inevitably lead to even more suspects ending up in Bagram.

One solution could be to hand these men over to the Afghan justice system. But there is one problem: The US doesn't trust it -- fearing that the suspects could easily end up buying their freedom or being allowed to escape.

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