Handover at Bagram: symbol or a big step?

Prisoner transfer marks a move to withdrawal. By Kim Sengupta

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On a hot and still day, the ceremony was low key as an infamous prison in a corner of the vast sprawl that is the Bagram airbase was handed over to the government of Hamid Karzai by the US yesterday.

As the responsibility for 3,182 detainees is transferred from the Americans to Kabul's forces, it will prove another major step in the process of "Afghanisation" and the West's exit strategy. Bagram, 40 miles north of Kabul, in many ways encapsulates the tribulations and triumphs of the West and other interlopers in Afghanistan.

It was built by the Russians and abandoned by Moscow as it pulled its troops back to a collapsing Soviet Union. Small numbers of Pakistani troops, out of uniform, were briefly stationed there while destroying the ancient irrigation system of the Shomali Plain to halt an advance by the Northern Alliance against their client Taliban fighters. British troops, first sent in during the 2001 war, were at Bagram, which was soon under sole American control and the centre of Afghan operations, with a degree of success.

At the time, the Taliban were on the run and the warlords, including those from the Northern Alliance, the West's partners in the war, were resigned to losing their private armies and curbing their opium trade. Teams of intelligence agents from the CIA, MI6 and other Western agencies, veterans of the Mujahedin war against the Russians, were tracking down Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida, and Mullah Omar's Taliban leadership.

In 2003, the Bush administration's War on Terror, with Tony Blair following, moved to Iraq and so did large numbers of troops. Bagram emptied, the intelligence agents were sent off to hunt Saddam Hussein and the Baath leadership. The Taliban, fed and watered in Pakistan, moved back across the border into the security vacuum.

The recent history of Bagram is enmeshed in allegations of torture, with the detention facilities likened to Abu Ghraib in Iraq and to Guantanamo Bay. In 2005, a leaked US Army report revealed that military coroners had ruled that the deaths of two prisoners were homicides. Allegations of other abuse followed.

The handover comes as international forces are scaling down their presence. However, the central element of the withdrawal, Afghan forces taking over security, has itself become one of the most serious sources of concern for the West, with a seemingly unceasing death toll from Afghan troops turning their guns on their allies. A number of precautionary measures have been introduced, and the Americans have temporarily suspended their training of the Afghan Local Police, a tribal militia which had proved to be effective against the insurgents.

The Americans will retain use of the air base at Bagram, along with a number of other bases across the country, as part of a security agreement for another decade after 2014. The US is expected to provide air support to Afghan troops and, along with Britain and other Western countries, station special forces. The commitment, which was partly dependent on the prison handover, is viewed by Afghans – who fear an attempt by the insurgents to take over after the withdrawal of Western troops – as an insurance policy.

However, a report commissioned by the authoritative think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, said that the Taliban leadership might be prepared to negotiate a ceasefire and even accept continuing US presence until 2024 at five bases in the country.

Some "moderate" Taliban leaders are said to have insisted that, once a peace deal was signed by Mullah Omar, even the hardline Haqqani network – which the head of the US military described as "a veritable arm" of the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI – would come on board. But for all the politics, what of the prison, and those within it? "What will happen at Bagram, will treatment of prisoners get better there just because Karzai's people have taken over?" pondered Jawad Mohammed Nasruddin, a political analyst in Kabul. "We shall have to see."

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