‘How Bagram destroyed me’


Jawed Ahmad has just been released from US military detention at Bagram air base near the Afghan capital, Kabul. In a rare insider’s account of the base, he alleges abuse and, most controversially, that prison guards mishandled the Koran. He spoke to the BBC’s Martin Patience.

For Jawed Ahmad the last 11 months have been the worst of his life.

Jawed Ahmad

Jawed Ahmad says he will fight to his ‘last breath’ for justice

“They destroyed me financially, mentally and physically,” says Mr Ahmad, 21, wearing a traditional shalwar kameez and sporting a thin, wispy beard.

“But most importantly, my mother is taking her last breath in hospital just because of the Americans.”

Mr Ahmad was detained for almost a year in the Bagram air base where US forces imprison suspected Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters. He was freed last Saturday.

The facility has a controversial past – two Afghans were beaten to death by their American guards in 2002.

‘Don’t move’

Jawed Ahmad was a well-known journalist in Kandahar working for Canadian TV and on occasions the BBC. Previously, he had spent two and half years as a translator for American special forces.

For nine days they didn’t allow me sleep – I didn’t eat anything
Jawed Ahmad

So, when a press officer from an American military base asked him to come for a chat, he thought nothing of it – these people were supposed to be his friends after all.

“At once around 15 people surrounded me and dropped me to the floor,” says Mr Ahmad, becoming increasingly animated as he spoke.

“They shouted at me saying ‘don’t move’ and then they take me to the prison.”

Mr Ahmad says that the prison guards – he assumes they were American – then hit him and threw him against truck containers.

But he says that the abuse did not end there.

“For nine days they didn’t allow me sleep. I didn’t eat anything – it was a very tough time for me,” he says. “Finally, they told me you’re going to Guantanamo Bay.”

He was accused of supplying weapons to the Taleban and having contacts with the movement.

Mr Ahmad protested, saying that as a journalist it was his job. They then, he says, shaved his head and put him in an orange jump suit.

But before leaving Kandahar – his guards had one final message.

“I will never forget it,” he says. “They said ‘you know what?’, and I said ‘what’ and they said there is no right of journalists in this war.”


Despite the threat of being sent to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Mr Ahmad was flown to Bagram air base about 70km (40 miles) north of the capital, Kabul.

Bagram air base

Bagram serves as a military base, airfield and detention centre

It’s where the US military detains about 600 prisoners whom they define as unlawful combatants.

“When I landed first of all they stood me in snow for six hours,” he says. “It was too cold – I had no socks, no shoes, nothing. I became unconscious two times.”

He continued: “They learned one word in Pashto ‘jigshaw, jigshaw’ – it means ‘stand up’. And when I became unconscious they were saying ‘jigshaw’.”

For the next 11 months Mr Ahmad was held at the facility – he says that he was unsure why he was there, and when, if ever, he would be released.

He says he and his fellow prisoners were taunted continuously by the guards.

“I thought they were animals,” he says. “When they cursed me, I cursed them twice. I challenged them.”

Mr Ahmad says he was sent into solitary confinement after an article appeared in the New York Times about his incarceration, which apparently irritated the guards.

He says he was chained in the cell in stress positions making it almost impossible to sleep.

But most inflammatory of all, Mr Ahmad says that other prisoners told him that the guards mishandled the Koran.

“They didn’t do it only one time, not two times, they did it more than 100 times. They have thrown it, they have torn it, they have kicked it.”

The day Mr Ahmad learned he was being set free was an emotional moment.

“Sometimes I laughed, sometimes I cried, sometimes I prayed,” he says. ” Finally, the next morning they just released me.”


In a statement, the US military at Bagram air base said that there was no evidence to substantiate any claims of mistreatment.

They added that Mr Ahmad had been turned over to the Afghan government as part of a reconciliation programme.

But Mr Ahmad says that he will pursue justice for what has happened to him.

“I will fight to my last breath to get my rights,” he says. ” I will knock on the door of Congress, I will ask Obama, I will ask Hilary Clinton, even Bush – I will not leave any person.”


Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7635307.stm

Afghan civilian casualties soar


Afghans grieve over family members allegedly killed in a US air strike

Both sides have been blamed over civilian casualties

There has been a sharp increase in the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan this year, according to new figures released by the United Nations.

They show that August had the highest number of deaths since the overthrow of the Taleban almost seven years ago.

The UN says that from January to August 1,445 civilians were killed – a rise of 39% on the same period last year.

Meanwhile, members of parliament are holding a one-day walk-out in protest the increase in civilian casualties.

A senior member of the senate, Abdul Khaliq Hosseini Pashaei, said the senators would hold further protests if measures were not taken by the Afghan government and foreign forces to reduce the number of civilian deaths.


The BBC’s Imogen Foulkes in Geneva – where the UN report was released – says that the issue of civilian casualties at the hands of foreign forces has caused widespread anger across the country.

Afghan doctors treat a civilian casualty

The figures were collected by the human rights team of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

What is especially worrying, says spokesman Rupert Colville, is that every month things seem to get worse.

“August was a particularly bad month – 330 civilians killed,” he said.

“That’s the highest number of civilian deaths to occur in a single month since the end of major hostilities and the ousting of the Taleban regime at the end of 2001.”

Fifty-five percent of civilian deaths so far in 2008 can be attributed to the Taleban, the UN says.

That is double the number for which they were held responsible last year.

Among the most recent, two doctors working for the World Health Organisation’s polio vaccination campaign were killed with their driver by a suicide bomber on Sunday.

The WHO has now put its vaccination campaign in Kandahar province on hold – 1.2 million children may go unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces are rising too – 577 so far this year, compared with 477 over the same period last year.

Over two-thirds were caused by air strikes and the UN is calling for an independent assessment of damage, so that survivors and relatives can be compensated.

Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7618906.stm

Pakistan’s ‘bleakest moment’

Pakistan’s ‘bleakest moment’

Guest columnist Ahmed Rashid says Pakistan is facing its bleakest moment, months after getting a new democratic government.

Stock broker in Karachi

‘Pakistan’s economy is in a meltdown’

Just when Pakistanis thought they had a new democracy, ushering in a new civilian government, a new president and the end of eight years of military rule, they are faced with the bleakest moment in the country’s history.

Proverbially listed as a failing state, this precariously poised country could now be in a downward spiral towards becoming a failed state.

Internationally isolated and condemned by the world community due to its Afghan policy, Pakistan’s tribal territories have become a free-for-all firing range for US troops even as the domestic threat from the Pakistani Taleban multiplies.

Pakistanis also face runaway inflation of over 25% and an economy in virtual meltdown as foreign exchange reserves dwindle and industry grinds to a halt.

There is a lack of electricity, an unresolved judicial crisis and ultimately an uncertain political future with the army still waiting in the wings.

The civilians and the military need to develop a partnership that works, where decisions are jointly discussed and made and burdens shared. So far that has not happened.

When newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari travels to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, he will be desperately trying to shore up Pakistan’s crumbling international reputation, discuss new policy options towards the Taleban with President George Bush and beg for fresh aid from donor countries in order to avert a default on the country’s foreign debt.

Double game

It’s a tough order for a man who barely knows his way around the corridors of power.

Much of the present crisis has to be laid at the doors of former President Pervez Musharraf, the army and the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) – who, since 11 September 2001, have played a double game not only with the Americans but also with their own people.

A militant attack in Peshawar

There has been a spike in militant violence

Promising democracy, economic development, moderation and an end to training jihadi fighters who had become the army’s front line in projecting its foreign policy and fuelling the wars in Afghanistan and the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir, in reality the military continued to pursue the same old games.

By allowing the growth of Islamic extremism and the mushrooming of thousands of new madrassas in the country, the military considered economic and political stability an afterthought.

In his last years, Mr Musharraf presided over a rotten system that was just waiting to implode. Neither the army nor the Americans were prepared to see that but the people of Pakistan certainly were – as they poured on to the streets to protest at this or that foible of the regime.

Out of control

Just as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government took over, all the chickens came home to roost. The Afghan Taleban – which still has a safe haven in Pakistan – no longer listens to its military mentors.

The Pakistani Taleban are out of control. Once serving as the protectors and facilitators for al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taleban, the Pakistani Taleban have now developed their own political agenda – turning northern Pakistan into what they call a Sharia (Islamic law) state.

The key to remedy the present crisis lies in how Mr Zardari and the civilian government conduct their relations with the military and how successful they are in bringing it on board when adopting a new national security doctrine that does not depend on Islamic extremism and makes friends rather than enemies of Pakistan’s neighbours.

The civilians and the military need to develop a partnership that works, where decisions are jointly discussed and burdens shared. So far that has not happened.

Anti-US protests in Pakistan

Anti-American feelings have risen

Confrontation – such as when the government tried and failed to force the ISI to report to the Interior Ministry just before Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani visited Washington – will not work.

The incident showed up the government to be immature, inept and unversed in how state institutions operate.

By the same token the army cannot carry on with its military campaigns against the Pakistan Taleban, refusing to share information and intelligence with responsible civilians. Nobody in government has a clue as to what the military strategy is, while many doubt there even is one.

The army’s lack of transparency only further damages the military’s reputation and creates unnecessary conflict with parliament and the government. Moreover it fuels conspiracy theories about the army’s intentions.

It cannot be over-emphasised: to get over this present crisis the army and the civilians will have to sit down together.

But the problem for the government is that in its discussions with the military so far, it has been shown to know next to nothing about national security or foreign policy.

It is not trusted by the army and Mr Zardari has to find the right people to fill the key positions where interaction with the military is paramount.

Gradually through a maturing working relationship, the army must learn to accept that the elected government has the right to control foreign policy, although not without consulting the military first.

Only civilian rule can deliver greater trade and co-operation with Pakistan’s neighbours rather than more confrontation.

It is the resolution of disputes like Kashmir with India and the Durand Line with Afghanistan that will give Pakistan securer borders.

It will also make the military less paranoid about India and place civilians more firmly in control. Failed statehood can still be avoided.


Sourcce: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7620767.stm

Mistakes By Afghan Translators Endanger Lives, Hamper Antiterrorism Effort

September 02, 2008

By Ron Synovitz


Coalition soldiers meet with local Afghan elders in Helmand Province.

When U.S. or NATO soldiers need to communicate with Afghan villagers, they rely on translators provided by private contractors. But for various reasons — regional dialects, cultural misunderstandings, or even ethnic animosities — translators in Afghanistan often don’t relate everything they hear.

And what is lost in translation can hurt efforts by NATO and the U.S.-led coalition to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. In the worst cases, innocent civilians can be arrested or wrongly targeted as Taliban fighters.

Zalmai Zurmutai, a Pashto translator for NATO troops in Afghanistan, is angry about what he has seen happen when unqualified translators serve as a liaison between foreign troops and Afghan villagers.

For example, Zurmutai says, when a Dari speaker from northern Afghanistan is sent out with NATO troops to Pashtun parts of southern Afghanistan, it is not unusual for the translator to have difficulties understanding the local Pashto dialect.

Other times, Zurmutai says, a young Afghan translator who has grown up in Europe or the United States does not understand the traditional tribal culture of Pashtun villagers.

‘Unable To Convey The Meaning’

Local animosities also can come into play. When a translator is from a tribe or ethnic group that suffered under the rule of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban regime, Zurmutai says some treat Pashtun village elders with contempt — the kind of behavior that can turn an entire village against the foreign troops.

“If you go to [the provinces of] Kandahar or Oruzgun or Zabol or Paktia, most people can’t understand Dari,” Zurmutai says. “And if you go to Badakhshan or Takhar, they don’t speak Pashto and they can’t understand it. Imagine when a [native Dari speaker] becomes a translator and goes into a Pashtun village where the people cannot speak Dari — and the translator cannot understand [their local dialect of] Pashto.

“Unfortunately, there are so many translators like this who are unable to convey the meaning of Pashto speakers to the coalition forces. And he can’t convoy the message of foreign troops to these local people,” Zurmutai continues. “There also are some Afghan translators who are coming from other countries who are less familiar with the Afghan culture. They don’t know about the tribal value system. Or there are some emotional young Afghans who don’t care about the local values. They have very rude behavior — very [undiplomatic and] cruel — without respect for people. They are creating misunderstandings between local people and the coalition forces. They are destroying mutual trust. There are some translators who are working for their own political, personal and tribal interests. These translators are treating people in a very bad way.”

John McHugh is an independent filmmaker whose documentary “Lost In Translation — Afghanistan” was released on the Internet this summer by The Guardian newspaper group.

Filmed while McHugh was embedded with U.S. troops near the Afghan-Pakistan border, the eight-minute documentary shows how tensions rise between U.S. soldiers and Pashtun villagers when a Dari-speaking translator is unable to understand a village elder’s Waziri dialect.

‘Is It Any Wonder?’

The elder gives lengthy answers to the U.S. soldiers’ questions about the lack of security in their village and the threats against them by Taliban fighters who regularly cross the nearby border with Pakistan. The translator fails to convey the elder’s concerns.

“The soldiers ask to speak to the village elders, but everything gets lost in translation,” McHugh says. “Everything here hinges on the translation — the subtleties of Pashto and English. The translators have become unexpected power brokers in all this. And sometimes, they just don’t translate everything they hear. Is it any wonder that the Americans feel baffled in these situations and that ordinary Afghans feel ignored?”

Zurmutai says there are many misunderstandings during NATO military operations in Afghanistan that are caused by bad translations.

Zurmutai described one case in which a translator wrongly told NATO troops that an encampment of Pashtun nomads — a Kochi tribe — were Taliban fighters. He says it was only the last-minute intervention of another translator that stopped NATO from calling in an air strike on the tents of the innocent nomads.

“Unfortunately, we can’t deny that there are tribal and regional differences between Afghans today. And translators are involved in this stuff,” Zurmutai says. “Many translators have been sacked because of creating these kinds of conflicts. Recently, so many people have been killed in mistaken bombardments that were later found to be the result of bad translations.

“Nowadays, coalition forces understand that the real source of the problem is with the translators. And they are paying more attention to this issue,” he continues. “If this problem would be solved, it would be a major step forward for reconstruction and for bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.”

Security Criteria

U.S. and NATO military officials in Afghanistan have admitted to RFE/RL privately that inaccurate translations cause problems for their soldiers, whether in a battle situation or simply communicating with members of a rural Afghan community.

One problem has been for the U.S. military to get qualified Dari and Pashto translators who also meet the Pentagon’s security criteria. For years, the Pentagon required that its translators be American citizens and also have top secret military security clearance.

That was the case through 2005 when translations for U.S. forces in Afghanistan were provided by the private U.S. firm Titan as part of a $4.65 billion contract with the U.S. Defense Department.

Former Titan employees tell RFE/RL the company had great difficulties meeting the demand for Afghan translators with the necessary security clearance. As a result, former employees say Titan appeared to overlook the language deficiencies of many of the translators it provided.

A firm called L-3 Communications Holdings inherited Titan’s translation contract when it bought Titan in 2005. [By year’s end, with numerous complaints on file about Titan translators, L-3 lost the contract for interpreters in Iraq. A new five-year deal for U.S. military translations in Iraq was awarded in February to Global Linguistics Solutions, a joint venture of DynCorp International and McNeil Technologies.*]

At the same time, the Pentagon publicly recognized the limitations of its human expertise, launching an initiative to improve foreign language skills and cultural knowledge within the U.S. military. Admitting that a great deal of information was being lost, Pentagon officials said translators who act as go-betweens would no longer be seen as the whole solution in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Under that initiative, linguistic and cultural expertise started to be seen by the Pentagon as a warfighting skill that needed to be incorporated into operational and contingency planning.

Nick Grono, the deputy president of the International Crisis Group, tells RFE/RL that the Pentagon initiative was a step in the right direction. But he says there still needs to be more focus on ensuring that the translators who go out with foreign troops in Afghanistan do their jobs correctly.

“We have said that there has been a woeful lack of investment in translation interpreting capabilities,” Grono says. “So much of what drives support for the Taliban is not support for their agenda or support for their objectives. It is grievance driven. It is grievances with a local government. It is grievances with the international community that is often perceived as supporting a corrupt or illegitimate provincial government. So if you don’t understand these grievances, if you don’t understand them properly, it is very difficult then to devise strategies that enable you to effectively respond.”

‘Information Brokers’

Grono says a good translator can help prevent air strikes on innocent civilians, like the bombing last month of a village in Herat Province that, according to UN investigators, killed 90 civilians. In that case, the Afghan government sacked two senior Afghan military officers, saying they had provided wrong information to NATO forces about the presence of Taliban fighters in the village.

“One of the big challenges for the international forces in Afghanistan is the whole cultural understanding issue,” Grono says. “It goes way back. It goes back to the initial international intervention back in 2001 and 2002 when there were claims that the Northern Alliance or warlords were using the international forces for their own ends and able to get them to target political opponents who weren’t necessarily a threat to the international effort. So much of this revolves around an inability to properly understand what the important issues are because you don’t have the ability to get to grips with them. Translators are information brokers in this context.”

Zurmutai says there has been progress in the last three years on improving the quality of NATO and U.S. translators in Afghanistan. But he says there are still translators working for the alliance who do not have any knowledge of the local dialects in the areas where they are deployed. As a result, Zurmutai says, some translators continue to cause more problems for foreign forces than they resolve.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan Deputy Director Hashem Mohmand and correspondent Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this story.

[* RFE/RL’s original story erroneously indicated that L-3 Communications Holdings lost its translation contract in Afghanistan, to be replaced by Global Linguistics Solutions. In fact, the GLS contract from February is for military translators in Iraq, not Afghanistan.]

Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/None/1195783.html