Does the Taliban Treat Its Prisoners Better Than the U.S. Treats Prisoners?


The news: According to security experts, Bowe Bergdahl — the U.S. soldier recently released from Taliban captivity — was considered a high-value asset by the Taliban, and that harming him would negatively affect propaganda efforts.

Let's be clear: No one would say that Bergdahl had anything resembling an easy life as a Taliban hostage for nearly five years. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the recent Taliban-Bergdahl prisoner exchange was “essentially to save his life.” Reports indicate, however, that Bergdahl was allowed to cook and make his own tea, play badminton with his handlers and celebrate religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. (This information was all gathered second-hand through a Taliban commander, so take it with a very large grain of salt.) It's unclear whether Bergdahl was tortured, but he certainly shot propaganda videos decrying the U.S. invasion, whether he was forced to or not.

But if we're suddenly, and rightfully, concerned with how Bergdahl was treated, a cursory glance at our own practices in Gitmo and with the global CIA black sites shows that the U.S. intelligence doesn't treat its captives much better.

Like what? The Center for Constitutional Rights, which provides legal counsel to accused terrorists and high-value enemy prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, reported in 2006 that torture and cruel, inhuman treatment is common at the prison.

The center profiled victims of psychological abuse like solitary confinement, those who underwent light and sound manipulation, exposure to the elements (like temperature extremes), sleep deprivation and threats to be tortured in allied countries with looser human rights laws. Issa Ali Abdullah al Murbati was allegedly shackled to a floor as loud music was blasted through six speakers aimed at his head for 12 hours. 

Imad Abdullah Hassan, a 34-year-old Yemeni held for 12 years, said he was painfully force-fed since late 2005 or 2006. Force-feeding in response to mass hunger strikes by inmates is official policy. Rapper Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) volunteered to demonstrate the standard operating procedure for force-feeding at Gitmo, but stopped after being reduced to tears by the pain.

In the year-and-a-half after Gitmo opened, 18 inmates attempted to commit suicide 28 times. In 2003 alone, inmates committed 350 acts of "self-harm." In 2003, 23 prisoners attempted to coordinate a mass suicide.

Warning: The video below is graphic and disturbing.

Claims of torture extend beyond force-feeding. In 2008, Iraq War hawk Christopher Hitchens agreed to be water-boarded and said it was among the worst things that ever happened to him. "I had only a very slight encounter on that frontier, but I still wish that my experience were the only way in which the words 'waterboard' and 'American' could be mentioned in the same (gasping and sobbing) breath," he wrote in Vanity Fair.

The Institute on Medicine as a Profession alleges that medical personnel were forced to "collaborate in intelligence gathering and security practices in a way that inflicted severe harm on detainees in U.S. custody." They also say participating in these procedures was a clear violation of medical ethics.

A Senate report on CIA torture has not yet been released to the public, but known details indicate that Guantanamo Bay may have housed a "black site" — a unacknowledged detention center where CIA or foreign personnel may have tortured detainees. Journalist Jason Leopold claims 10 high-value targets were processed through the black site in 2003-2004, and presumably were tortured. Other black sites have been alleged in Poland and Romania.

The CIA occasionally hands off terror suspects to foreign governments, which do not necessarily support human rights. The 10 such prisoners which have been handed off are presumed dead.

Many of the detainees could be innocent. Leopold writes that 24 of 85 low-value detainees had "been wrongfully detained and rendered to other countries on the basis of intelligence obtained from CIA captives under torture and from information shared with CIA officials by other governments, both of which turned out to be false."

Dozens of prisoners at Gitmo were held without charge, their cases now undergoing a formal review. These men can be held until hostilities end, and since the U.S. isn't waging war on a nation-state, but on a diffuse network of insurgents and terrorists, it's a pretty vague timeline.

Here's why you should care: Absolutely none of this excuses brutal Taliban treatment of Afghans or captured Pakistani and coalition forces. Areas remaining under Taliban control are rife with horrible human rights violations, which range from violence against women to executions and war crimes. The Taliban are nasty people who deserve to be arrested and imprisoned for their crimes against humanity. And so too are many of the people who ended up in Guantanamo Bay.

America can't expect to be part of the solution if our intelligence services are either directly conducting, or aiding and abetting, the torture of prisoners. And U.S. torture put American troops like Bergdahl under increased risk by undermining his mission, putting him at greater risk of similar or worse treatment and damaging intelligence collection with bad information.