With the election of a nice president in place of that nasty one, we’d all like to go back to ignoring the grimmer parts of the Empire, particularly since we’ve now got so many problems here at home. But Afghanistan in particular deserves ongoing attention, since that is where, in all probability, we’ll soon be sending more troops.

Most papers today cover the fate of Muntazer al-Zaidi, sentenced to three years’ jail in the new Iraq for throwing shoes at George Bush (the Biotic Baking Brigade would do well to say out of Baghdad). But there’s an Afghan equivalent that deserves equal coverage. A few days ago, a court upheld Parwiz Kambakhsh’s sentence of 20 years for blasphemy, after he wrote an article about the role of women in Islam.

“This is the tragic level of justice in Afghanistan today,” said his brother Ibrahimi in response.

“It is just a make-believe system of justice and humanitarianism. The reality is that the Afghan government and judiciary, although supported by the US, the UN, the EU and other democracies worldwide, is morally bankrupt.”

Such are the compromises the occupation requires, especially now the old goal of a democratic Afghanistan has been quietly shelved in favour of keeping the least worst warlord in power.

Thus the preparations for the coming surge include an expansion of Bagram air base, a facility you might recall from the time US army interrogators beat two Afghan men to death there in 2002. The New York Times provides a bleak account of the torture techniques in those particular cases, a description capped off with the suggestion that one of the dead man was entirely innocent, having been detained simply for driving his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.

Some have called Bagram the other Guantanamo. But that’s a mistake: Guantanamo was always the other Bagram. As Salon has recently argued, it was at Bagram that both the harshest interrogation techniques, and their rhetorical justifications, were pioneered:

[W]e can say very little with precision or confidence about that prison facility or even the exact number of prisoners there. […] A federal judge recently asked for “the number of detainees held at Bagram Air Base; the number of Bagram detainees who were captured outside Afghanistan; and the number of Bagram detainees who are Afghan citizens,” but the information the Obama administration offered the court in response remains classified and redacted from the public record.

We don’t even know the exact size of the prison or much about the conditions there, although they have been described as more Spartan and far cruder than Guantánamo’s in its worst days. […] A confidential Red Cross report from 2008 supposedly highlighted overcrowding, the use of extreme isolation as a punishment technique, and various violations of the Geneva Convention.

[…] There are no figures available on how long most of Bagram’s prisoners have been held — although some, it seems, have been imprisoned without charges or recourse for years — or how legal processes are being applied there, if at all. Last spring, the International Herald Tribune reported that Afghans from Bagram were sometimes tried in Afghan criminal proceedings where little evidence and no witnesses were presented.

Most ordinary people who support the military intervention in Afghanistan do so less out of Cheneyesque infatuation with the Dark Side and more from an amorphous hope that extra Westerners will fix everything up.

But overwhelming military power coupled with a vague confidence in our benevolence doesn’t usually end up so well, as Graham Greene illustrated so well in his Vietnam novel The Quiet American. As epigram for that novel, he quoted Byron:

This is the patent age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions.

As we wait upon the Rudd government’s response to the call for more Australian troops, it’s worth remembering that in Afghanistan, these new inventions are already being prepared, somewhere within the cells of an expanded Bagram air base.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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