By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010; A08
KHOST, AFGHANISTAN -- They had spent up to two years in U.S. detention, and now freedom was theirs for the price of a thumbprint. Seven Afghan men, each accused of ties to insurgents, would be allowed to simply walk away if they would pledge before their village elders -- and on pieces of parchment prepared for the occasion -- that they would stay out of trouble.
All seven quickly left their mark on the documents. But had they truly reformed? One of them, asked to forswear violence before a crowd of Afghan elders and U.S. officers at a release ceremony in this eastern town, seemed to dodge the question.
"I am a Muslim, and I would never do anything against Islam," said the ex-detainee, a bearded 26-year-old named Yusouf.
The release, which included shiny new cellphones given as parting gifts, was another in a series of high-stakes experiments to find out whether the insurgency in Afghanistan can be broken by reintegrating former combatants into their communities, rather than holding them indefinitely.
In recent months, U.S.-run detention camps -- hated by many Afghans as symbols of occupation -- have undergone a transformation aimed at putting the more pliable detainees on a path toward reentering Afghan society. The main internment center at Bagram air base was closed late last year and replaced with a facility that features inmate gardening plots, a playground for visiting children and classrooms for teaching reading and math as well as trade skills.
Detainees deemed ready to be weaned from the insurgency are flown home for a formal release ceremony in which local officials and relatives accept responsibility for keeping them straight.
The new approach has its critics. Some current and former officers involved in Afghan detentions say they fear that many of the former detainees will quickly return to their old ways, even if only because the Taliban's pay is better. But of the scores of detainees released, only a fraction have been rearrested, U.S. officials say.
U.S. and NATO officials say they think the new strategy is the right one, despite the obvious risks. Before it closed, the detention camp at Bagram was a frequent target for criticism because of overcrowding and because -- according to some American commanders in Afghanistan -- it had become a breeding ground for extremism. Military officials acknowledged in interviews that reports of abuses at U.S. detention camps also had provided the Taliban with a powerful recruiting tool.
"You can't kill or detain your way out of an insurgency," said Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, deputy commander of Joint Task Force 435, which was created last fall to oversee U.S. detainment operations in Afghanistan. "For us, reintegration is the new center of gravity."New facility, approach
Until late last year, most suspected insurgents captured in Afghanistan were housed in a converted hangar known as the Bagram Theater Internment Facility, on the grounds of one of the largest U.S. air bases in the country.
Bagram, home to more than 600 detainees, had been tarnished by repeated allegations of abuse, including accounts of fatal beatings of two Afghan men in 2002. In recent years, American commanders had begun to question whether U.S. policies at Bagram were feeding the insurgency, rather than weakening it.
It was partly at the direction of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, now the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, that Bagram was ordered closed and another facility, known as Parwan, built at the edge of the airfield a few hundred yards away. Parwan can hold up to 1,000 inmates, and although it also has interrogation cells, guard towers and razor-wire fencing, it differs starkly from its predecessor.
A detainee review board assesses each inmate to determine whether he belongs there. Detainees alleged to have committed crimes are transferred to Afghan criminal courts, while a small minority of hardened terrorists -- perhaps 40 out of a population of 800 -- are kept indefinitely in the facility's maximum-security wing. But most of Parwan's population -- typically poor, illiterate young men who were drawn to the Taliban for financial, rather than ideological, reasons -- are placed on a track aimed toward release.
"Some of them are what we call 'accidental guerrillas,' " said Vice Adm. Robert S. Harward, a blunt-spoken former Navy SEAL who commands Joint Task Force 435 and flew to Khost with the seven detainees for the release ceremony.
Detainees are given a first crack at the review board within 60 days of their arrival at Parwan, and their cases come up for periodic six-month reviews. The hearings are public events, and detainees are allowed to review evidence against them and to call on outside witnesses.
But Parwan offers more than a chance for freedom. More than any previous detention camp, the facility doubles as a trade school, offering detainees a chance to learn skills that could help them build a future and break their dependency on the Taliban. Detainees can learn to read and write, or study the Koran under the guidance of moderate mullahs, or master technical skills such as farm management, carpet-weaving and calligraphy. Detainees who take up tailoring lessons are given sewing machines to take with them after their release.
"We want these guys to have skills," Harward said.Graduation day
By design, the release of a former inmate is packaged as a community event, sometimes witnessed by as many as 100 relatives and neighbors.
The release of the seven detainees drew about 60 people to a heavily fortified U.S. base on a hilltop overlooking Khost, near the Pakistani border. To arrive here, the men had to endure a plane ride -- the first for most of them -- in a windowless Air Force C-130. For 40 minutes, they gripped the sides of their mesh seats as the turboprop bucked and plunged over eastern Afghanistan until the sturdiest of them was airsick.
Hours later, shaky after the morning's bumpy flight, the detainees were led without handcuffs into a large conference room for the ceremony. Each wore a turban, black dress shoes and a gray salwar-kameez, the traditional suit worn by Afghans. Parwan officials had supplied the clothes, along with a care package of food, water and a first-aid kit.
By turns, the men put their thumbprints on a certificate in which they pledged to no longer take up arms against Afghan or coalition forces. Then they stood uncomfortably as a long line of Khost officials, relatives and neighbors filed into the room to give speeches and snack on grapes, bananas and vanilla cake, also supplied by the Americans.
A mullah offered a prayer, and the former detainees were embraced by each of the dozen or so bearded elders who were members of a reconciliation council or "shura" that would serve as guarantor against their return to violence.
The former detainees said little about their plans. One of them, Habibullah, 30, who had been detained for four months, reckoned he would reclaim his old job as a livestock vaccinator.
Yusouf, the man who had hedged when asked whether he would renounce violence, said he would try to find a shopkeeper's job, but he lamented that jobs in Khost were scarce.
Would he honor his pledge to stop fighting? Yusouf glared at his questioner with obvious irritation.
"Why not?" he finally said.