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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article about suspected insurgents detained at an Afghan prison misstated the capacity of another prison, the main U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan. This version has been corrected.

Afghan prison an insurgent breeding ground

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 6:08 PM

IN KABUL For six years, the Afghan government has held Abdul Jabar behind bars, separated from his father, a former Taliban judge, and his seven brothers, all Taliban fighters.

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Being locked up for kidnapping, however, has not dulled Jabar's love for the insurgents or hatred of the Afghan government. With so many Taliban supporters in Afghanistan's largest prison, Jabar feels right at home.

"All of the prisoners support the Taliban. I also support the Taliban," the 28-year-old said in a jailhouse interview inside Pol-e-Charki prison, on the outskirts of Kabul. "They will win the war in Afghanistan."

The problems at Pol-e-Charki, with its 5,000 prisoners, point to a weakness in the American approach to detention in Afghanistan. Among those housed in Pol-e-Charki are hundreds of suspected insurgents captured by the United States and transferred to Afghan authority because an American-run prison, with a capacity of 2,200, has long been filled to capacity.

Support for the Taliban is almost universal in Pol-e-Charki prison, the largest in Afghanistan, inmates said in interviews. Inmates and Afghan officials describe the prison as a breeding ground for the insurgency, with prisoners maintaining close and regular contact with comrades outside. Last week, Afghan intelligence officials said that a 45-year-old prisoner, Talib Jan, had orchestrated the deadly bombing of a Kabul grocery store from his prison cell.

American military officials say they want to keep in custody the inmates deemed most dangerous and those who are thought to possess valuable intelligence. To address the problem, the United States is nearing completion of a project that will increase to about 2,600 the number of beds at the American-run Parwan Detention Center, formerly known as Bagram prison.

But with U.S. Special Operations Forces capturing scores of prisoners each week in aggressive nighttime raids, the United States for now must choose between releasing many prisoners after a few hours and handing over others to Afghan authorities, despite what current and former Afghan officials say are real reasons for concern about the security and effectiveness of Pol-e-Charki.

Of the 3,000 people detained by the coalition between August and January, 32 percent were transferred to Afghan authorities for detention in facilities including Pol-e-Charki, and 4 percent went to the U.S.-run prison. More than half were released in the initial screening period.

"We are not de-Talibanizing them," Afghanistan's former intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, said in a recent interview about Pol-e-Charki. "We are further radicalizing them. We are giving them control of the prison."

U.S. officials acknowledged the problems at Pol-e-Charki but said the facility used to be worse. Earlier in the war, the prison had a wing "completely controlled" by the Taliban, where guards could not enter and left food at the door, said a U.S. official in Kabul who works on prison issues. Inside, the Taliban trained and ran a madrassa.

"There's been considerable improvement," the official said. "The facility has come a long way."

'Places of radicalization'

In August, the Justice Ministry's central prisons directorate began to regularly search prisoners for contraband and record their findings. As of Jan. 20, guards had collected 705 cellphones, as well as weapons and drugs, from Afghan prisons. U.S. officials have also helped pay for metal detectors and generators at Afghan prisons and pushed to classify prisoners by threat level to avoid lumping petty criminals in with hard-core insurgents.


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