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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

By Ernesto Londono and Joshua Partlow
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.

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.

There is a growing recognition among Afghan officials that "this is something they've got to take seriously," the official said.

Asked about American concerns, Lt. Cmdr. Christina Skacan, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-run detention task force, said in an e-mail: "We are working together to prevent prisons and detention centers from becoming places of radicalization.''

The focus on the issue nearly 10 years into the U.S.-led war reflects growing concern over weaknesses in Afghanistan's rule-of-law sector, at a time when U.S. planners had hoped to wind down their detention system.

Pol-e-Charki houses insurgent leaders as well as prisoners serving time on convictions for drug crimes and violent offenses. It is home to about one in four prisoners held in Afghan government custody.

A deadly attack three years ago on the luxury Serena Hotel in Kabul was allegedly planned from within the prison. The state of the Afghan government's justice and corrections system - illustrated most starkly by Pol-e-Charki - is eroding battlefield gains, the country's former intelligence chief said in a recent interview.

Some prisoners appointed to teach at the prison's school have used the posts to sow resentment and anger toward the government, which inmates blame for doing little to fix a justice system notorious for corruption, political meddling and arbitrary judgments.

"Everyone in the government is busy filling their pockets," said inmate Mawlawi Najibullah, 38, of Kunduz province, who was taken into custody by Afghans two years ago for involvement in the Taliban and is now a teacher at the prison. "People aren't happy with them. What we're hearing from the people is that they support the Taliban."

A growing number of inmates who had no ties to the group, or were opposed to it before the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, also say they have come to see it as the only viable opposition to a deeply unpopular government.

Haji Zalmai, 47, of Kapisa province is one example. The former police commander, who is serving time for planning an attack on President Hamid Karzai's inauguration in 2009, said he despised the Taliban movement while the group was in power.

Now, he says, he sees it as the only hope to expel the international coalition that installed and protects Karzai.

"This government is a stupid, corrupt government," he said in a recent interview. "This government can't represent the Afghan people. They were all involved in the genocide of the past 30 years," he added, referring to Afghanistan's civil war and other periods of turmoil and bloodshed.

Contraband problem

Prison officials and inmates say that cellphones, drugs and other contraband are smuggled into the facility regularly, allowing detained insurgent commanders to remain active within their organizations. Cellphones can be bought for $110, in some cases from prison guards who later confiscate them, inmates said.

News of big attacks on foreign troops or the Afghan government spreads quickly through the facility via text messages and radio broadcasts, and the attacks are widely celebrated, inmates say.

"We become as happy as though we had just been released," said Jabar, who is serving a 23-year sentence for kidnapping.

The prison's chief, Brig. Gen. Abdul Baqi Behsudi, proudly displayed the trove of confiscated contraband he keeps behind a glass panel in his office.

It includes bags of heroin and hashish, makeshift knives and dozens of cellphones. Still, he conceded, contraband is a chronic problem, in part because the metal detector at the facility is broken.

"We don't have a good mechanism to check those who are visiting," he said. "We do everything by hand."

Zabihullah Mujaheed, a Taliban spokesman, said in a phone interview that many of the men picked up recently in NATO raids in southern Afghanistan were framed by local enemies.

"Most of them are innocent people and have been imprisoned for years without clear reasons," he said.

As the group seeks to continue expanding its influence around the country, Mujaheed said, Taliban commanders have come to see prisons as valuable recruitment centers.

"We are hopeful the day will soon come when all the prisoners get out," he said.

partlowj@washpost.com

Special correspondent Enayat Najafizada contributed to this report.

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