To members of the CIA, it was known as “The Salt Pit”. For those that were shackled and beaten there, it was simply “The Dark Prison.” In actuality it was an abandoned brick factory north of Kabul that had been commandeered by intelligence officials and repurposed into one of a series of “black site prisons” where the CIA would torture supposed enemies of the state with impunity and without inquiry. In October of 2002, CIA operatives raided a house in Islamabad and abducted two suspected leaders of an insurgent Afghani tribal group that was though to have ties to Al Qaeda. The men were transferred from Islamabad to The Salt Pit, where they were held, interrogated and tortured. One of the men, a physician named Ghairat Baheer who was the son-in-law of an anti-American tribal warlord, would be detained for over six years without ever having a formal charge leveled against him. For the majority of that time, Baheer was kept in chains and bombarded with music so loud that the guards wore protective headgear. He told a German news agency after his release in 2008 that the prisoners were improperly nourished and that he had lost almost 90 pounds in captivity. The man who Baheer was captured alongside in Islamabad would not be so fortunate. Less that a month after reaching The Salt Pit, Gul Rahman would be dead.
In their testimony, CIA operatives described Rahman as being a very uncooperative prisoner during his brief time in The Salt Pit. He allegedly threatened to kill his guards (a fairly hollow threat seeing as how Rahman was chained up and surrounded by armed military personnel) and threw his toilet bucket at his captors. To punish his disobedience, they stripped Rahman naked from the waist down, shackled his hands above his head, and doused him with cold water before leaving him to hang for a little while in his windowless cell. The temperature in his cell dropped to 36 degrees Fahrenheit in the night and when the guards returned to continue interrogating him they found Rahman had died of what a CIA medic would confirm was hypothermia.
Rahman’s was one of two cases of torture that, as of this week, were still being investigated by the US Justice Department. The other instance involved the death of Iraqi detainee Mandel al-Jamani at Abu Ghraib Prison in 2003. Al-Jamandi only lasted 5 ½ hours in detention before he was found dead as the result of, “blunt force trauma to the torso complicated by compromised respiration.”1 US military officials broke 5 of his ribs during an interrogation technique where intense pressure is put on pressure points in the detainee’s chest and he is thought to have asphyxiated when his hands were shackled directly behind his back to some window bars in his cell, restricting airflow to his already damaged lungs. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department announced this week that these final two cases of torture from the Bush years in Iraq and Afghanistan would not result in any criminal trials.
Immediately after he was sworn in, President Obama banned the use of coercive interrogation tactics that had been introduced during his predecessor’s administration and shut down all of the remaining CIA black site prisons. What the President did not do was acknowledge the gross miscarriages of justice that had taken place in those prisons. While he decried the abusive torture used by intelligence officials under Bush when he was on the campaign trail in 2008, Obama had a change of heart after winning The White House. Later on in his first month in office, the president said that he would rather, “look forward as opposed to looking backwards,”2 signaling his reluctance to acknowledge any misdeeds that occurred prior to his watch. Attorney General Holder did assign organized-crime prosecutor John Durham to investigate over 100 cases of potential torture and abuse, but it was an inquiry that was cut off at the knees from the start. In question was not the legality or humanity of the coercive interrogation tactics used on detainees, but whether or not individual interrogators used tactics that exceeded the legal parameters established by the Bush Justice Department. Put another way, Holder wasn’t examining whether techniques like waterboarding and prolonged sleep deprivation were potentially criminal—he was just looking to see if anyone used these techniques more than Dick Cheney said was kosher.
Given our failure to provide anything like justice for the communities of the men we have tortured over the past decade, it should not come as a shock that front pages across the world today are reporting on the ceasing of US militia training in Afghanistan after a rash of friendly fire or “green on blue attacks” between Afghan security forces and coalition troops. We may have left Iraq, but we are increasing our presence in Afghanistan and after 11 years we have most certainly worn out what little welcome we had to begin with. Combine that with President Obama’s deep and abiding love of drone strikes and you have a population ripe for revolt and violence. We may have painted a narrative of ourselves as the “great liberators” of the region, but make no mistake: they despise us. How would you feel about a people who turn your country into a war-zone for over a decade, put a corrupt puppet plutocrat in charge of your country and periodically send missiles crashing into your towns without so much as a by your leave?
In this country we often demonize terrorists as a threat represented from without. Ask 100 Americans to describe a “terrorist” for a sketch artist and I guarantee 99 out of 100 will end up with someone who looks like Osama Bin Laden instead of James Holmes or Timothy Mcveigh. It’s a natural impulse to point the finger away from one’s self when confronted with the possibility of wrongdoing, but—for a moment—I want you to imagine that we were the country bring occupied and the Afghanis and Iraqis were our fearless champions. Imagine a world where every morning you wake up with the knowledge that an IED or drone missile could kill you on your way to work. Try to feel what it would be like to pass men in military fatigues on the street and know that they could break into your house whenever they pleased and take you away from your family until they decided they were done with you. How would you react if you found out that your husband or brother had died freezing and naked in a concrete cell with his hands shackled to the ceiling and his body covered in bruises? That is the world that millions of Iraqis and Afghanis live in, in large part due to the failure of our courts to charge the men and women of our armed forces, intelligence community and government who blatantly ignore the Geneva Convention. Yet, no one is being held responsible, from the guards who administered the torture to the officers who ordered it and the government officials who first instituted it. Instead, we choose to just forget. The only problem is that we can’t make the Arab world forget with us.