Pentagon wants overhaul of Afghan jails

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Audio Transcript:

A new Pentagon report calls for a major overhaul of the prison system in Afghanistan. Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with New York Times correspondent Eric Schmitt about concerns that Afghan jails are churning out a new generation of Taliban militants, even as the US is trying to combat fighters already on the ground.

LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World.

This month is already the deadliest on record for US troops in Afghanistan. Today four more US soldiers died there. They were killed by a roadside bomb. The number of American fatalities in Afghanistan in July is now at least 27. The mounting death toll is just one sign of the continued strength of the Taliban insurgency. Here's another:

A review by the Pentagon has found that Afghanistan's jail and judicial systems are churning out new Taliban recruits. New York Times correspondent, Eric Schmitt, writes about this in today's newspaper. He says the US run jail at the Bagram air base north of Kabul has become an 'ominous symbol' for Afghans.

ERIC SCHMITT: Nobody has ever been allowed inside Bagram. They have never allowed any journalist or any lawyers. It is a secret facility inside. I have seen it from the outside. No pictures of the inside have ever been released. They are worried that if anybody ever did get inside and take a look. I have heard about from people who have been inside and it is pretty decrepit.

MULLINS: So Eric in the realm of what people know of Abu Ghraib really really bad, Guantanamo bad. Where does the prison of Bagram stand?

SCHMITT: Bagram was pretty bad also. Particularly in its early years in 2001 and 2002. These are the years when they were first capturing Al-Qaeda and Taliban here in Afghanistan and imprisoning them in a makeshift prison. It was a former Russian aircraft hangar that they put giant cages into and put the prisoners into those cells. In 2002, notoriously there were two Afghan inmates at Bagram prison who were subjected to harsh interrogation treatments and then hung by their arms and were later found dead. So it was two of the inmates who actually died in custody here. Conditions since then have improved quite a bit but it is still a very antiquated facility to say the least.

MULLINS: It is an antiquated facility that is being recommended for changes. What kind of changes?

SCHMITT: Yes, a military review has called for major changes in both the physical facility of the prison in Bagram and they are in the midst of building a brand new 40-acre replacement complex on the same airbase north of Kabul. But also in the way the prison operates. Up until now, most of the prisoners are mixed together. Both the hardcore militants and other types of prisoners. So you had a easy type of radicalization that went on in the American prison. At the same time you have Afghan run prisons with a much larger network of prisons and they suffer from the same problem.

MULLINS: Is the report able to draw a cause and affect line between bad prison conditions and high Taliban recruitment?

SCHMITT: It does. There is a concern that these prisons are just churning out new generations of militants even as the US is trying to combat those fighters that are already on the ground.

MULLINS: When the military comes out with a report like this, one wonders why given the US involvement in Afghanistan has been going on for 8 years now why this is only coming to light now. Why are the recommendations only being made now? When you hear about those who are denied due process. Those men, as you said, are held in large cages with extreme militants being held with petty offenders. Why are the recommendations only being made now for instance to separate the two.

SCHMITT: Well, I mean this is one of those things where you just don't have the resource in place. Clearly on the American side. This new prison has been being built now for the last year and so there were efforts made to go ahead and try to rehabilitate that and include moving to a new system. Physically they just didn't have the space to do a lot of these kind of changes.

On the Afghan side, there have been human rights organizations that have been advocating such changes, and the UN itself issued a report in January talking about the problems. It has just obviously taken some time for various governments and obviously the American military now to take a look at it themselves.

MULLINS: Eric tell us about this confidential message that you write about in the Times today. It was written by Admiral Mike Mullin, the share of joint chiefs of staff concerning what is happening on the ground and guarding the treatment of detainees.

SCHMITT: This is separate from the military review, but it happens to be coming out roughly about the same time. Admiral Mullin had seen copies of the photographs that were taken that documented some of abuses that the American military personnel conducted against detainees that have been inside detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan early years of those wars. Some of these photographs particularly those of Abu Gharid obviously were released a few years ago. President Obama has blocked the release of a new batch of these photos asserting that their release could harm American servicemen overseas. But Admiral Mullin of course has seen them. He said that he was appalled by them, and he has in his memorandum to the military service chiefs and his commanders around the world. He has urged them to take steps to ensure that in training troops that will be assigned to the middle east; that they redouble their efforts to make sure troops going into the region are trained properly in detainee treatments and that this is given a high-priority for troops. Not just those who are taking care of prisoners, but anybody who might end up taking custody even however briefly of prisoners.

MULLINS: Alright. Speaking to us from Islamabad, Eric Schmitt. A correspondent for The New York Times. Eric, thank you very much.

SCHMITT: You're welcome.