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Torture common in Afghanistan, UN report finds. Can NATO trust local forces?

Half of all detainees in Afghan intelligence service custody have been tortured, according to a new United Nations report that raises grave concerns about the Afghan security force personnel that the United States and its NATO partners are meant to be training and supervising.

In a nearly year-long investigation that concluded in August, UN officials uncovered “compelling evidence” of systematic detainee abuse, including electric shock, beatings with rubber hoses, and the forced removal of toenails.

Children under the age of 18 were also found to have been tortured, according to the report’s executive summary.

The investigation raises questions about the readiness of Afghan forces to take over security responsibility and amplifies fears that the torture could further fuel the insurgency. However NATO officials are unsure how to address the problem.

Detainees described being suspended from the ceiling with chains around their wrists, as well as “beatings, especially with rubber hoses, electric cables or wires or wooden sticks and most frequently on the soles of the feet.”

The descriptions of abuse are at times gruesome, including the “twisting and wrenching” of body parts, mutilation, and “threatened sexual abuse.”

Beginning in October 2010, UN officials interviewed 379 detainees at 47 detention centers across Afghanistan. Of the 273 detainees held in custody by officials of the Afghan intelligence service, known as the National Directorate of Security, 125, or 46 percent, reported being tortured.

Of those held in Afghan national police custody, one third “experienced treatment that amounted to torture or to other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment,” according to the report.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which sent out the investigators, also reported one death of a detainee in Afghan national police custody in Kandahar during the time period of the investigation.

The report downplayed the possibility that detainees lied about their treatment.

The pattern of abuse uncovered among detainees in different regions of the country who have never spoken with one another “is inconsistent” with detainees who might have been “trained before their detention in what lies to tell about their treatment if detained,” investigators said, adding that the stories were specific, and also unique to individual detention centers and personnel.

The torture was most often used to elicit confessions, according to the report, and ended once the confession was made.

Senior NATO officials have long worried about Afghan treatment of detainees captured by US and other coalition forces, and for that reason often refuse to hand them over to Afghan security forces.

“We know this goes on,” says one senior NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Now what do we do about it?”

US officials have stepped up the pace of training Afghan security forces, to prepare them to take responsibility for security in 2014, when many US forces are expected to leave Afghanistan.

The report raises devastating questions about Afghan security force readiness, according to the senior NATO official.

Though the Afghan government explicitly condemns torture, the investigation noted a considerable lack of accountability. Any prosecution for those who have been discovered engaging in torture is “weak, not transparent, and rarely enforced,” according to the report.

Senior Afghan intelligence officials told UN investigators that in recent years, only two claims of torture have ever been investigated, “neither of which,” the report noted, “led to charges being pursued against the accused.”

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