Defying U.S. Plan, Prison Expands in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — As the Bush administration struggles for a way to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a similar effort to scale down a larger and more secretive American detention center in Afghanistan has been troubled by political, legal and security problems, officials say.

The American detention center, established at the Bagram military base as a temporary screening site after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, is now teeming with some 630 prisoners — more than twice the 275 being held at Guantánamo.

The administration has spent nearly three years and more than $30 million on a plan to transfer Afghan prisoners held by the United States to a refurbished high-security detention center run by the Afghan military outside Kabul.

But almost a year after the Afghan detention center opened, American officials say it can hold only about half the prisoners they once planned to put there. As a result, the makeshift American site at Bagram will probably continue to operate with hundreds of detainees for the foreseeable future, the officials said.

Meanwhile, the treatment of some prisoners on the Bagram base has prompted a strong complaint to the Pentagon from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only outside group allowed in the detention center.

In a confidential memorandum last summer, the Red Cross said dozens of prisoners had been held incommunicado for weeks or even months in a previously undisclosed warren of isolation cells at Bagram, two American officials said. The Red Cross said the prisoners were kept from its inspectors and sometimes subjected to cruel treatment in violation of the Geneva Conventions, one of the officials said.

The senior Pentagon official for detention policy, Sandra L. Hodgkinson, would not discuss the complaint, citing the confidentiality of communications with the Red Cross. She said that the organization had access to “all Department of Defense detainees” in Afghanistan, after they were formally registered, and that the military “makes every effort to register detainees as soon as practicable after capture, normally within two weeks.

“In some cases, due to a variety of logistical and operational circumstances, it may take longer,” Ms. Hodgkinson added.

The obstacles American officials have faced in their plan to “transition out” of the Bagram detention center underscore the complexity of their challenges in dealing with prisoners overseas. Yet even as Bagram has expanded over the last three years, it has received a fraction of the attention that policy makers, Congress and human rights groups have devoted to Guantánamo.

“The problem at Bagram hasn’t gone away,” said Tina M. Foster, a New York human rights lawyer who has filed federal lawsuits on behalf of the detainees at Bagram. “The government has just done a better job of keeping it secret.”

The rising number of detainees at Bagram — up from barely 100 in early 2004 and about 500 early last year — has been driven primarily by the deepening war in Afghanistan. American officials said that all but about 30 of those prisoners are Afghans, most of them Taliban fighters captured in raids or on the battlefield.

But the surging detainee population also reflects a series of unforeseen problems in the United States’ effort to turn over prisoners to the Afghan government.

In a confidential diplomatic agreement in August 2005, a draft of which was obtained by The New York Times, the Bush administration said it would transfer the detainees if the Kabul government gave written assurances that it would treat the detainees humanely and abide by elaborate security conditions. As part of the accord, the United States said it would finance the rebuilding of an Afghan prison block and help equip and train an Afghan guard force.

Yet even before the construction began in early 2006, the creation of the new Afghan National Detention Center was complicated by turf battles among Afghan government ministries, some of which resisted the American strategy, officials of both countries said.

A push by some Defense Department officials to have Kabul authorize the indefinite military detention of “enemy combatants” — adopting a legal framework like that of Guantánamo — foundered in 2006 when aides to President Hamid Karzai persuaded him not to sign a decree that had been written with American help.

Then, last May, the transfer plan was disrupted again when the two American servicemen overseeing the project were shot to death by a man suspected of being a Taliban militant who had infiltrated the guard force.

The Pentagon initially reported only that the two Americans, Col. James W. Harrison Jr. and Master Sgt. Wilberto Sabalu Jr., were killed May 6 by “small-arms fire.” But American officials said the Afghan guard had opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle as two vehicles carrying senior officers waited to pass through the prison gate. The killings forced more than a month of further vetting of the Afghan guards and the dismissal of almost two dozen trained recruits, Pentagon officials said.

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