Afghan Prison Blues

Abdul Bari is looking forward to springtime, when fighting will resume in eastern Afghanistan's Ghazni province. The Taliban field officer is in line for a possible promotion to succeed his commander, Mullah Momin Ahmed, who was killed in action late last year. Until the snows melt, though, Bari is quietly enjoying his freedom. "Thank God and my cousin," Bari told NEWSWEEK last week at his winter quarters on the Pakistani border. "Without them I'd be dead or spending many years in prison."

Bari was arrested on terrorism charges a little more than a year ago, when police caught him visiting relatives in Kabul. He ditched his mobile phone—filled with Taliban contacts—by passing it to his cousin, a woman in her 20s, but the cops seized a notebook containing his scribbled will. That evening the city's deputy police chief paraded Bari in handcuffs on television and called him the leader of a squad of suicide bombers that had infiltrated the capital. "Not true!" Bari shouted. But the officer had "proof" that Bari was on a suicide mission: the will in the notebook. The next day Bari was handed over to the government's draconian National Directorate of Security.

Bari was facing a decade or more in prison—if he survived. The NDS, controlled by a powerful and nearly untouchable political clique from the Panjshir Valley, runs its own secret court system. Canadian forces in Afghanistan stopped transferring captured Taliban to the directorate three months ago, because of allegations of NDS torture and corruption. But Bari's cousin acted quickly. By the third day, Bari says, she got in to visit him at the NDS lockup, bringing him food and paying off officers to stop beating and interrogating him. Instead of being hauled before a clandestine NDS court and sentenced, 52 days after his arrest Bari was back in the field with Taliban forces. The price, he says, was $1,100 in bribes to NDS officers. He also says the main topic of conversation among Taliban inmates was how payoffs were being arranged for their release.

Corrupt Afghan cops, judges and jailers are sabotaging the war effort in Afghanistan. While no official statistics are publicly available, hundreds of captured militants every year appear to be buying their way out of official custody. NDS spokesman Saeed Ansari denies that the directorate has ever taken payment for releasing prisoners. Nevertheless, sources in the U.S. and Afghan governments and inside the Taliban itself have told NEWSWEEK that in Afghanistan's detention system, freedom is always up for sale. "It's very true," says a U.S. counterterrorism official, declining to be named on such a sensitive issue. "It happens a lot, on a regular basis." The official rattles off the noms de guerre of fighters whose backdoor releases have caught the attention of U.S. authorities: " 'Red Eye' … 'Uncle' … 'Mullah Crazy' ... It's a continuing thing."

And it's everywhere. In southern Afghanistan, Western residents have remarked for years on the relative scarcity of Taliban detainees in local police holding cells, despite the hundreds of insurgents who are arrested there every year. In Ghazni province, Bari boasts that 60 to 70 percent of Taliban fighters detained by the local police are turned loose as soon as payoffs can take place. A senior government official in an- other eastern Afghan province, speaking anonymously because the topic is so sensitive, says Kabul's jails don't seem much better at keeping dangerous men locked up. His forces have captured "a significant number" of Taliban and sent them with "strong evidence" to Kabul. He expected them to be in jail a long time, he says, but thanks to crooked cops and the corrupt judicial apparatus, many detainees have already returned to the insurgents' ranks in his province. "It's a serious issue," he says, adding that the whole system urgently needs a cleanup.

Bari and other Taliban sources say their group has a network of agents across eastern and southern Afghanistan whose job it is to buy freedom for captured insurgents. The size of the bribe—from a few hundred dollars to more than $10,000—depends on various factors: how important the detainee is, what his mission was and what type of weapons he was carrying. The price and the complications rise exponentially with every transfer of a detainee up the official chain of command. If struck by a twinge of conscience, notoriously underpaid local members of the Afghan National Police can tell themselves that if they don't accept a payoff, someone higher on the ladder will. Too often, they're right.

Quick money is hard to resist in a land where the average person lives on a few hundred dollars a year. Taliban fighters Mullah Obeid and Mullah Hasinullah say they were arrested in different Ghazni districts late last year and taken to the provincial capital's police headquarters at the same time. The cops let them phone their relatives on one condition: that they urge their kin to raise cash and bring it as fast as possible. Hasinullah was out in two days, and Obeid in four. The cost was $3,000 for the pair, along with the weapons they had been carrying and the motorbikes they were riding when they were arrested.

Their families might have been spared the expense if the cops had been a little more patient. According to Mulvi Assad Khan, a Taliban intelligence agent in Ghazni who spent four years in an NDS prison—a governor was determined to keep him in jail —the Taliban's bribery fund for the four southern provinces alone amounts to $500,000. (The sum is uncheckable and may be an exaggeration.) Besides giving cash to police and NDS officers for the release of prisoners, the network also reimburses the detainees' families—in part or sometimes fully—for bribes the relatives have paid. Assad Khan says the Taliban agents know the right people to contact in the police and NDS, and crooked law enforcers also know the routine, often sending a message to the Taliban when they have a valuable militant in custody.

Even the Taliban sometimes marvel at the coziness of their dealings with law enforcers. Mullah Jumah Khan, a red-bearded, black-turbaned insurgent leader in his 30s, says he and five of his men were arrested in the summer of 2006 during a botched ambush in Helmand province. After confiscating their weapons, land mines and remote-control detonators, the cops took them to the district police station, allowing them to inform their families. When tribal elders arrived the next morning, Jumah Khan says an officer agreed to help them if the prisoners promised to quit the insurgency—a routine but meaningless stipulation—and put up a large-enough sum of cash. They said yes.

To seal the deal, the cops, the prisoners and the elders all drove to police headquarters in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. Jumah Khan and his men were held not in a cell but in a separate room, where they were fed and treated well while the price of their freedom was negotiated. After much haggling, the cops and the elders settled on a payment of $10,000 for the six men, Jumah Khan says. The police kept the elders' two pickup trucks as collateral until they got the money, but within days the six were free. "It's funny," says Jumah Khan. "We kill each other on the battlefield, but once a mujahedin is arrested, the police become friendly for a price." He's still leading missions for the Taliban in Helmand.

All the same, the shameless venality of some Afghan cops is too much to stomach even for former detainees like Jumah Khan. Villagers in the south complain that innocent civilians are often detained along with Taliban suspects just for the bribes. Jumah Khan speaks of one notoriously corrupt district police official in Helmand province who openly brags of making at least 20 arrests a day, picking up anyone he wants, Taliban or not. The crooked cop's standard price for freedom is $1,000 a head, according to Jumah Khan, who says the theory is that anyone in the district can afford that much because Helmand is flooded with narcodollars. Nearly half the world's annual opium harvest originates in that one province.

Many Afghan cops stay clean despite the filth among them. That's one reason some unlucky prisoners go all the way to the NDS. When that happens, buying their freedom becomes a longer, more complicated process—but it can be done, according to Taliban fighters. Black-bearded Hazrat Mohammad, 38, a former NDS prisoner, told his story to NEWSWEEK as he crouched over a gas heater, huddled in a heavy jacket at his mud-brick house on the Pakistani frontier. In late 2006, senior Taliban officers sent him to establish a foothold in the far northern Afghan city of Sheberghan. Police in the predominantly Uzbek town soon quickly spotted the Pashtun newcomers and arrested Khan along with his three fighters, transferring them to the NDS provincial office in the main city of Mazar-e Sharif. Mohammad's captors warned him that unless his relatives bought his release in a hurry, he could go to jail for years on terrorism charges.

A brother managed to get there in two days, but NDS officers said he was too late. They could no longer just let Mohammad go, they said, because Afghan radio had publicly reported his arrest. Mohammad says they tortured and interrogated him for two weeks before shipping him to NDS headquarters in Kabul. Eventually Mohammad's brother was able to strike a ransom deal: he would deposit $8,000 with a Kabul money-changer, who would release the cash to NDS officers once their prisoner was free. Two months later Mohammad walked out of the NDS detention center and phoned the money-changer, telling him the NDS men could have their $8,000. So far the Taliban's agents have repaid the family for half that amount.

Mohammad is only happy he didn't end up in American hands. Once a prisoner reaches a U.S.-run detention center, there's little hope of a getaway. One rare exception was the escape of Al Qaeda's No. 3 man, the Libyan known as Abu Yahya al-Libi, who broke out of the high-security U.S. lockup at Baghram air base with three other Qaeda prisoners in 2005. No Americans appear to have been involved in the plot, but U.S. government investigators think corrupt Afghan guards may have assisted in the jailbreak. Several former detainees told NEWSWEEK that Afghan police and NDS officers had threatened to turn them over to U.S. forces, largely as a way of extracting bigger bribes and speeding up the payments. Capture by the Afghan National Army is feared for similar reasons; the ANA works closely with U.S. forces and is carefully monitored by them, making bribery difficult.

Former detainees who talked to NEWSWEEK for this story were reluctant at first to discuss their experiences. They worried that exposing the extent of the corruption might draw the authorities' attention, making it tougher for other captured insurgents to bribe their way to freedom. That risk doesn't seem to bother some alumni of the revolving-door jails. An example is Taliban commander Mullah Sorkh Naqaibullah—also known as the Red Mullah—who recently gloated to the BBC that he had just bought his way out of an NDS jail in Kabul. The price, he said, was $15,000. He said it was the third time since 2004 that crooked law enforcers had set him free in exchange for cash. Now he's back home in Helmand province, once again leading a band of insurgents. The Taliban owe an incalculable debt to crooked cops. They would never have gained power the first time without the public's overwhelming disgust at the pre-Taliban regime's rampant corruption and abuses of power. The insurgents' greatest wish is that it might happen again.