New Prison at Bagram Points to Shift in Approach

PHOTO A communal cell with prayer rugs, caps and sleeping mats at the detention facility at Parwan, Afghanistan, is shown, Nov. 15, 2009.ABC News
A communal cell with prayer rugs, caps and sleeping mats at the detention facility at Parwan, Afghanistan, is shown, Nov. 15, 2009.

The U.S. military is starting over in Afghanistan. "It's a new world -- a new war," one senior officer told ABC News, yelling over the sound of jet engines and helicopter rotors.

There's no better example than the prison at Bagram, once a secret facility that housed the most hard-core al Qaeda fighters. Over the past eight years, a veil of mystery nurtured its reputation. It grew from a stifling series of steel shipping containers to a place of sophisticated torture.

The old Bagram will soon close and a new detention facility will open, on the same base, in the next few weeks. Bagram is a huge air base and military complex next to a village named Bagram.

Whatever the new "Detention Facility at Parwan" becomes, it isn't a secret. Today the U.S. military loaded a Chinook helicopter with more than a dozen international journalists and spent hours going through the new facility. Senior officers, including a general and a half-dozen colonels, were available to ask a host of questions.

"You are here," said Gen. Mark Martins, "because transparency certainly benefits the effort."

The facility includes two farms, seven classrooms, a medical facility and a technical school. Prisoners will be assigned "personal representatives" -- military advocates who have orders to defend every detainee.

Capt. Andrea Saglimbene, a military lawyer in charge of helping detainees, admitted, "Things may not have been done as well in the past" but, she says, "I am proud to be part of this process."

There are "behavior science" consulting teams to watch the interaction of the guards and the detainees at the facility. Inmates can play soccer, basketball and volleyball.

If there appears to be behavior that shows stress or the beginnings of behavior that could be considered unprofessional, then these observers would report or recommend measures to prevent escalation to abusive acts. It's a measure of over sight that was, until recently, not available at Bagram.

It is also part of what is frequently referred to as the new war. It fits "the strategic objectives of counter-insurgency strategy," says Gen. Martins, and prevents "the detention system from effectively strengthening the insurgency."

It is not a country club prison. The U.S. military does not release the names of the inmates that have been held there, but some hard core al Qaeda were interned there for a period of time. Bagram and Guantanamo were the prisons of choice for the worst of the worst.

The facility will hold 675 inmates with a maximum of 1,100. A series of communal cells will hold at least 16 detainees and more than 100 single cells. Presently, most inmates share communal cells.

The most important change, according to the general, are the single cells that allow officials to segregate the hard core from those who can be "reintegrated."

Ultimate Goal Is to Turn Over Prison to Aghanistan Government

The prison, the new system and the efforts to publicize are a very public acknowledgement that past abuses, whether real or perceived, fueled resentment and have been used by the enemy, both Taliban and al Qaeda, as a recruitment tool.

It is also a public embrace of the "strategic objectives" of the new war.

According to Gen. Martins, one is to "separate those who are violent extremists from those who can be reconciled." The other is to protect those "who wish merely to seek to live in peace."

The goal is to eventually turn over the facility to the government of Afghanistan. The timing might well depend on the success, or failure, of the new war.