KABUL NATO has stopped sending prisoners to several Afghan jails because of U.N. warnings of torture, raising fresh questions about the capacity of Afghan security forces at a time when they are meant to be taking on greater responsibilities.
High desertion rates, widespread corruption, drug use and illiteracy are among the problems plaguing Afghanistan's army and police, despite billions of dollars the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is pouring into raising standards, and thousands of foreign mentors.
The new allegations of mistreatment come in a U.N. report, which names several detention centers around the country. It has not yet been released to the public but the findings have been shared with some Afghan and NATO officials.
"We have stopped the transfer of detainees to certain installations, as a precautionary measure," ISAF spokesman General Carsten Jacobson told a news conference in Kabul on Wednesday.
"We are aware that a U.N. report will come out and we will look into that report. We have not stopped the overall transfer of detainees, but to certain installations only."
Prisoner transfers in parts of NATO's southern regional command -- particularly the Taliban heartland, Kandahar -- had already been stopped in July, he said.
But the latest decision, made just "a few days" ago, added at least another 8 facilities to the list.
Run by police and intelligence services, they are scattered across the country including western Herat, eastern Khost and Kapisa and northern Kunduz and Takhar provinces, and also include Afghanistan's main counter-terrorism center.
A NATO official who asked not to be named said Afghan prisoners will still be transferred to Afghan detention, as the problem is not considered systemic, but the blacklisted facilities will be avoided until further notice.
The shut-down comes as the Afghan government prepares to announce the areas chosen for a second swathe of security transfers from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the Afghan army and police.
The whole country is set to be under the control of the national forces by 2014, with foreign combat troops back home.
The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for Afghanistan's police and thus for at least two police jails on the list, said it considered the torture allegations an attack on that transition.
"We consider these (allegations) unfounded excuses for not transferring the prisoners and prisons to the Afghans, and it will damage the process," Interior Minister Bismillah Mohammadi told a news conference in Kabul.
Rahmatullah Nabil, head of Afghanistan's intelligence service National Directorate of Security (NDS), which runs the majority of the jails where mistreatment has been reported, also rejected the report.
He said he had received over 600 reports from the United Nations and human rights groups that had visited Afghan prisons in recent months, none of which reported problems.
"When they visit the prisons and write reports, but then give a different report to the media, it raises questions," he told the joint news conference.
NOT A GOVERNMENT POLICY
Afghanistan's prisons were already well-known to be over-crowded and beset by a range of other problems, including inmate violence.
In April, hundreds of prisoners escaped from jail in Afghanistan's southern Taliban heartland, Kandahar, through a tunnel dug by the insurgent group.
Officials called the breakout a "disaster," and the scale of the operation fueled suspicions of collusion by guards.
The U.N. report is expected to be released within a few days, but a spokesman said the Afghan government was already looking into ways to improve conditions, and the mistreatment did not appear to be sanctioned by top levels of government.
"We understand that they are taking the findings extremely seriously and are proposing a series of remedial actions," said U.N. spokesman Dan McNorton.
"Our findings indicate that the mistreatment of detainees is not an institutional or government policy of the government of Afghanistan."
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa and Frederik Richter)