by Andy Worthington
In the first of two articles, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, examines the system of unaccountable prisons run by the US military in Afghanistan, dissects some myths and lies about released detainees, and tells the stories of three of the Afghans just released from Guantánamo.
In the last week, while the media’s attention has focused on the release of two Sudanese humanitarian aid workers from Guantánamo, the 13 Afghans who were flown to Kabul at the same time have barely been mentioned. The reasons for this oversight are clear: firstly, because one of the Sudanese ex-detainees, Adel Hamad, a hospital administrator, had become something of a celebrity after his enterprising lawyers posted a video about his case on YouTube, which prompted a group of campaigners to establish a website devoted to his plight; and secondly, because Hamad and his compatriot, Salim Adem, were released on their return, and various reporters were able to meet them.
No such luxuries were reserved for the Afghans. Few of their stories are known at all, and on their return to Afghanistan they were promptly imprisoned in a wing of Pol-i-Charki, Kabul’s main prison, which was recently refurbished by the US authorities. The oversight is disturbing because, for the most part, the stories of the Afghans demonstrate colossal ineptitude on the part of the US military and Special Forces in Afghanistan, at least equivalent to the failures of intelligence that led to the capture of Adel Hamad and Salim Adem. In addition, the imprisonment of these men in a prison wing refurbished by the US authorities raises uncomfortable questions about the role of the US military in Afghanistan, over six years after the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.
Pol-i-Charki prison, Kabul.
Unaccountable US prisons in Afghanistan
Despite the official inauguration of Hamid Karzai as the President of post-Taliban Afghanistan – and the country’s first democratically elected leader – on December 7, 2004, the US military has continued to behave like an occupying power, holding hundreds of prisoners at Bagram airbase (formerly used to process detainees for Guantánamo), including foreigners as well as Afghans, and an unknown number of other prisoners in a variety of secret prisons and forward operating bases. Cut off from all outside scrutiny (except for representatives of the International Red Cross), these prisoners do not even have the limited legal representation available to the detainees in Guantánamo.
In March 2005, when journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark visited Afghanistan, they met Dr. Rafiullah Bidar, a regional director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which had recently been established – with funding from the US Congress – “to investigate abuses committed by local warlords and to ensure that women’s and children’s rights were protected.” Ironically, Bidar told the reporters that what his job actually entailed was registering complaints against the US military. “Many thousands of people have been rounded up and detained by them,” he said. “Those who have been freed say that they were held alongside foreign detainees who’ve been brought to this country to be processed. No one is charged. No one is identified. No international monitors are allowed into the US jails. People who have been arrested say they’ve been brutalized – the tactics used are beyond belief.” Speaking anonymously, a government minister also complained, “Washington holds Afghanistan up to the world as a nascent democracy and yet the US military has deliberately kept us down, using our country to host a prison system that seems to be administered arbitrarily, indiscriminately and without accountability.”
Nearly three years later, this situation has not changed. Lawyers at the US-based International Justice Network have filed a potentially ground-breaking habeas corpus claim on behalf of a detainee at Bagram, but the system as a whole – like that in Iraq, where at least 15,000 detainees are held without charge or trial – remains impervious to outside scrutiny.
Until April 2007, however, the detainees released from Guantánamo – 152 of the 220 held since the prison opened in January 2002 – sidestepped this unaccountable prison system and were released on their return to Afghanistan, but this has changed with the US-financed refurbishment of Pol-i-Charki, and it is not yet clear whether the 32 detainees returned since April 2007 have simply exchanged Guantánamo for an even less accountable form of indefinite detention without charge or trial.
Myths and lies: detainees who returned to the battlefield
It’s probable that the excuse for imprisoning the Afghans returned in the last eight months is the US military’s oft-repeated claim that dozens of released detainees have returned to the battlefield. If so, this would be grossly disingenuous. Not only are the figures disputed, with only six recognized by those who have studied the stories in any detail, but the US administration has also refused to acknowledge the shocking truth about its own responsibility for releasing these men.
The Taliban freed from Guantánamo include Abdullah Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban commander, released in March 2004, who killed himself with a hand grenade after being cornered by security forces in Pakistan in July 2007. Mehsud came to prominence in October 2004, after his men kidnapped two Chinese engineers working on a dam project in Waziristan, when he explained that, at the time of his capture in November 2001, he was carrying a false Afghan ID card, and that he had successfully maintained throughout his detention that he was an innocent Afghan tribesman.
Another was Mullah Shahzada, released in May 2003, who gave the Americans a false name and claimed that he was an innocent rug merchant. “He stuck to his story and was fairly calm about the whole thing,” a military intelligence official told the New York Times. “He maintained over a period of time that he was nothing but an innocent rug merchant who just got snatched up.” After his release, Shahzada seized control of Taliban operations in southern Afghanistan, recruiting fighters by “telling harrowing tales of his supposed ill-treatment in the cages of Guantánamo,” and masterminded a jailbreak in Kandahar in October 2003, in which he bribed the guards to allow 41 Taliban fighters to escape through a tunnel. His post-Guantánamo notoriety came to an end in May 2004, when he was killed in an ambush by US Special Forces.
While right-wing commentators seized on the release of Mehsud and Shahzada as evidence that no one should ever be released from Guantánamo, a rather different interpretation was offered by Gul Agha Sherzai, the post-Taliban governor of Kandahar, who pointed out that they would never have been freed if Afghan officials had been allowed to vet the Afghans in Guantánamo. “We know all these Taliban faces,” he said, adding that repeated requests for access to the Afghan prisoners had been turned down. Sherzai’s opinion was reinforced by security officials in Karzai’s government, who, off the record, blamed the US for the return of Taliban commanders to the battlefield, explaining that “neither the American military officials, nor the Kabul police, who briefly process the detainees when they are sent home, consult them about the detainees they free.”
Of the 13 Afghans released from Guantánamo last week, nine have been identified. The rest, like dozens of those released in the last 18 months, did not have lawyers (who are told when their clients have been released), and as a result even their identities are unknown. The Pentagon never reveals the names of the detainees it frees, and without representatives of the world’s media on the ground in Kabul, as they were for the first batches of released detainees in 2002 and 2003, these men remain as lost to the world as they were in Guantánamo.
Taliban conscript or Taliban commander?
The first of the nine to be captured, Abdul Rauf Aliza, remains something of an enigma to this day. Seized in November 2001 during the fall of Kunduz, the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan, he was held, with thousands of other men, in a filthy, overcrowded prison in Sheberghan run by General Rashid Dostum, one of the leaders of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and was then transferred to the US prison at Kandahar airbase with nine other Afghan prisoners.
One of the nine, Jan Mohammed, a baker from Helmand province who had been forcibly conscripted by the Taliban, was one of the first detainees to be released from Guantánamo in October 2002. After his release, he explained that the decision to transfer him to Kandahar came about because some of Dostum’s men “told US soldiers that he and nine others were senior Taliban officials.” “They came and took ten strong-looking people,” he told the journalist David Rohde. “Only one of those ten was a Talib.”
It’s probable that the solitary Taliban member transferred to Kandahar with Jan Mohammed was Abdul Rauf Aliza, who was identified by the US authorities as Mullah Abdul Rauf, a Taliban troop commander. Although Aliza claimed that he was conscripted by the Taliban, who said they would take his land if he refused, and insisted that he only worked for them as a cook, several released Afghans explained to the journalist Ashwin Raman that Mullah Abdul Rauf was one of three Taliban commanders in northern Afghanistan held in Guantánamo. They told Raman that he had not been so cautious with his identity while detained in Camp X-Ray, when he “repeatedly pleaded with the Americans to let many of the detainees free,” saying, “These are no Talibs, I am the real Talib.”
While this suggests that Abdul Rauf Aliza and Mullah Abdul Rauf are one and the same, it’s possible that the Taliban commander was hiding his true identity behind a false name, as was the case with Abdullah Mehsud and Mullah Shahzada. According to the Pentagon’s records. Aliza was only 20 years old when he was captured, which would have made him an extremely youthful troop commander, but the truth, as with so much of Guantánamo’s story, may never be uncovered.
“Number three in Taliban intel”
Two of the other released detainees were captured in December 2001. 26-year old Gholam Ruhani was seized with Abdul-Haq Wasiq, the Taliban’s deputy minister of intelligence, and one of the few senior Taliban figures captured by the Americans, in a potentially perilous Special Forces operation in Ghazni, south of Kabul. At the time, Ghazni was a Taliban stronghold, but when the Special Forces received a tip-off that a local warlord had arranged a meeting with Qari Amadullah, the Taliban’s minister of intelligence, in which, it was suggested, Amadullah might provide information that would lead to the capture of Osama bin Laden, their commander, Gary Berntsen approved the mission.
In the end, Amadullah did not turn up, and clearly had no intention of doing so. Safely ensconced in Pakistan, after escaping from Afghanistan, he spoke to a journalist in late December, interrupting the interview to take a phone call, and then declaring, “I am personally requested by Mullah Omar and Sheikh Osama to go to Uruzgan and take the command of new guerrilla war preparations, which will start as soon as possible, and you will hear the news in papers and on BBC.” Unsurprisingly, having effectively given US forces his itinerary as a result of this loose talk, he was killed in a US air strike a few days later. In the same interview, however, he also spoke about Abdul-Haq Wasiq. He said that Mullah Omar, who, he claimed, was living in a safe place in the mountains north of Kandahar, had asked him to visit, but he had been unable to do so, “because a lot of people know me, and I am frightened they will capture me somewhere on the road. So I sent my assistant Mullah Abdul-Haq Wasiq to Kandahar. Unfortunately he was captured by American agents in Ghazni.”
This suggests that Wasiq either made his own negotiations with the Americans in Ghazni, or was invited and then betrayed by the local warlord, because after the meeting he was duly arrested, along with Gholam Ruhani, by the Special Forces operatives, who duly declared that they were “the number two and three in Taliban intel.”
In Guantánamo, Wasiq, who is still imprisoned, has been coy about his role, claiming that he was forced to join the Taliban, and that he sometimes acted as the deputy minister of intelligence, but only to combat “thieves and bribes.” This did not convince his tribunal, who greeted him with the words, “Good afternoon, Mr. Minister. Seldom before have we had someone of such prestige and responsibility.” Ruhani, however, was adamant that he was not the “number three in Taliban intel.” He said that he was a Taliban conscript, who fulfilled his duties in a clerical capacity to avoid being sent to the front lines, and explained that he was asked to attend the meeting between the Taliban and the Americans because he had learned a little English while studying electronics manuals in a store run by his elderly father. “I turned over my pistol and ammunition to the American, as an act of faith, because it was a friendly meeting,” he said. “I expected to leave the meeting and return to my life, my shop and my family. Instead, I was arrested.”
The foot soldier
The second man, 22-year old Omar al-Kunduzi, was one of around 250 detainees captured by Pakistani forces after crossing the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001. Born in Afghanistan, he had been living in Saudi Arabia since the Soviet invasion, when he was just one year old, but returned to Afghanistan in September 2001. He told his lawyer that he wanted to fight in Chechnya (as did several other detainees from the Gulf countries), and added that Chechen representatives had told him to undertake military training in Afghanistan. He explained that he had trained at the al-Farouq camp (a camp for Arabs, established by the Afghan warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, but associated with al-Qaeda in the years before 9/11), but had a distaste for both the Taliban and al-Qaeda on religious grounds, insisting that both groups were responsible for killing Muslims, which he thought was wrong. This, too, was an explanation proferred by numerous detainees.
In his tribunal at Guantánamo, he said that he was staying at a house in the eastern city of Jalalabad when the city fell in November 2001, and he explained that everyone in the house got into a pick-up truck and drove to the Tora Bora mountains, where they stayed in a cave for a month. No mention was made of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri or any other senior figures in al-Qaeda or the Taliban, who were also in Tora Bora at this time, and who all escaped safely to Pakistan. Instead, al-Kunduzi explained that he left for Pakistan with a group of Arabs, Pakistanis and other Afghans, and was arrested on the border, which surprised him. “I did not expect them to hand me over to the Americans,” he said, “I thought they would treat me like an Afghani.”
This article is drawn partly from chapters in my newly published book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.