The story of Abdullah Mujahid, an Afghan police chief betrayed by the US administration and wrongly sent to Guantánamo

14.8.07

In an excellent article for the Boston Globe, Farah Stockman –- who visited the restive Afghan city of Gardez earlier this year –- reports on the unsettling case of Abdullah Mujahid, the city’s former police chief, who is currently languishing in a cell in Guantánamo, having been sent there in July 2003.

A member of the city’s ethnic Tajik minority, Mujahid –- with the support of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, and the new government of President Hamid Karzai –- had stepped into the void left by the defeated Taliban in Gardez in 2002, and had assumed control of the city’s security. In the early days, without any funding whatsoever from the central government, Mujahid, and his childhood friend Ziauddin, who took charge of the army, cobbled together a security force, using “untrained volunteers to patrol with their personal weapons.” Although there were complaints –- Stockman reports that “Citizens in Gardez accused them of letting their fighters rob drivers at checkpoints, according to interviews with UN, US, and Afghan officials and a Human Rights Watch report” –- many in the city were happy with the new arrangements. As Stockman describes it, many of the inhabitants “backed the two men, who were embroiled in a tribal war against Pacha Khan Zadran, a warlord in the south,” and explains that, throughout 2002, “the US military described Mujahid and Ziauddin’s forces as pro-government in media reports, and called Zadran a renegade.”

Haji Muhammad Hasan, Abdullah Mujahid’s father

Haji Muhammad Hasan, Abdullah Mujahid’s father, holds up a photo of his son. Photo by Declan Walsh to accompany an article he wrote for the Guardian in June 2006, in which he tracked down witnesses that the Americans said they were unable to contact, who backed up Mujahid’s story that he should not have been seized and sent to Guantánamo.

Such was the support for Mujahid and Ziauddin from the small group of US Special Forces responsible for overseeing security in the province that in spring 2002, when the Americans were engaged in “Operation Anaconda,” a mission to oust remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban from the nearby Shah-i-Kot mountains, Mujahid and Ziauddin were recruited to help. In an interview with Stockman, Ziauddin explained that the Special Forces commander (a man named Mike) gave him “money and a satellite telephone,” as well as “shoes, uniforms, and camping gear for about 320 fighters,” and that later, when Mujahid’s father returned from a religious visit to Saudi Arabia, the commander “brought chocolates to the family home and was given perfume in return.”

By 2003, however, Stockman reports that Mujahid’s star was waning, and that “the US military was trying to replace troublesome strongmen with educated, modern leaders.” She also reports that the US government was “trying to set up the first ‘Provincial Reconstruction Team’ in Gardez to work with the Afghan government, hoping to win the confidence of citizens by kicking out corrupt leaders and turning Gardez into a model of good government, according to interviews with US officials who worked in Gardez.”

Under these new arrangements, men like Abdullah Mujahid became disposable. Stockman reports that the new Special Forces commander (another man named Mike) worked with him for a while, and that one other Guantánamo detainee, Dr. Hafizullah Shabat Khail, who was reportedly a personal enemy of Mujahid’s, was captured by Mujahid at this time and handed over to the Special Forces operatives, who sent him to Guantánamo. Behind the scenes, however, Stockman reports that commander Mike was “quietly working to banish Mujahid and Ziauddin from Gardez, according to former and current Afghan and UN officials who met with him frequently in security coordination meetings.”

As Stockman describes it, a key turning point in Mujahid’s fortunes occurred early in 2003, when he and Ziauddin clashed with General Dan K. McNeill –- now the head of NATO in Afghanistan –- who had traveled to Gardez “to ask them to remove their fighters from two strategic hilltops that overlooked the town,” with the Afghans arguing, no doubt with some justification, that this would enable their enemies –- specifically Pacha Khan Zadran and al-Qaeda –- to “come in over the hills.” Stockman reports that “US forces eventually bombed Ziauddin’s arms caches on the hills, but did not arrest him until many months later” –- sending him to Bagram for a year, but then releasing him without charge –- and adds, “Over time, US forces came to suspect Ziauddin and Mujahid of launching rockets at the new US Provincial Reconstruction Team base, according to interviews with US soldiers and Afghan officials who served in Gardez at the time” –- although there is no evidence that there was ever any justification for these suspicions.

Relations deteriorated further in March, after US Special Forces killed Jamil Nasser, an Afghan prisoner in their custody (and a member of the new Afghan army) and insisted on transferring his seven surviving colleagues, who had all been tortured and beaten horrendously, to Mujahid’s custody. According to the Crimes of War Project, a Washington human rights group that investigated the abuse, the US Special Forces commander “threatened to kill Mujahid if he released the prisoners,” and it may have been Mujahid’s subsequent actions that convinced the Americans not only to remove him from office, but also to do it by sending him to Guantánamo. Stockman reports that Mujahid “ordered that they [the injured men] be given medical treatment and mattresses,” and then “described the prisoners’ injuries to Afghan military prosecutors, who later wrote a report recommending that the American soldiers be punished.”

According to Stockman, it was shortly after this incident that the Afghan government decided to remove Mujahid from his post. Raz Mohammad Dalili, the governor at the time, explained in a recent interview that the Special Forces commander “helped persuade him –- and Afghanistan’s central government –- to replace Mujahid with a professionally trained police chief.” Stockman reports that Mujahid initially “refused to allow the new chief into the town,’ but that he agreed to step down after being offered a job as a “highway commander” in Kabul. During this period, according to his former driver, a man named Ahmad, the Special Forces commander “called Mujahid to his office and advised him to leave Gardez, warning that he was at risk of being sent to Guantánamo Bay if he remained,” and when he returned to attend a wedding in July he was duly arrested –- and sent to Guantánamo as promised.

Stockman spoke to Mujahid’s former deputy, Fazel Ahmad Wasiq, who nowadays “runs the US-assisted police training center in Gardez.” Waziq said that it was “a good thing for the town to get a new police chief,” but insisted that Mujahid “did not deserve to be sent to Guantánamo Bay.” He explained that, after his arrest, he visited the Special Forces commander to ask for an explanation, but was told, “We were ordered to do it by higher-ups.”

Gardez

Caption from the Boston Globe: Gardez, the provincial capital that was home to Abdullah Mujahid, has grown since his departure. Shoppers at a market bustled about recently but residents say the insurgency rages in the background. (Photo by Jean Chung).

Mujahid was not the only US ally seized at this time on the basis of false intelligence. I relate the stories of several more men in The Guantánamo Files, but am grateful to Farah Stockman for also highlighting what happened to Mujahid’s driver, Ahmad, who said that the Americans “stripped him naked and at one point held him upside down for more than 10 hours during questioning.” Ahmad also reported that they asked him whether Mujahid had “secretly hoarded weapons while he was police chief,” and added, “I replied that he has handed over all the weapons and kept not even a bullet.” Also seized was Syed Nabi Siddiqui, a police colonel who “had served under Mujahid and had stayed on to work with the new chief.” Siddiqui said that US soldiers “beat him, photographed him naked, and kept him in a cage while they questioned him,” and added, “The American forces asked, ‘Who is Mujahid? Is he a criminal? Did he kill somebody?’ I replied that Mujahid is preventing the thieves from coming in the town.”

Both Ahmad and Siddiqui were soon “released from US custody with a slip of paper that said they had been determined not to be a threat,” but it was a different matter for Mujahid, who has faced a series of groundless allegations in the four years since his capture. One of the first –- that he had been a member of Harakat-e-Mulavi, an Afghan group that fought the Russian invasion in the 1980s [and] that is now believed to have ties to extremists” –- came from Siddiqui, who told it –- as a piece of ancient history –- to the Americans who had captured him. When this allegation crumbled the US administration decided that he was a senior leader of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, a Pakistani militant group that operates primarily in Kashmir. “It seems you have confused me for someone else,” Mujahid said during his annual Administrative Review Board in Guantánamo in 2005. His lawyers duly investigated the allegation, googling their client’s name and discovering that a man named Abdullah Mujahid had indeed been a senior leader of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, but had been killed in November 2006.

Before they could object, his lawyers were told that Mujahid had been cleared for release from Guantánamo, but he has not yet been freed. Those who know of his story –- even those who did not like him –- remain shocked by the fact that he was sent to Guantánamo at all. Thomas Ruttig, the former head of the UN office in Gardez, said that he had “urged the Afghan government to remove Mujahid from his post because he was seen as an uneducated, disruptive, and corrupt figure,” but added that he expected him “to be fired or tried for corruption in Afghanistan, not held indefinitely in Cuba without a trial.” “I never dreamed he would be sent to Guantánamo,” Ruttig said in a recent interview in Kabul. John Sifton, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, who helped write a report in 2003 that “accused Mujahid and his inner circle of allowing their fighters to set up illegal checkpoints to take money from truck drivers,” also said that Mujahid should not have been sent to Guantánamo. “Guantánamo is not even vaguely the appropriate place for him,” he said, adding, as Stockman put it, that “the administration shouldn’t use its power to hold accused terrorists at Guantánamo to solve political or criminal problems in Afghanistan.”

It’s a valid, and disturbing point. As Stockman notes, “The fall of Mujahid … reveals the extent to which the military is using the Guantánamo Bay detention center for a starkly different purpose than the one outlined by President Bush: to keep the worst terrorism suspects behind bars.” She adds that the use of Guantánamo to imprison “uncooperative or unruly tribal chieftains, many of whom had been key supporters of the US-led invasion … could have legal significance, because Bush has tried to justify creating a place where detainees can be held without normal legal protections on the grounds that the prisoners are enemy combatants who might launch a terrorist attack if they are released.”

She also notes that Mujahid is only one of at least a dozen Guantánamo detainees, who were officials in the post-Taliban government, and who were “arrested in their homes or offices during a broader US campaign to rein in warlords.” I actually spoke with Farah Stockman before this article came out, discussing my investigations into former government officials who ended up in Guantánamo, which are discussed in detail in The Guantánamo Files, and can confirm that “at least a dozen” is probably an understatement, and that the numbers probably run to as many as two dozen. And while Stockman is undoubtedly correct to focus on the shocking disposability of these men, as the US administration sought to reconfigure Afghan politics –- and is also correct to lambast the administration for misusing Guantánamo as a prison for tribal chieftains rather than terrorists –- it remains apparent to me that many of the wrongly imprisoned Afghans –- not just the government workers, but the majority of the Afghans held in Guantánamo — were sent there not because of any grand agenda, but simply because the administration was unable to identify who was an enemy and who was a friend, and frequently resorted to seeking advice from dubious allies, with their own long-standing enmities, who told lies about their rivals with impunity, secure in the knowledge that the Americans would fail to investigate any of their allegations.

This really is a fine article, but it only begins to scratch the surface of the criminally negligent approach to “intelligence” that resulted in 218 Afghan detainees being sent to Guantánamo, 61 of whom –- including Abdullah Mujahid and Dr. Haifizullah Shabaz Khail –- still remain there, without charge or trial, after more than four years.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

3 Responses

  1. sahil says...

    hi dear i dont want to introduce my self but i know mujahed and ziaadin actually in our country if any body know some if he is a criminal also he will be in the future a good person like pacha khan but if u dont know some body he will be in guantanamu jill but i will tell u and belive me that i will tell u only the real history which i saw by my self so abdullah mujahed is not a criminal but just he defence from he is people and he is every thing not only for hes on benefit but for all the gardiz becouse once before also if u have document pacha khan was attak to gardiz but becouse he is brother was amanullah khan zadran was manister so he was left ed and now he is a representitive in parlemant but actually he is criminal so that was the real history and really abullah mujahed was not a criminal but actually he was only defince if u belive me
    thats all

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Sahil,
    Thanks for your comments. Very glad to hear from someone who knows Abdullah Mujahid and can verify that he was wrongly detained for many long years at Guantanamo.

  3. Judge Denies Habeas Petition of Afghan Shopkeeper at Guantánamo « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] be missed in the heat of war, a more fundamental problem, identified by Goodman, is that US forces repeatedly demonstrated that they had made no attempts whatsoever to ascertain whether their sources were [...]

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