The Stories of the Afghans Just Released from Guantánamo: Intelligence Failures, Battlefield Myths and Unaccountable Prisons in Afghanistan (Part Two)

22.12.07

In the first part of this article, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, looked at the background to the recent release of 13 Afghans from Guantánamo, explained that nine of these men had been identified, and related the stories of the first of the three to be captured, in November and December 2001, at the height of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. In this second part, the focus shifts to the stories of the remaining six, who were captured long after the fall of the Taliban, when the US military faced a low-level insurgency in the south and east of the country.

Inside Pol-i-Charki prison

Inside Pol-i-Charki prison, Kabul.

The other six men released from Guantánamo last week and sent to Pol-i-Charki prison in Kabul were among the 100 or so detainees –- almost all Afghans –- who were captured between December 2002 and August 2003, when, with the exception of 29 mostly “high-value” detainees, transferred to Guantánamo in September 2004, September 2006, and throughout 2007, the last of the Guantánamo prisoners were processed. Although many more Afghans captured during this period were released without being sent to Guantánamo, and others continued to be held in Afghanistan, those who were sent to Cuba were mostly innocent men. Around 60 percent –- including at least 17 men who were working for the Karzai government –- were betrayed by opportunistic rivals, who were all too aware that the Americans were both gullible and lazy, and would not make any attempt to investigate the men’s histories, and another 30 percent were bystanders rounded up arbitrarily after attacks on US forces.

The teachers

Two of these men were teachers. 40-year old Abdul Ghafour ran a small school in his village in Paktia province, and rarely left the area because his mother was ill. When US and Afghan forces came knocking on his door in the middle of the night on February 7, 2003, he thought that they were robbers, and went to the roof and fired a few warning shots. When the Americans opened fire in response and summoned fighter jets, he realized he had made a mistake, and he then let them in and was arrested, but at no point did anyone explain to him why they wanted to search his house in the first place. 37-year old Abdul Matin, a science teacher, had been living in Pakistan during the Taliban years, but returned to Afghanistan in February 2002 when the Karzai government called for people to help rebuild the country. He said that he was betrayed by local enemies, who knew that his father was wealthy, when he refused to pay a $30,000 bribe.

The shopkeeper

The story of Abdullah Wazir, who was 24 years old when he was captured, appears to be a case of opportunism on the part of the Pakistani police. A shopkeeper in a village near Khost, he said that he was on a bus, making one of his regular visits across the border to Pakistan to buy batteries and tires for his shop, and to mend the broken glass on his satellite phone, when the bus was stopped and searched by Pakistani police. Fearing that, if the police saw his phone, they might try to take his money because they were “corrupt,” he explained that he gave his phone to Bostan Karim, an acquaintance from his village, with whom he had spent three days preaching five years before, and asked him “to hold it for two minutes.” Unfortunately, he added, “a soldier on top of the bus saw me give the phone to Karim.” He then “told another soldier that I had passed something to another person,” and both men were then arrested, taken to a jail and interrogated. Although Wazir reported that “the boss of the jail told me that I will released tomorrow, in the afternoon they handcuffed our hands and took us somewhere else [Bagram, presumably]. We spent six to seven months at the place they took us. From there, they brought me here.”

Although Wazir was accused of being a member of the Taliban (an allegation that he denied), what particularly counted against him was his alleged association with Karim, who is still in Guantánamo. A preacher and also a shopkeeper, Karim, who was 33 years old when he was captured, was reportedly “apprehended because he matched the description of an al-Qaeda bomb cell leader and had a [satellite] phone.” In a demonstration of the thinness of so many of the allegations that make up the “evidence” in Guantánamo, it was also alleged that he was “possibly identified as an al-Qaeda associate, planning landmine attacks in Khost,” and was “possibly identified as a person likely to have communicated with Arab al-Qaeda members operating in Peshawar, Afghanistan [sic], and working directly for Arab al-Qaeda in the Khost province.”

Karim maintained that the allegations had been made by another detainee, Obaidullah (who is also still in Guantánamo), who had been a partner in his shop, but had fallen out with him in a dispute over money. From Obaidullah’s statements in his own hearings, it’s clear that, while being interrogated by US forces in Bagram, he admitted making up allegations against Karim. In his military review in 2005, he responded to an allegation that Karim “is thought to be a Taliban commander who is getting funding from the Taliban or the Arabs” by saying, “I accepted this by force in Bagram. They told me in Bagram that Karim is one of the Taliban commanders and they forced me to say yes. I am not aware if he is a Taliban commander.”

When asked who forced him to “say things,” Obaidullah said, “The first time when they [US forces] captured me and brought me to Khost they put a knife to my throat and said if you don’t tell us the truth and you lie to us we are going to slaughter you … They tied my hands and put a heavy bag of sand on my hands and made me walk all night in the Khost airport … In Bagram they gave me more trouble and would not let me sleep. They were standing me on the wall and my hands were hanging above my head. There were a lot of things they made me say.”

The “Commander”

Also transferred was Gul Chaman (also known as Commander Chaman), who was 40 years old at the time of his capture. A former mujahideen fighter against the Soviet Union, Chaman had a colorful history. In the turmoil of the brutal civil war that followed the collapse of the Soviet government in the early 1990s, he fought for six months against the forces of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the charismatic Tajik who led the Northern Alliance (and who was assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives two days before 9/11), as a member of Hezb-e-Islami Gulduddin (HIG), a military faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A virulently anti-American warlord, Hekmatyar had, nevertheless, been the main recipient of billions of dollars of US aid in the 1980s, because he was the favored warlord of the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence services), who were responsible for funneling US aid to the mujahideen.

Chaman explained to his tribunal that he then switched sides, joining Massoud, and insisted that he did not join the Taliban after their rise to power in 1994. “When the Taliban movement started,” he said, “[they] captured Logar and then they started coming to Azrah, which is my district. The Taliban collected ten guys by the name of Chaman’s people and killed and executed them right on the spot. I was there and they did not capture me.” He explained that they were “my cousins and my day laborers,” and that the Taliban would not let him give them a proper burial. “After that,” he continued, “I was against the Taliban. I did not fight but I tried my best to fight them through propaganda.”

Accused of being “heavily involved in the drug trade and other illegal activities in Kabul,” Chaman denied the allegations, claiming that, after Hamid Karzai came to power, he made a few visits to Pakistan with a delegation connected with the chief of intelligence, and provided some information on HIG. He added, “I was doing work against the Taliban.”

The circumstances of his capture apparently had nothing whatsoever to do with this back story. Instead, it seems that he was seized and sent to Guantánamo because a young man called Mohammed Mustafa Sohail, who was working for an American contractor and who is still held in Guantánamo, accused him of stealing a computer from the Americans that he had actually stolen himself. Sohail explained that he accused Chaman after being interrogated for 68 hours in Kabul, when an interrogator “tortured and threatened me with a gun to my mouth, to try to make me say something,” but whether or not there was any truth in this story it came too late for Chaman, who had already been handed over to the Americans at Bagram by the local intelligence chief.

The pro-American rivals

Two others, whose stories are in some ways the most shocking of the nine, were among six men captured in Gardez in July 2003, who were resolutely opposed to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. 32-year old Abdullah Mujahid was the police chief in Gardez and the security chief for Paktia province after the fall of the Taliban, and had just been promoted to a job protecting the highways of Kabul at the Interior Ministry. At the start of the US-led invasion, he met US Special Forces in Logar and invited them to Gardez, where he negotiated the rent of the camp that they used as their base, and he also fought alongside them during Operation Anaconda, a mission to oust al-Qaeda remnants from the Shah-i-Kot valley in Paktia province in March 2002.

Abdullah Mujahid's father holds a photo of his son

Haji Muhammad Hasan, Abdullah Mujahid’s father, holds up a photo of his son. Photo by Declan Walsh.

According to Mujahid’s lawyers, he was so well respected that residents of Gardez and Paktia sent several petitions to the US administration, pointing out that he was “instrumental in helping establish schools, including schools for girls” in the region. Explaining the circumstances of his arrest, he said that two Americans detained him and asked him about two military commanders that he knew, who were accused of stealing. When he denied the story, he said that one of the men told me that I wasn’t telling the truth about these people, so you belong in Cuba,” and added, “It appears that the decision was made to send me to Cuba already.”

In Guantánamo, it was also alleged that Mujahid was “fired from his appointed position due to suspicions of collusion with anti-government forces,” and that he later attacked US troops in retaliation, but Farah Stockman of the Boston Globe, who visited Gardez to find out more about his story, noted that he fell out of favor with the American forces operating in the area, who wanted to replace him with a professionally trained police chief, and that after his new job in Kabul was arranged, the Special Forces commander actually advised him to leave Gardez, warning him that he was at risk of being sent to Guantánamo if he remained.

The US forces seem to have been particularly upset by Mujahid’s response to the murder of Jamil Nasser, an Afghan prisoner (and a member of the new Afghan army) who was killed by Special Forces soldiers while in custody at a US base near Gardez in March 2003. After Nasser’s death, the US military 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 Special Forces commander “threatened to kill Mujahid if he released the prisoners,” and it may have been his subsequent actions that convinced the Americans not only to remove him from office, but also to do it by sending him to Guantánamo. Farah Stockman reported 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.”

In addition, the theft that was allegedly responsible for getting Abdullah Mujahid sent to Guantánamo seems to have been reported by another of the detainees released last week, Dr. Hafizullah Shabaz Khail, a 56-year old pharmacist from Zormat, south of Gardez, who in turn blamed Mujahid for his imprisonment. Approached by the town elders after Hamid Karzai first came to power as the head of the interim post-Taliban government, Khail served as the mayor for six months until an official appointment was made, and then continued to help out with security. “While I was mayor in Zormat,” he said, “there were no problems with the Americans. I met with American commanders several times … We even took pictures together.”

Arrested after capturing some thieves who were working for Taj Mohammed, the head of security in Zormat, he suggested that Mujahid, who was Mohammed’s boss, then arranged for the Americans to arrest him. If this is the case –- and lawyers for the two men suggested that they were bitter enemies –- then at least part of the reason that both men were in Guantánamo was because of allegations they had made against each other. The fact that the US authorities failed to notice this indicates that they had no interest in cross-referencing cases or investigating the truth of assertions made against those in their custody. Unlike Mujahid, who was cleared for release two years ago, Khail was not cleared for release until the last few months, even though, as with his rival, several local tribes sent a petition to the US authorities confirming his many contributions to their community.

Suppression of witnesses at Guantánamo

Mujahid’s story was also notable because it was used by the journalist Declan Walsh to demonstrate one of the many failures of the tribunal process at Guantánamo. These tribunals –- the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) –- were dreamt up as a deliberately inadequate response to a decisive Supreme Court ruling, in June 2004, that the Guantánamo detainees had habeas corpus rights; in other words, that they had the right to challenge the basis of their detention. Initially criticized by lawyers and human rights activists because the detainees were denied legal representation, and were prevented from either seeing or hearing secret evidence against them, which could therefore have been obtained through torture, coercion or bribery, the tribunals were recently savaged by military officers who had taken part in them, who condemned them for relying on generalized and often generic evidence that had nothing to do with the detainees in question, and who indicated, moreover, that they were merely designed to rubber-stamp their prior designation as “enemy combatants” without rights, so that they could be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

Declan Walsh’s contribution was to demolish the US military’s assertion that the detainees would be allowed to call witnesses, if they were “reasonably available.” No-Hearing Hearings, a report by researchers at the Seton Hall Law School, who analyzed documents released by the Pentagon in 2006, established that, although the CSRT process “provided that detainees could call witnesses … no witness from outside Guantánamo ever appeared,” often because the tribunal claimed that the request had been forwarded to the State Department, but that no reply had been received.

In June 2006, after deciding to test how difficult it was to track down witnesses, Walsh focused on the case of Abdullah Mujahid, just one of many Afghans who asked his tribunal to make a few phone calls to verify his story. Walsh did just that, and within three days found three witnesses that the Pentagon had apparently been unable to contact. One was working in Washington DC, teaching at the National Defense University, and the other two were in Afghanistan.

A call to President Karzai’s office located Shahzada Masoud, an adviser on tribal affairs, who confirmed that Mujahid had accepted a job protecting the highways in Kabul and “was given a lavish transfer-of-power ceremony attended by government dignitaries,” and Walsh obtained the phone number of Gul Haider, a defense ministry representative and former Northern Alliance commander, from a government official in Gardez. Haider confirmed that Mujahid sent 30 of his men to assist the Americans during Operation Anaconda, and said he had not heard anything to support the Americans’ claims that he had turned against them. Pointing out that political rivalries were to blame for his arrest, and that someone had made false allegations, Haider said, “Afghanistan has many problems –- between tribes, Communists, the Taliban. That’s why people like Abdullah, who are completely innocent, end up in jail.”

While I wait to find out if any of these men will be released from Pol-i-Charki –- and if others like Bostan Karim, Obaidullah and Mohammed Sohail will be released from Guantánamo –- I have to conclude that Gul Haider’s comment could serve as an epitaph for most of the Afghans in Guantánamo, and that it’s a grim conclusion to reach on the eve of the prison’s sixth anniversary.

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 (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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Note:

The prisoners’ numbers (and variations on the spelling of their names) are as follows:

ISN 954: Abdul Ghafour
ISN 1002: Abdul Matin
ISN 976: Abdullah Wazir
ISN 1021: Gul Chaman (Commander Chaman)
ISN 1100: Abdullah Mujahid
ISN 1001: Dr. Hafizullah Shabaz Khail

The four Afghans whose identities were unknown at the time of their release are as follows:

ISN 8: Abdullah Gulam Rasoul (as described in Chapter 10 of The Guantanamo Files)
ISN 923: Abdul Razzaq (to be described in a forthcoming online chapter)
ISN 1012: Aminullah Tukhi (as described in Chapter 16 of The Guantanamo Files)
ISN 1032: Abdul Ghafaar (to be described in a forthcoming online chapter)

Others mentioned in the article (but not released) are:

ISN 975: Bostan Karim
ISN 783: Obaidullah
ISN 1008: Mohammed Mustafa Sohail

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the eleven prisoners released from February to June 2009, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here).

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington: Guantanamo trials: another insignificant Afghan charged | Cross Party Lines says...

    [...] about the transcripts of Obaidullah’s hearings, however, are his claims that he made up false allegations against another prisoner, Bostan Karim (who is also still held in Guantánamo), during his [...]

  2. RAY HADLEY says...

    I get sick to my stomach when I read such rubbish as this article is filled with. Most of these detainee’s are bad guys whom have killed or helped kill innocent people. Maybe a shoe maker by day and a terrorist as soon as you turn your head. I praise the work the soldiers do in those savage war torn countries to restore order. I praise the work that our Special OPS do to capture these cowards that kill innocents and I applaud those whom hunt down these scums and put bullets in their heads!!!!

  3. Four Men Leave Guantánamo; Two Face Ill-Defined Trials In Italy « freedetainees.org says...

    [...] 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 [...]

  4. Innocent Guantánamo Torture Victim Fouad al-Rabiah Is Released In Kuwait « freedetainees.org says...

    [...] 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 [...]

  5. The Stories Of The Two Somalis Freed From Guantánamo « freedetainees.org says...

    [...] 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 [...]

  6. What is Obama Doing at Bagram? (Part Two): Executive Detention, Rendition, Review Boards, Released Prisoners and Trials « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] in Afghanistan from the very beginning, as was demonstrated repeatedly with the Afghan prisoners in Guantánamo. In his article, he explained that the military “needs to review its intelligence sources and [...]

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

    [...] 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 [...]

  8. As Judges Kill Off Habeas Corpus For Guantánamo Prisoners, Will Supreme Court Act? says...

    [...] which he had apparently been asked to hold by a fellow passenger, Abdullah Wazir (who was released from Guantánamo in December 2007). Other allegations were made by another Afghan, a young man named Obaidullah, who said in [...]

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