In the last few weeks, since the last US troops left Afghanistan and the Taliban swept into Kabul, bringing the US’s nearly 20-year occupation of the country to an ignominious end — in defeat — I’ve been thinking about the extent to which that defeat is linked to the existence of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and the significance of the Afghans held there — around 220 in total — as well as the numerous other Afghans held in the US’s prison at Bagram Airbase.
When we think of Guantánamo, we have been encouraged to think of the “high-value detainees” moved there from CIA “black sites” in September 2006, or the hundreds of Arabs — mostly Saudis and Yemenis — who had been in Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and who were subsequently regarded as terrorists, even though most of them had only gone to Afghanistan to help the Taliban secure victory in their long-standing inter-Muslim civil war with the Northern Alliance.
And yet the Afghans were the largest group by nationality who were held at Guantánamo, and from the beginning their treatment in US prisons in Afghanistan, and the subsequent rendition of many of them to the lawless prison on the US naval base in Cuba was revelatory in terms of understanding the shameful extent to which the US failed to win the “hearts and minds” of the people it was supposedly liberating.
Over a hundred Afghan prisoners were seized and sent to Guantánamo in the first eight months of the US occupation, before Hamid Karzai was made President of the the Afghan Transitional Administration by a loya jirga (a high-level gathering of Afghanistan’s tribes) in July 2002, and although they included a handful of significant Taliban figures, most were either low-level Taliban foot soldiers (some recruited against their will), or even civilians opportunistically sold to US forces by their supposed allies.
A sign of the insignificance of the majority of these men is that they made up most of the 93 Afghans repatriated from Guantánamo between September 2002 and September 2004. Many of their stories were unknown until WikiLeaks released classified US military files relating to the majority of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo in April 2011. I worked as a media partner on the release of these files, and then spent many months analyzing them, including the stories of these Afghans, in a number of articles under two headings, WikiLeaks: The Unknown Prisoners of Guantanamo (telling the stories of prisoners whose stories were unknown until the release of the files), and WikiLeaks and the Guantanamo Prisoners Released from 2002 to 2004.
The fall of the Taliban and the loya jirga’s choice of Hamid Karzai as the leader of the Afghan Transitional Administration is the point at which the US should have ended its independent military operations, but instead, as the author Anand Gopal explained to me when I met him during his research for his excellent book No Good Men Along the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, the US “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” blundering around the country in search of enemies, but with no ability whatsoever to know who to ally themselves with, or to assess when they were being played by warlords with their own agenda. From June 2002 until November 2003, at least 110 more Afghans were sent to Guantánamo, making up the majority of prisoners sent to the prison at that time.
Disastrously poor intelligence
As I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files, US forces were so ignorant about who they were working with that at least 17 of those sent to Guantánamo had actually been working for the the Afghan Transitional Administration — or even for the Americans — but had been lied about by rivals, and yet the US intelligence was so poor that no one realized, or, perhaps, even cared.
One startling example was Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, who had helped to free several prominent anti-Taliban individuals — including Ismail Khan, who later became a minister in Karzai’s government — from a Taliban jail. To avoid Taliban reprisals, he had fled to Iran, where he stayed for several years, but, after returning to Afghanistan following the US-led invasion, someone told lies about him, and he ended up in Guantánamo, where all his requests for his captors to contact the Karzai government or Ismail Khan to verify his identity fell on deaf ears. After he died of cancer in December 2007, I worked with Carlotta Gall on a front-page story for the New York Times telling the shameful account of his treatment, but no apology was ever forthcoming.
Also sent to Guantánamo at this time were eight prisoners captured in a compound run by a warlord named Samoud Khan, including three who were just boys at the time — somewhere between 10 and 13 years of age. It seems unclear whether Samoud Khan was engaging in activities against the US forces, or against a rival warlord, but what is clear is that the boys were merely servants, probably recruited unwillingly, with one of them also required to act as something of a sex slave.
At the other end of the age scale was 78-year old Haji Nazrat Khan, who had been seized when he went to inquire why his son, Izatullah Nazrat Yar, a local tribal leader, who supervised the collection of weapons from his people, as requested by US forces and the Karzai administration, had been arrested by US forces.
At Guantánamo, Haji Nazrat Khan told his US captors, “after the Soviet Union fell, we were expecting, waiting for Americans to help us to create and build up a new government. Unfortunately, they did not do it. Then the Taliban took over and they committed atrocities, killing, and any brutality they could. Talib means educated student or to learn things, but they were not that kind of people. Then, during the Taliban time, the opportunity opened for people to come from all over the world. The terrorist and any other kind of person came to Afghanistan and destroyed our honor and our dignity. Bin Laden, we hate him more than you guys and you people do not realize who is an enemy and who is a friend. When you came to Afghanistan everybody was waiting for America to help us build up our country. We were looking for you guys and we were very happy that you would come to our country. The people that hated you were very few, but you just grabbed guys like me. Look at me. Our very happiness, you turned it to bitterness. I am still not mad at you guys, but in the future try to know the difference between your enemy and your friend.”
Another eloquent critic was Haji Shahzada, a village elder in Kandahar province, who was seized with two villagers who had been at his house at time. As I explained in 2011, “One of the men seized with him, Abdullah Khan, had sold Shahzada a dog, as both men were interested in dog-fighting (which had been banned by the Taliban), but he was regarded by the soldiers involved in the raid (and, subsequently, by US interrogators) as Khairullah Khairkhwa, a senior figure in the Taliban. The problem with this scenario was not only that Khan was not Khairkhwa, but also that Khairkhwa had been in US custody since February 2002 and was held at Guantánamo.”
No fan of the Taliban, Shahzada, as I explained in The Guantánamo Files, warned the US authorities at Guantánamo that capturing innocent people like him was a sure way of turning the population against the Americans. “This is just me you brought,” he said, “but I have six sons left behind in my country. I have ten uncles in my area that would be against you. I don’t care about myself. I could die here, but I have 300 male members of my family there in my country. If you want to build Afghanistan you can’t build it this way … I will tell anybody who asks me that this is oppression.”
In November 2003, the transfer of Afghans to Guantánamo ceased — and only a few dozen supposedly significant individuals, almost all from other countries, subsequently arrived at the prison from CIA “black sites” between 2004 and 2008.
Bagram: deaths and arbitrary detention
However, Bagram, always a brutal place, had become deadly by the end of 2002, when an innocent taxi driver, Dilawar, and Mullah Habibullah, who was apparently the brother of a Taliban commander, were both killed through the use of sustained stress positions.
Moreover, these were not the only deaths in US custody at the time. At a CIA “black site” outside Kabul — known as the Salt Pit or the Dark Prison — an alleged militant, Gul Rahman, died of hypothermia in November 2002, and, as I explained in an article in 2009, When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan, in 2003, “at least three more prisoners were murdered by Americans in three different forward operating bases.”
Securing an insight into how much this kind of behavior was damaging the US cause in Afghanistan, Dr. Rafiullah Bidar, the regional director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which was 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,” told the journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark in 2003 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.”
When the flights to Guantánamo stopped, those who would have been sent to the prison in Cuba, numbering in their thousands, were held at Bagram instead, which continued to be a prison system that was “administered arbitrarily, indiscriminately and without accountability.” When a list of those held at Bagram was published in January 2010, I published an annotated version of it, and also wrote two articles to accompany it, entitled, Dark Revelations in the Bagram Prisoner List, and Bagram: Graveyard of the Geneva Conventions, to demonstrate how it was as fundamentally lawless as Guantánamo.
After a US judge granted habeas corpus rights to foreign prisoners rendered to Bagram from other countries, the Obama administration appealed and won, although it prompted President Obama to introduce cursory, Guantánamo-style reviews at the prison, which only served to demonstrate how the lawless innovations of the “war on terror” had so thoroughly permeated US wartime detention policy, as at Guantánamo (and also, of course, as in Iraq). However, control of the prison was soon handed over to the Afghan government, enabling the US government to wash its hands of everything that had happened there — although not to those who had been held there arbitrarily.
By this time, most of the Afghans held at Guantánamo had also been released, but thousands of Afghans — both those who supported or were members of the Taliban and, because of US incompetence, many who opposed the Taliban as well — had lost years of their lives in Guantánamo or Bagram, where they had often been dealt with brutally, and where they had always been treated as though international law and the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply.
The imprisonment of these men and boys — and their treatment — was a far cry from the kinds of actions that would win “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan, and, considered in conjunction with the massive loss of life through military action, and the rampant corruption facilitated by the US presence, helps to explain the US’s final defeat in Afghanistan. The future under the Taliban may well be bleak for many, but no one should be under any illusions that, for the most part, the US will be missed.