President Joe Biden has announced that American troops will leave Afghanistan before 11 September 2021, a day that will mark twenty years since al-Qaeda attacked the United States and drew US forces to Afghanistan. Another anniversary is also looming: it will soon be twenty years since President George Bush opened the Guantanamo Bay detention camp to house America’s ‘war on terror’ detainees. Afghans were the largest national group to be held there. Two, Harun Gul and Mohammed Rahim, both from Nangrahar, remain in indefinite detention. Today, AAN launches a special report looking at the fate of Afghans in Guantanamo, as Biden muses on what to do with the camp. Its publication is timely, writes the author Kate Clark, given that so much of what was wrong about the renditions to Guantanamo reflect the failings of the US intervention as a whole.US soldiers detain a man in a village in Khost province for questioning over former Taleban in the area. Photo Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images, 2004.
The special report, “Kafka in Cuba, a Follow-Up Report: Afghans Still in Detention Limbo as Biden Decides What to do with Guantanamo”, can be downloaded here. It is published as the new Biden administration reviews its policy with the stated “goal and… intention” of closing the camp.
Looking through archive photographs from the early years of the US intervention in Afghanistan for this report underlined again why there is an insurgency. Heavily-armed foreigners in camouflage are pictured forcing their way into people’s homes, stripping men in public and seeing women who live in purdah. If this had taken place in any country, there would have been repercussions, let alone a country that had been at war for twenty years and where guns were readily to hand. The fact that there was relatively little reaction to such intrusions in the first years after 2001 is telling about how much Afghans wanted peace.
Far from this being a twenty-year war, as many commentators have described it, Afghanistan’s insurgency took a very long time to brew. In those early years, the overwhelming sentiment in the country was relief that the long war was finally over and a yearning for the peace to last. The Taleban defeat had been absolute. Barely a single Afghan had rallied to their cause and the collapse they suffered – military, political and psychological – was swift and absolute. Taleban themselves accepted their defeat. They went home, or slipped across the border, hoping to reach out to people in the new administration who could give them security guarantees to live peacefully. That included Taleban leader Mullah Omar who sent a delegation, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, now head of the Taleban’s political office in Doha and then one of senior commanders of the movement, to meet newly selected leader Hamed Karzai in December 2001. Baradar carried a letter of surrender from Omar. It was refused.
US hostility and a desire to settle scores on the part of many among America’s newly-victorious Afghan allies prevented such surrenders and ultimately sabotaged the peace. This was a time of aggressive US military campaigns, intrusion into the countryside where few Afghan governments had ever gone, and mass, indiscriminate detentions. US forces were desperate to get intelligence on Osama Bin Laden and were also intent on hunting down ‘remnants’ of the Taleban even though, in terms of fighting forces offering resistance, there were no remnants. The US practice of giving money for intelligence and acting on tip-offs encouraged false denunciations of people as ‘Taleban’ or ‘al-Qaeda’. Local strongmen, individuals turning up on US bases and the Pakistani state all exploited the US military and CIA to detain people for money, personal revenge or political advantage.
Of the thousands, maybe tens of thousands of Afghans detained in those years, 220 individuals found themselves rendered to Guantanamo, where they entered a legal black hole. Bush set up the camp in a part of Cuba controlled by the US, deliberately outside any recognised legal system, whether the criminal law or Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners or war. The men detained there were not given chance to defend themselves or argue why they should be released. Bush insisted on secrecy. We did not even find out the names of those detained until 2006 after Freedom of Information Requests and litigation. When we did see the files of the Afghan detainees, most were risible. It was clear that US military intelligence had little knowledge of Afghanistan because the files were full of the grossest errors and misunderstandings and strange assertions.
The files of one of the eight men featured in AAN’s new report, Mohammed Kamin, for example, said he was a member of five different terrorist groups of different nationalities, not all of which actually existed: al-Qaeda (pan-Islamic), the ‘Afghan Coalition Militia’ (did not exist), ‘North African Extremist Network’ (did not exist), the Taleban (Afghan), Harakat ul-Mujahedin (Pakistani) and Jaish-e Muhammad (Pakistani). Kamin was also wearing a watch deemed to be suspicious, the Casio F91, used in IEDs, but also a global bestseller.
Another, Wali Mohammed, was accused of financing the Taleban and al-Qaeda. Even the judge in his habeas petition thought the latter accusation “not credible.” As to his financing the Taleban, Wali Mohammed had been a money exchanger in Kabul when the Taleban were in power and had engaged in currency arbitrage with the Central Bank – a perfectly routine, legal practice in Afghanistan, then and now. The deal resulted in catastrophic losses which the Taleban blamed him for, arresting and bankrupting him. “I was buried in losses,” he told a Guantanamo hearing. How could he have financed the Taleban, and indeed, even if he could, why would he have wanted to, given they had “treated me so brutally”? “This accusation is not logical,” he tells the hearing.
Wali Mohammed had been detained and handed over to the US by Pakistan’s ISI after, he said, a tribal jirga was about to find in his favour in a financial dispute with two men, one of whom, Wali Mohammed said, was an ISI informer. He says the ISI demanded a bribe to release him after his arrest and when he could not pay, handed him over to the US. He has described being tortured, including being stripped and kept in freezing cold conditions at Bagram airbase and again at Kandahar airbase, before being punched in the head on arrival in Guantanamo. Later that year, another detainee put in similar conditions would freeze to death.
Looking through the files of the last eight Afghans to be held in Guantanamo, rather than trying to make sense of the typically garbled accusations, as with Wali Mohammed, considering who informed on a detainee or handed him over and the potential factional or financial gains typically points to the likely cause of the detention. More crucially, anyone with a little knowledge of Afghanistan or indeed, access to the internet, could have quickly discovered these assertions were nonsense. The instances of jaw-dropping intelligence failures behind the mass arrests are legion. Just looking at who was sent there reveals this: among those rendered to Guantanamo were many Taleban, some senior military men and some who had been tricked into meetings with false offers of surrender and amnesty, but there were also vast numbers of ordinary people. Shepherds and shopkeepers were sent to Guantanamo, locally-significant non-Taleban and even anti-Taleban figures, even children and the very elderly.
The mass arrests of the early years of the US intervention were part of a pattern of behaviour that stoked unrest. Yet early calls from some Taleban for a jihad against the foreigners were ignored. Many Afghans were shocked and unhappy with corruption in the new government and the exclusion – or indeed persecution – of significant political players. However, they did not want to go back to war and bloodshed. People strived to find peaceful, lawful ways to get justice or inclusion in the new system. It took a long time for discontent to transform into rebellion. But eventually, a well-documented pattern of government and foreign military actions driving local, armed rebellions, was seen across the country. The Taleban movement, which was also gradually forming up again, gaining strength from discontented former members and supported by Pakistan, was able to ‘piggyback’ on this unhappiness, taking advantage of local hostility to the government to launch operations.
As the US prepares to leave Afghanistan and end its war, it seems important to remember why the peace of 2001 did not last. One can, of course, look at other factors pushing a return to conflict in Afghanistan: the US decision to support factional leaders, including those accused of war crimes, back into power, colossal amounts of external income that cushioned those new rulers from popular pressure for accountability, and generated corruption, the quashing of attempts by Afghans for transitional justice and representative government (for example, at the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga) and Pakistan’s malign backing of the armed insurgency. However, the mass detentions of Afghans and their experiences in Guantanamo seem symbolic of much that went wrong and of the dreadful repercussions of deploying force without understanding.
This new report sheds light on the randomness of Afghans’ fates, which led some to Guantanamo and others not, and to some being released and others not. It also showcases how so much of what has befallen the eight men under study was determined not by anything they did or did not do but by American politics grounded in fear, ignorance and fantasy, and of power unchecked by law. The report aims to improve understanding of these dynamics, separating real from imagined risk, and traces the real harm done to the detainees. The hope is that it will provide a useful context for the new administration in Washington now trying to decide how to finally close Guantanamo.
This article was last updated on 19 Apr 2021