End 19 Years Of Injustice

The Taliban’s Victory in Afghanistan Mustn’t Prevent the Closure of Guantánamo

Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir and Khairullah Khairkhwa, two men holding prominent positions in the Taliban, who were previously held at Guantánamo.

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By Andy Worthington, August 29, 2021

As the final U.S. troops left Afghanistan two weeks ago, and the Taliban rolled into Kabul, taking the Presidential Palace on August 15 after President Ashraf Ghani fled, the presence of one particular Taliban member — Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir — caught the attention of the western media, when he declared that he had been held at Guantánamo for eight years.

Guantánamo: the mere mention of the word, from the mouth of a conquering Talib, standing in the very place so recently occupied by the U.S.-backed president, reinvigorated the right-wingers in Congress, and in the U.S. media, who had been worried that President Biden might finally close their beloved gulag once and for all.

Once upon a time, the merest mention of Guantánamo had summoned up images of bloodthirsty Al-Qaeda terrorists, hell-bent on the destruction of America, that had helped to keep ordinary Americans docile, and in a state of fear. However, over the years, as the horrors of Guantánamo leaked out to the world, revealing the use of torture and other forms of abuse on prisoners who, for the most part, were not involved in any kind of terrorism at all, defending its existence became more difficult. By his second term, even George W. Bush was aware that it was an embarrassment, and left office having released 532 of the 779 men he had imprisoned there.

When President Obama tried to close it, however, he met fierce resistance from Republicans, who slowed prisoner releases and successfully kept its closure from becoming a reality. Nevertheless, Obama released nearly 200 men in his eight years in office, and by the time Donald Trump took over, only 41 were still held. Branding them all terrorists, Trump refused to release any of them (with the one exception of a Saudi who had agreed to a plea deal in his military commission trial, and was sent back to Saudi Arabia to ongoing imprisonment).

When President Biden took office, however, there was a renewed glimmer of hope that the prison would be closed. There was a widespread recognition — finally — that indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial, for nearly 20 years, is wrong, and critics — including Senators and members of the House of Representatives — urged him to close Guantánamo. A review process for assessing whether or not it was safe to approve the release of some of the prison’s "forever prisoners" approved five men for release, and last month Biden actually released a solitary living prisoner — Abdul Latif Nasser, sent back to his family in Morocco.

Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir

But then came Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir’s statement from the Presidential Palace, and suddenly all that progress has begun to look decidedly shaky. Scrabbling around for ammunition with which to undermine President Biden’s aim of closing Guantánamo, desperate hacks sought out information about him, and found what they thought was the transcript of his Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT), a cursory administrative process undertaken in 2004 to rubber-stamp the prisoners’ designation, on capture, as "enemy combatants," in which the prisoner in question had claimed that he was a "simple shopkeeper," and that he "wanted to return to Afghanistan so he could help his sick father run their store." In the classified military file about him, which was released by WikiLeaks in 2011, they also found a reference by the U.S. authorities to an occasion in April 2005 when he had apparently threatened a guard saying, "We will get you on the outside."

Unfortunately, the files referred not to Zakir, who identified himself in Guantánamo as Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul (ISN 008), but to Gholam Ruhani (ISN 003), released in December 2007, who seems to have had some sort of security job with the Taliban. Zakir, meanwhile, was flown to Guantánamo on the first flight into the prison, arriving on January 11, 2002, the day it opened. Held for nearly six years (not eight as he claimed), he was well-behaved in Guantánamo, but was also released, under President Bush, in December 2007. However, it is not clear why he was released, as I explained when I wrote a summary of his case in 2011, because he was seized in a car with two Taliban commanders, Mullah Norullah Noori and Mullah Mohammed Fazl, after the fall of the city of Kunduz, the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan, in November 2001, and, as the Task Force at Guantánamo noted, it was "highly doubtful that the detainee, who was allegedly standing with other Taliban soldiers along a roadside, would be singularly selected by General Dostum’s soldiers to join [Noori] and [Fazl] in the vehicle they were secured in, unless [he] was as significant as his fellow captives."

On his release, he became a feared military commander, as has been known about since 2010, and he has now been appointed as the Taliban’s acting defense minister, but anyone seeking to capitalize on his release back in 2007 to revive fearmongering about Guantánamo needs to remember that it was George W. Bush who released him, and that he did so because of the failures that emanated from his contempt for the established laws and treaties governing the detention of prisoners in wartime.

Until the "war on terror," this had involved U.S. forces holding competent tribunals, taking place close to the time and place of capture if there was any doubt regarding the status of those seized. Civilians caught by mistake were freed, while those found to be combatants could legitimately be held unmolested until the end of hostilities. In the first Gulf War, in 1991, as I explained in an article for Al-Jazeera in 2013, "U.S. soldiers captured 1,196 men of unknown provenance, held competent tribunals, and concluded that in 886 cases civilians had been seized by mistake – an error rate of 74 percent."

The refusal to hold competent tribunals in Afghanistan not only led to the prison containing civilians seized by mistake; it also contributed to a chaotic situation whereby the U.S. authorities, in many cases, didn’t really know who they were holding at all.

Khairullah Khairkhwa

Further right-wing outrage greeted the news that another former Guantánamo prisoner, Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former governor of Herat, and the Taliban’s Minister of the Interior from 1997-98, was one of the leaders of the resurgent Taliban in Kabul. Khairkhwa had been seized in Chaman, Pakistan in February 2002, where he had fled from Afghanistan the month before, and where he had also, according to the U.S., "called Wali Karzai, Hamid Karzai’s brother, to negotiate surrender and integration into the new government." Instead, Pakistani forces seized him, and transferred him to U.S. custody, and he ended up being held at Guantánamo for 12 years.

Khairkhwa was one of five Taliban leaders sent to Qatar in June 2014 by President Obama in a prisoner swap for the U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, and his return to Afghanistan has been the focus of further criticism, this time aimed at President Obama, who was responsible for the prisoner swap.

The prisoner swap was the only other time that I can recall rightwing hysteria about Guantánamo and the Taliban, because, as I noted above, generally the hysteria has been almost exclusively focused on Guantánamo and Al-Qaeda. However, back in 2014 the point that was missed was that the U.S. was already seeking to extricate itself from its Afghan quagmire, and that the men transferred to Qatar might well be involved in peace negotiations between the U.S., the Afghan government and the Taliban, in which Khairkhwa, known as a moderate, could be useful.

As I explained at the time of the prisoner swap, with reference to Khairkhwa, "In February 2011 President Karzai specifically requested his release, and in March 2011 Hekmat Karzai, the director of the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based research and advocacy organization, told Al-Jazeera, 'His release will be influential to the peace process,' adding, 'Mr. Khairkhwa is well respected amongst the Taliban and was considered a moderate by those who knew him.'"

The deal to release "the Taliban Five," as they were known, had been negotiated two years before their release in Qatar, as the Miami Herald noted in March 2012, explaining that Afghan officials had said that the five men "told a visiting Afghan delegation they agree[d] to a proposed transfer" to Qatar, "opening the door for a possible move aimed at bringing the Taliban into peace talks." Reuters explained that President Karzai's top aide, Ibrahim Spinzada, had personally traveled to Guantánamo to secure the men’s approval for the deal.

In Qatar, the men became part of the Taliban Political Office, which had been officially established the year before, in a villa on the outskirts of Doha, as a focal point for what, by then, were more than 20 high-ranking Taliban members, who had relocated to Qatar with their families. When the "Taliban Five" joined them, Khairkhwa was "chosen to be a negotiator on behalf of the Taliban for an Afghan peace settlement," as the New Yorker explained in an article in March this year, and he remained involved as the baton of power passed from Obama to Donald Trump, who undermined both the U.S. and the Afghan government’s positions.

Donald Trump’s failures

As the New Yorker explained, Trump "was clearly desperate to make a deal that would allow him to say that he had ended the war," and "[w]hen the Taliban refused to include the Afghan government in the talks, the U.S. did not insist" on keeping them involved. As the talks progressed, "Trump repeatedly announced troop withdrawals, depriving his negotiators of leverage." A senior U.S. official told Dexter Filkins, the author of the article, "He was steadily undermining us. The trouble with the Taliban was, they were getting it for free." As Filkins described it, "In the end, the two sides agreed not to attack each other, and the Americans agreed to withdraw."

As he also explained, "The Taliban had to meet a list of conditions, including preventing terrorists from operating out of Afghanistan and refraining from major attacks on the country’s government and military," but they clearly felt that they had won. Filkins stated that Khairkhwa suggested to him that "the 2020 peace deal with the U.S. had established the Taliban as the victors in the conflict," stating, "We defeated the Americans on the battlefield." As Filkins proceeded to explain, "Hafiz Mansoor, a former minister in the Afghan government, blamed the Americans for giving the Taliban the impression that they had won the war." As Hafiz said, "By making the deal, the U.S. legitimized them." In addition, Sadat Naderi, one of the negotiators, said, "They thought they were there just to discuss the terms of surrender. They said, 'We don’t need to talk to you. We can just take over.'"

In the end, of course, that is what happened as President Biden was obliged to fulfill the terms of Trump’s one-sided settlement in favor of the Taliban. And while questions remain about how well that withdrawal has been handled, it is disingenuous of commentators to try to claim that Obama’s release of Khairkhwa — and the rest of the "Taliban Five" — was somehow mistaken. Peace negotiations require negotiating with the enemy, and it is Trump, not Obama, who must bear the considerable blame for having capitulated to the Taliban’s demands, abandoning the Afghan government, and agreeing to the U.S. exit from Afghanistan with no measures in place to try and ensure some kind of workable compromise between all the parties involved.

There are no Taliban at Guantánamo — and misplaced fears about Afghanistan becoming a breeding ground for terrorists

The cynical reports about the Taliban and Guantánamo fail to take into account that, of the 39 men still held at Guantánamo, only two are Afghans, and neither were members of the Taliban. One, Asadullah Haroon Gul, should have been released after the first peace deal was agreed in 2016, between the Afghan government and HIG (Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin), a militia led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had been prominent in the campaign against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. However, the U.S. Justice Department, shamefully, continues to maintain that it can continue to hold him because of spurious Al-Qaeda connections.

The second Afghan still held is Muhammad Rahim, who allegedly worked with Al-Qaeda, although he, like Gul, has never been charged with a crime. The current hysteria is undoubtedly intended to foment renewed opposition to the release of any prisoners from Guantánamo, whether Afghans or otherwise, but President Biden needs to stand firm when it comes to the growing recognition, across the U.S. establishment, that it is unacceptable, with the 20th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo approaching, and now with the end of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, to continue holding forever men who have not been and never will be charged with a crime.

Primarily, however, the alarmist rhetoric about Afghanistan and Guantánamo is meant to stir up long-dormant fears about a Taliban-run Afghanistan providing a home to international terrorists, as it did before the 9/11 attacks. From the beginning, these fears failed to take into account the divisions within the Taliban leadership when it came to the 9/11 attacks, and the U.S.’s subsequent retaliation, which destroyed Taliban rule for 20 years and was at odds with their general interest not in international terrorism, but in a much more regional preoccupation with Afghanistan.

However, as the recent attack on Kabul airport by a suicide bomber representing ISIS-K, the Afghan offshoot of ISIS (Islamic State) reveals, the resurgent Taliban of 2021 may face threats from terrorist organizations rather than tolerating or supporting them as they did before 9/11. ISIS-K (the K stands for Khorasan, which, historically, covered parts of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) not only embraces the violent fundamentalism of ISIS, originally based in Syria and Iraq, but has also attracted former Taliban supporters who believe that the current Taliban leadership, with so many having spent long years living in luxury in Qatar, have become soft and are not extreme enough.

How all this will play out has yet to be seen, but for now it is imperative that all the cynical efforts to renew fears about Guantánamo prisoners and terrorism are resisted. Last week, under the heading "The Taliban's Rise Is Complicating Biden's Efforts To Close Guantánamo's Prison," NPR spoke to lawyers who feared complications, but who were adamant that no rationale exists for serious obstacles being raised to delay or prevent the prison’s closure.

Alka Pradhan, part of the defense team for one of the prisoners in the long-delayed 9/11 trial, who previously represented other prisoners as part of Reprieve, said, "Every guy I have represented just wants to get as far away from the United States' reach as they can. They want to go away, live quietly. They never want to be incarcerated again. So the idea that they'd leave Guantánamo after 20 years [and] want to go to Afghanistan to that kind of chaos — it's just psychologically not where any of them are."

And Candace Gorman, who represents one of the men still held, said of Biden, "If he stands firm that what he did with moving out of Afghanistan was right, he should stand firm that closing Guantánamo is also the right thing."

We couldn't agree more.