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For some former Guantanamo detainees, present bleaker than past

By Ernesto Londoño,

KABUL — Haji Shahzada never leaves home without a neatly folded scrap of paper that is the closest thing to an apology the United States offered after keeping him locked up in Guantanamo Bay for more than two years.

“This individual has been determined to pose no threat to the United States Armed Forces or its interests in Afghanistan,” reads the April 2005 release document, which includes a squiggle of a signature and the initials of a sergeant first class. “This certificate has no bearing on any future misconduct.”

The words are of little consolation to Shahzada as he struggles to rebuild a life he says is in ruins, in a nation he views as worse off than a decade ago when U.S. troops swooped in, promising to rebuild, secure and transform Afghanistan.

Like several other Guantanamo detainees interviewed, Shahzada said he has come to see the toll that the U.S. invasion took on his country as a bigger curse than the years he spent locked up in the seaside prison for suspected terrorists.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, the United States has held more than 200 Afghans in Guantanamo Bay. All but 20 have been released. Now back in their war-torn homeland, the men serve as legacies of what is arguably the most notorious institution of the U.S. war against terrorism. Their different paths reflect some of the unintended consequences of the way the United States has waged this battle.

Some have again taken up arms against the Americans and their allies. Others have stayed out of the battle but consider their status as a former Guantanamo detainee a badge of honor and express support for the Taliban.

There are those who opted to let bygones be bygones, even going as far as keeping an open line of dialogue with Western officials in Afghanistan.

Shahzada said he remains too angry to forgive, yet he is too scared to fight.

“I am worried for my life,” Shahzada, who is about 50, said while sitting on the floor of a spartan living room in Kabul, clutching a string of crimson worry beads. “They destroyed my life, and they made me dishonorable.”

Before the hijacking of four commercial airliners prompted the United States to deploy troops and warplanes here, Shahzada, a father of six, looked after a vineyard in Dand, a village in southern Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban.

In the 1980s, he was among the Afghans who took up arms to expel the Russians. After the Soviets left and the Taliban movement established a new government, he said that he sought to keep to himself.

“They treated people like donkeys, not human beings,” he said, referring to the fundamentalist Islamic group that imposed dogmatic rules.

It took several days for news of the worst attack on American soil to reach Shahzada's dusty village, just south of the provincial capital. It took a few weeks for the first Americans to stream in from neighboring Pakistan hunting for al-Qaeda leaders who had set up shop in this landlocked, impoverished country.

It took more than a year and four months for U.S. soldiers to storm into his house. In the early hours of Jan. 29, 2003, Shahzada said, soldiers whisked him away, suspecting that he was associated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Officials at Guantanamo would later deem his intelligence value “medium” and his veracity dubious, according to military documents that include no evidence that he was involved in extremist activities. Interrogators grilled him for months about a man who had been at his house on the night of his arrest and other suspected terrorists they thought he might know, Shahzada said.

“If 20 years from now or even 100 years from now you can find any proof that I helped the Taliban or I was involved with the Taliban, you can cut off my head,” he told a detainee status tribunal in Guantanamo a few months before being released, according to a transcript.

An ‘infidel’ at home

Shahzada was released in Kabul with little fanfare on April 9, 2005.

After driving nine hours, he found his home town transformed. The Taliban had not yet made its dramatic comeback into the area where it was founded. But the influx of cash the Americans and their allies had poured into southern Afghanistan had had a dramatic effect, he said.

“I saw reconstruction projects and buildings,” he said. “That created a lot of disunity among people. If one person got money to build a building, his relative would turn against him.”

A couple of years after his return, Taliban members sought to recruit Shahzada as they consolidated their dominion of Kandahar city and its surroundings.

“Since I had been in Guantanamo, they told me I should stand alongside them and do harm to the Americans,” he recalled. “When I told them I was not ready to join them, they branded me an infidel.”

Shahzada said he had no option but to abandon his fields, leaving grapes dangling on vines. He moved to the relative safety of the provincial capital, which would soon, too, become engulfed in fighting.

Many returning Guantanamo detainees have been forced to leave their home towns as fighting has spread around the country in recent years, said Haji Sahib Rohullah Wakil, a former Guantanamo detainee who formed a support group. Once a tribal leader in eastern Kunar province, Rohullah is a refugee in Kabul.

“I have a house in Kunar, but I can’t get to it because of the insecurity,” said Rohullah, who said he recently met with the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and a senior NATO commander to discuss peace prospects.

Rohullah, 49, said many former Guantanamo detainees have become pariahs, both in the eyes of the U.S.-led NATO coalition and Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security.

“There are ones who are bothered a lot by foreign forces and by the NDS, who have had to go back” to the insurgency, Rohullah added.

Emboldening Taliban

Siyamak Herawi, a spokesman for the Afghan government, said most Afghan Guantanamo detainees have led “normal lives” after being released. He said the government estimates that between eight and 10 percent rejoined armed groups fighting the NATO-backed government.

Rohullah said he harbors no ill will toward the Americans who detained him for more than five years. But he said their war strategy over the years has done far more damage than good. The Afghan government that the West empowered and bankrolls, he said, is hopelessly weak and corrupt. Afghans continue to be detained without being charged or are prosecuted in an unfair system, he added. By staying in Afghanistan, NATO soldiers are emboldening the Taliban and allied groups, Rohullah argued.

“The existence of the foreign troops is an excuse for the Taliban” to fight, he said. “Once the foreign troops leave, the people will stand against them and defend their districts and provinces.”

Shahzada has a dimmer prospect. He thinks the rifts that the U.S. invasion have created in Afghan society will result in an escalation of bloodshed, regardless of how soon the foreigners leave.

“What they have done is created more enmity,” he said. “Once the Americans go, they will leave behind a river of blood.”

Researcher Julie Tate in Washington and special correspondents Javed Hamdard and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.

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