Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

After repatriation, ex-Guantánamo Afghans pursue variety of life options

Of the hundreds of detainees sent back home, some stay peaceful, while many take up arms and are killed on battlefield

Protesters gathered recently in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, to demand the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.

Now only eight Afghans remain out of a population that was once by far the largest in the controversial prison. Some 200 prisoners from the prison have been repatriated to Afghanistan. The most recent men — four low-level detainees — to return home were transferred in December 2014.

Afghans going back find their country still riven by conflict and threatened by collapse. Their fates are often unclear, and their experiences can be highly divergent. Some take up arms with the resurgent Taliban, while others seek to rebuild their lives. Some succeed; others are killed.

Several of the higher-profile prisoners have reintegrated well into life in Afghanistan.

Haji Sahib Rohullah Wakil is one such man. He took part in the 2002 emergency loya jirga and voted for President Hamid Karzai before being rendered to Guantánamo. “[Wakil] is an honorable man," Karzai's chief of staff, Omar Daudzai, told McClatchy newspapers.

And then there is Hajji Naim Kochi. He is a tribal elder of the Kochi tribe, the same tribe as current President Ashraf Ghani. Kochi has worked on national peace and reconciliation efforts.

Former Taliban official Rahmatullah Wahidyar also promoted unity as a member of the High Peace Council after his release from the internationally condemned U.S. prison.

There are plenty, however, who made other choices.

Current leaders and fighters

Abdul Qayyum Zakir returned home Dec. 12, 2007, became the chief military commander for the Afghan Taliban from 2010 to 2014 and was an opponent of peace talks with the government in Kabul. He stepped down from his post and lives on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He remains part of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leadership council, but he has not attended any meetings for two years, according to Sami Yousafzai, a reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan who communicates regularly with the Taliban.

The Taliban’s No. 2 in Wardak province, Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi, was reportedly held in Guantánamo for six years. After his release, he was taken by Pakistani intelligence and held for about four years, according to Yousafzai. Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who has written several books in Pashto, was transferred from Guantánamo in April 2005 and is an Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leader in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, is no longer with the group. He spends his time now between Doha, Qatar and Kabul, where he co-directs a school. 

Two educated Afghan brothers, Badr Zaman Badr and Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, were repatriated in 2005. After their release from Guantánamo, they chose different paths: Badr lives peacefully with his family; his brother was rearrested in 2006 by Pakistani intelligence and was freed in a prisoner swap in 2010, Yousafzai reports.

An interesting example is Hajji Ghalib, who become a U.S. ally on the battlefield. Freed from Guantánamo in 2007, he is now fighting ISIL and the Taliban. “Everything has been fighting and killing,” he told The New York Times, which noted that he was now pitted against some of his former fellow inmates.

Taliban and regional expert Ahmed Rashid believes the U.S. and Afghan governments could have made a better effort to reintegrate former Guantánamo prisoners. The men should have been held for some period in a “deradicalization holding house” and introduced to businesspeople, students and women to see how the country was changing, he said. “The Taliban they knew and ruled was a total economic zero. There was nothing.” The prisoners should have been released into an environment where they were exposed to new things, he said.

Dead returnees

Regardless of the lack of support in Afghanistan for prisoners after release, many of those once considered a threat to the U.S. are gone.

More than a handful of Afghan former Guantánamo prisoners have been killed by U.S., coalition, Afghan or Pakistani forces.

Taliban commander Mullah Shazada was released in 2003, only to be killed the following year, reportedly fighting U.S. forces. A similar fate befell Shai Jahn Ghafoor, who is said to have been killed in 2004 while planning an attack on Afghan police. Senior Taliban commander Abdullah Mehsud is reported to have blown himself up during a raid in 2007 to avoid being taken by Pakistani government forces.

Mullah Abdul Ghafour, a Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan, was killed in a NATO-led strike in 2007. Qari Faiz Mohammad, who led the Taliban military shura, was killed in a NATO-led raid in Helmand province.

Sabar Lal Melma, repatriated on Sept. 28, 2007, was killed by coalition and Afghan forces on Sept. 2, 2011, in a night raid at his residence, “acting on intelligence that he had been using his wealth to help lead and finance insurgent attacks in the Pech Valley in Kunar,” according to a New York Times report.

Repatriations of foreign nationals from Guantánamo came to a near halt after that raid, but as one expert noted, any causal link could be pure conjecture.

Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, once an Afghan Taliban leader, was expelled from the group but was then appointed by ISIL as deputy emir of its Khorasan branch, Yousafzai said. A drone strike took him out in 2015.

Khadim was possibly one of the most important people in bringing ISIL to Afghanistan, and his nephew reportedly leads the group in Helmand.

Forgotten Gitmo Afghans

Perhaps the most unexpected fate for Afghans held in Guantánamo was for the five Afghan Taliban members sent to Qatar in a prisoner exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. “There is no doubt that they are very important people,” particularly because the Taliban have lost of a lot of their leaders, said Yousafzai.

The five remain subject to very tight restrictions, and they “are not in a position to do much,” said Yousafzai, who met with Taliban members in Qatar's capital, Doha.

There are many former Afghan prisoners about whom there appears to be no public information, like Haji Mohammed Khan Achezkai and Mirwais Hasan, both transferred on March 14, 2004.

At least a half-dozen former prisoners are now in their 60s or older, with the oldest probably Haji Nasrat Khan, who is about 80 — that is, unless Mohammed Sadiq, who would now be 102 or 103 years old, is still alive.

Ethnic Uzbek Abdul Razeq, likely the first Gitmo detainee released to Afghanistan, is mentally unstable, according to Yousafzai, who said Razeq told him, “Guantánamo was a beautiful place near the big sea.”

There are a number of Afghans who were minors when they were captured or transferred to Guantánamo. The youngest was Asadullah Rahman, who spent 17 months imprisoned at Camp Iguana starting when he was just 10 years old. “We were children and suffered psychologically,” he told Al Jazeera.

In Afghanistan he is now struggling to survive and reconcile with his past. He was on a Taliban hit list when he refused to sign up with the group. “I saw no point in fighting. It’s just shooting at one another,” he said. “Eventually you get killed and leave your family behind.”

Sami Yousafzai contributed to this report.

Taj Mohammad, 28, from Kunar, is pictured on February 6, 2009 in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. According to his testimony, he was taken at midnight in November 2001 and was incarcerated for almost 5 years, and released in 2006.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

This article was updated on January 28 to reflect that Abdul Salam Zaeef is no longer with the Taliban.

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