The sky clotted gray and the winds gusted cold as the men crowded into an old roadside gas station. It was daybreak in Band-i-Timor, early December 2001, and hundreds of turbaned farmers sat pensively, weighing the choice before them. They had once been the backbone of the Taliban’s support; the movement had arisen not far from here, and many had sent their sons to fight on the front lines. But in 2000, Mullah Omar had decreed opium cultivation to be un-Islamic, and whip-wielding police saw to it that production was halted almost overnight. Band-i-Timor had been poppy country for as long as anyone could remember, but now the fields lay fallow and children were going hungry. With the Taliban’s days numbered after the U.S. invasion, the mood was ripe for a change. But could they trust the Americans? Or Hamid Karzai?
An enfeebled elder, Hajji Burget Khan, rose to speak. A legendary war hero and a chief of the millions-strong Ishaqzai tribe, Burget Khan commanded respect that few present could rival. “He was an inspiring leader,” a tribal elder told me later, “as pure as the rain falling from the sky.” He was also a consummate pragmatist, having forged alliances over the years across the political spectrum, including with the Taliban. Now he was extolling the virtues of the coming American order. There would be jobs, he said, and there would be development. And, most important, farmers would be left alone to do the work they’d always done.
A second elder then addressed the audience. A generation younger and a few waist sizes larger than Burget Khan, Hajji Bashar was a leader of the politically important Noorzai tribe, a frontier tycoon who had made his millions smuggling opium. Like Burget Khan, he had a knack for backing the right horse — he was an early financier of the Taliban — and now he insisted that with American wealth and power on their side, the future had never looked brighter.
For the first time in years, hope took hold of the poor farmers of Band-i-Timor. The local Taliban council of religious clerics was declared null and void, and in its place the attendees formed a council composed of representatives from all Maiwand tribes. Hajji Bashar was elected governor of the district, prompting the former governor and police chief to flee overnight. It was, in effect, a bloodless coup, with the Taliban authority replaced by an America-friendly administration. Although Maiwand would have many governments in the decade to follow, only this one, farmers would say for years afterward, truly belonged to them.
The parched Maiwand desert began to show signs of life. Schools and clinics, long ignored and abandoned by the Taliban, reopened their doors. Aid workers arrived to repair water channels and irrigation systems. Step by step, elders worked to help the fledgling government stand on its own. Hajji Burget Khan persuaded hundreds of former Taliban foot soldiers to declare their allegiance to the Karzai government.
It was a move as old as the wars themselves: just as these men had once flocked to the Taliban, they would now, for sheer survival, throw their weight behind the new power. Hajji Bashar delivered to the Kandahar governor 15 truckloads of weapons, including hundreds of rocket launchers and anti-aircraft missiles, that he had collected from former Talibs. Bashar, in fact, harbored ambitions to become a national player and was quick to find his way to the Americans. He had initiated contact as early as November 2001 — when the Taliban was still in power — via clandestine meetings with U.S. officials.
Then, in January 2002, he showed up at an American base and spent a few days telling officers everything he knew about the Taliban. His crowning achievement came the following month, when he helped convince erstwhile Taliban foreign minister and Maiwand native Mullah Mutawakkil to surrender to U.S. forces, making him one of the highest-ranking Talibs in American custody.
The Taliban Surrender
In fact, Mutawakkil’s defection was only the latest in a rush of Taliban officials looking to switch allegiances. Within a month of its military collapse, the Taliban movement had ceased to exist. When religious clerics in Pakistan launched a fund-raising campaign to get the Taliban back on their feet and waging “jihad” against the Americans, it was roundly rejected by the Talib leadership. “We want to tell people the Taliban system is no more,” Agha Jan Mutassim, finance minister of the fallen regime and Mullah Omar’s confidant, told reporters. “They should not give any donations in the name of the Taliban.” He added: “If a stable Islamic government is established in Afghanistan, we don’t intend to launch any action against it.”
Khalid Pashtoon, spokesman for the new Kandahar government, declared: “Ministers of the Taliban and senior Taliban are coming one by one and surrendering and joining with us.” The list included the Taliban ministers of defense, justice, interior, vice and virtue, information, health, commerce, industry, and finance — in effect, the entire Taliban cabinet; key military commanders and important governors; diplomats; and top officials who had worked with Mullah Omar.
The avalanche of surrenders knew no bounds of ideology: leaders of the notorious whip-wielding religious police were among the earliest to defect. A group of former Taliban officials even announced that they were forming a political party to participate in future democratic elections. “We are giving advice to Hamid Karzai,” said their leader. “We support him.”
By surrendering, the Taliban were following the pattern that had marked Afghan politics for much of the previous two decades. After the Soviet withdrawal, many Afghan Communists had rebranded themselves as Islamists and joined the mujahedeen. During the civil war, factions shifted loyalties based on nothing more than bald pragmatism. Upon the Taliban’s entry onto the scene, warlords across the Pashtun belt had either retired, fled, or joined them. Now it was the Taliban’s turn, and as one member of the movement after another submitted to the authority of the Karzai administration, there emerged the possibility of a truly inclusive political order.
It had long been Karzai’s desire to convene a loya jirga, a grand assembly of elders, to elect a transitional government. The idea took hold around the country. At Kandahar’s soccer stadium (last used under the Taliban as an execution ground), thousands of farmers and dignitaries packed the stands to rally for the jirga. Delegates were to be drawn from each of the nation’s three hundred-plus districts. In Maiwand, unsurprisingly, the revered Hajji Burget Khan was elected despite his advanced age. “We felt as if we were born anew,” recalled Kala Khan, a fellow tribal elder. “There was nothing we couldn’t accomplish.”
The Americans Attack
Spring washed over Band-i-Timor and the acacias bloomed and pomegranate groves grew thick, and for the first time in years the fields were lavender bright with poppies. Not far from the main river, overlooking those fields, stood a large quadrangle of mud buildings, with cars and jeeps parked out front and dozens of farmers milling about. This was the home of Hajji Burget Khan, who was busy day and night receiving Ishaqzai tribesmen from other districts, other provinces, even as far afield as Pakistan. They came to pay their respects to the octogenarian leader, and Abdullah, the family driver, would usually be dispatched to ferry them in from the bus stop.
One hot May night, Abdullah was sleeping in the courtyard when a thunderous blast shook him awake. Looking up, he saw a blinding white light in the space where the front gate had been. Silhouetted figures rushed toward him. He ran for the guesthouse, shouting that the house was under attack. Inside, Hajji Burget Khan was already awake; he had been sipping tea with visitors before the dawn prayer. His bodyguard Akhtar Muhammad raced into the courtyard, firing his weapon blindly. Before he knew it, he was thrown to the ground. Two or three men were on top of him. He was shackled and blindfolded, and he was kicked again and again. He heard shouting, in a language he couldn’t understand.
Hajji Burget Khan and Hajji Tor Khan, Akhtar Muhammad’s father, ran into the courtyard with other guests, heading for the main house. It was then, as the first morning light shaped the compound, that they saw armed men standing on the mud walls in camouflage uniforms and goggles and helmets. American soldiers. Gunfire erupted, and Hajji Tor Khan went down. Before Hajji Burget Khan could react, he, too, was shot.
Nearby, women huddled in their rooms, listening. Never before had strangers violated their home — not during the Russian occupation, or the civil war, or under the Taliban. A woman picked up a gun and headed into the courtyard to defend her family, but the soldiers wrested it out of her hands. Then a soldier appeared with an Afghan translator and ordered the women outside. It was the first time they had ever left their home without a mahrem. They were flexicuffed and had their feet shackled, and some were gagged with torn pieces of turban. The group was then herded into a dry well behind the compound. As the day broke and village farmers stepped out into the dawn air, the women’s cries rang out across the fields and mud houses, never to be forgotten.
The soldiers stayed for hours. House by house throughout the village, men were pulled out and marched to an open field. There, Hajji Burget Khan lay clinging to life. Then he and the rest — 55 of them in all, nearly the entire adult male population of the village — were loaded onto helicopters and trucks and taken away.
Creating an Afghan Blackwater
The central thesis of the American failure in Afghanistan — the one you’ll hear from politicians and pundits and even scholars — was succinctly propounded by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage: “The war in Iraq drained resources from Afghanistan before things were under control.” In this view, the American invasion of Iraq became a crucial distraction from stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, and in the resulting security vacuum the Taliban reasserted themselves.
At its core, the argument rests upon a key premise: that jihadi terrorism could be defeated through the military occupation of a country. That formulation seemed natural enough to many of us in the wake of 9/11. But travel through the southern Afghan countryside, and you will hear quite a different interpretation of what happened. It comes in snippets and flashes, in the stories people tell and their memories of the time, and it points to a contradiction buried deep in the war’s basic premise.
You can find this contradiction embodied in a sprawling jumble of dust-blown hangars, barracks, and Burger Kings, a facility of barbed wire, gunmen, and internment cages: Kandahar Airfield, or KAF, as it came to be called, the nerve center for American operations in southern Afghanistan, home to elite units like the Navy SEALs and the Green Berets. A military base in a country like Afghanistan is also a web of relationships, a hub for the local economy, and a key player in the political ecosystem. Unravel how this base came to be, and you’ll begin to understand how war returned to the fields of Maiwand.
In December 2001, an American Special Operations Forces unit pulled into an old Soviet airbase on the outskirts of Kandahar city. They were accompanied by a team of Afghan militiamen and their commander, a gregarious, grizzly bear of a man named Gul Agha Sherzai. An anti-Taliban warlord, Sherzai had shot to notoriety in the 1990s following the death of his illustrious father, Hajji Latif, a onetime bandit turned mujahed known as “the Lion of Kandahar.” (Upon assuming his father’s mantle, Gul Agha had rechristened himself Sherzai, Son of the Lion. His first name, incidentally, roughly translates as “Respected Mr. Flower.”) With American backing, Sherzai seized the airfield, then in ruins, and subsequently installed himself in the local governor’s mansion — a move that incensed many, Hamid Karzai among them. Nonetheless, Sherzai brought a certain flair to the office, quickly catching notice for his fist-pounding speeches, tearful soliloquies, and outbursts of uncontrollable laughter, sometimes all in a single conversation.
Sherzai may not have had much experience in government, except a brief tenure as Kandahar’s “governor” during the anarchic mid-1990s, but he knew a good business opportunity when he saw one. The airbase where the Americans were encamped was derelict and weedy, strewn with smashed furniture and seeded with land mines from the Soviet era. Early on, one of Sherzai’s lieutenants met Master Sergeant Perry Toomer, a U.S. officer in charge of logistics and contracting. “I started talking to him,” Toomer said, “and found out that they had a knowledge of how to get this place started.” After touring the facilities, the Americans placed their first order: $325 in cash for a pair of Honda water pumps.
It would mark the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership. With Sherzai’s services, the cracked and cratered airstrip blossomed into a massive, sprawling military base, home to one of the world’s busiest airports. Kandahar Airfield would grow into a key hub in Washington’s global war on terror, housing top-secret black-ops command rooms and large wire-mesh cages for terror suspects en route to the American prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
For Sherzai, KAF would be only the beginning. In a few swift strokes, he made the desert bloom with American installations — and turned an extravagant profit in the process. He swiped land and rented it to U.S. forces to the tune of millions of dollars. Amid the ensuing construction boom, he seized gravel quarries, charging as much as $100 a load for what would normally have been an $8-a-load job. He furnished American troops with fuel for their trucks and workers for their projects, raking in commissions while functioning as an informal temp agency for his tribesmen.
With this windfall, he diversified into gasoline and water distribution, real estate, taxi services, mining, and, most lucrative of all, opium. No longer a mere governor, he was now one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan. Every morning, lines of supplicants would curl out of the governor’s mansion.
As his web of patronage grew, he began providing the Americans with hired guns, usually from his own Barakzai tribe — making him, in essence, a private security contractor, an Afghan Blackwater. And like the employees of that notorious American firm, Sherzai’s gunmen lived largely outside the jurisdiction of any government. Even as Washington pumped in funds to create a national Afghan army and police, the U.S. military subsidized Sherzai’s mercenaries, who owed their loyalty to the governor and the special forces alone. Some of his units could even be seen garbed in U.S. uniforms, driving heavily armed flatbed trucks through the streets of Kandahar.
How to Fight the War on Terror Without an Adversary
Of course, even in the new Afghanistan there was no such thing as a free lunch. In return for privileged access to American dollars, Sherzai delivered the one thing U.S. forces felt they needed most: intelligence. His men became the Americans’ eyes and ears in their drive to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaeda from Kandahar.
Yet here lay the contradiction. Following the Taliban’s collapse, al-Qaeda had fled the country, resettling in the tribal regions of Pakistan and in Iran. By April 2002, the group could no longer be found in Kandahar — or anywhere else in Afghanistan. The Taliban, meanwhile, had ceased to exist, its members having retired to their homes and surrendered their weapons. Save for a few lone wolf attacks, U.S. forces in Kandahar in 2002 faced no resistance at all. The terrorists had all decamped or abandoned the cause, yet U.S. special forces were on Afghan soil with a clear political mandate: defeat terrorism.
How do you fight a war without an adversary? Enter Gul Agha Sherzai — and men like him around the country. Eager to survive and prosper, he and his commanders followed the logic of the American presence to its obvious conclusion. They would create enemies where there were none, exploiting the perverse incentive mechanism that the Americans — without even realizing it — had put in place.
Sherzai’s enemies became America’s enemies, his battles its battles. His personal feuds and jealousies were repackaged as “counterterrorism,” his business interests as Washington’s. And where rivalries did not do the trick, the prospect of further profits did. (One American leaflet dropped by plane in the area read: “Get Wealth and Power Beyond Your Dreams. Help Anti-Taliban Forces Rid Afghanistan of Murderers and Terrorists.”)
For several hours a day in a small Kandahar office, special forces and CIA officers pored over intelligence reports from the field, almost all of them originating from Sherzai’s network. They worked closely with the head of the local spy agency, a Sherzai crony named Hajji Gulalai. An ex-mujahed, he had been tortured so badly by the Communists that he had acquired a skin condition for which an aide had to constantly scratch and massage his back.
With such a history, your list of enemies ran long, and the Americans knew it. According to former special forces soldiers, the two sides had an informal pact. “He’d give us intel,” explained one, “and then we’d let him do whatever he wanted.” A group of soldiers in a special forces detachment wrote in a collective memoir that on operations, Gulalai’s men “could get into places and exact payback for something that had nothing to do with their mission.” They added, “It happened a few times. The detachment had a deal with him.”
Whatever they had been before, Sherzai and his men were now creatures of a world where, as the Bush administration had proclaimed, you were either with us or against us. Sherzai’s network fed intelligence — which in the absence of an actual enemy was almost all false — to the Americans, and reaped the rewards: a business empire strung across the desert, garish villas abroad, and unfettered control of southern Afghan politics. The Americans, in turn, carried out raids against a phantom enemy, happily fulfilling their mandate from Washington.
Amid this bounty, Sherzai’s operatives homed in on one place in particular: a district not far from Kandahar city that they nicknamed “Dubai,” a reference to the port metropolis of shopping malls and palm trees that represented, for Kandaharis, an oasis of unbridled wealth and opportunity. For Sherzai’s men, their new land of opportunity, their new Dubai, was none other than the impoverished desert district of Maiwand.
“Success” in Maiwand
Hajji Burget Khan and the other captives were brought to KAF and deposited in metal cages stacked side by side in the open air and flooded by bright white lights. They were forced to kneel there for hours, their hands bound behind them. Some passed out from the pain. Some lost sensation in their hands and feet. Then they were marched into a room and made to strip and stand in front of American soldiers for inspection, inspiring a humiliation that, in the Pashtun ethos, was difficult to even imagine.
“When they made us walk naked in front of all those Americans,” captive Abdul Wahid later told a reporter, “I was praying to God to let me die. If someone could have sold me a poisoned tablet for $100,000, I would have bought it.”
In a final act of emasculation, soldiers appeared with clippers. One by one the captives’ beards were shorn off, and many of them broke down in tears. Some, for resisting, had their eyebrows removed as well.
Hajji Burget Khan, tribal leader and war hero, would not be seen alive again. The truth of what happened in his final hours may never be known. One account has it that he died en route to KAF from his gunshot wound. Another version, a confidential dispatch from the Canadian Joint Task Force 2, part of the special forces team that carried out the raid, states that “an elderly father died while in custody” at Kandahar Airfield, “reportedly from a butt stroke to the head, which has caused much grief/anguish in the village.”
For days, the prisoners were questioned. “We don’t know who we have, but we hope we got some senior Taliban or at least some Taliban folks in there,” Lieutenant Colonel Jim Yonts, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, told reporters. Yet it soon became apparent that the captives had all followed Burget Khan in embracing the new American order. After five days, they were brought to Kandahar’s soccer stadium and released. A crowd of thousands, who had made the trip from Maiwand, was there to greet them. A few months earlier many of these farmers had packed the stadium seats waving the new Afghan flag and chanting in favor of the coming loya jirga. Now, for the first time, anti-American slogans filled the air.
“If we did any crime, they must punish us,” shouted Amir Sayed Wali, a villager elder. “If we are innocent, we will take our revenge for this insult.” Tribal elder Lala Khan asked, “Is there any law? Any accountability? Who are our leaders? The elders, or the Americans?”
The raid would leave lasting marks on a number of levels. “If they touch our women again, we must ask ourselves why we are alive,” declared villager Sher Muhammad Ustad. “We will have no choice but to fight.” Back in the village, one woman was heard shouting at her male relatives, “You people have big turbans on your heads” — the quintessential accoutrement of Pashtun manhood — “but what have you done? You are cowards! You can’t even protect us. You call yourselves men?”
Hajji Burget Khan’s son, wounded in the raid, was left wheelchair-bound. Burget Khan’s close friend Tor Khan, who had been shot four times, died a slow, agonizing death. Villagers did not take him to the hospital for nearly 24 hours, fearing that the Americans would find him and finish the job. Six-year-old Zarghuna, fast asleep when the soldiers arrived, awoke in a panic and, searching for her parents, fell into a well shaft. It took hours for her parents to find the body. “She was the laughter of the house,” her mother said.
American officials declared the mission “definitely a success.” As Major A.C. Roper explained, “It’s all a coalition effort to help rid this country of people that stand against peace and stability.” Roper’s confidence was grounded in intelligence indicating that Hajji Burget Khan had been meeting with senior Taliban leaders. That charge, it turned out, was true, but only in the most literal sense: he had been trying to convince the Talibs to support the Karzai government. The brief against him had been written almost entirely from the accusations of Sherzai and his allies. “Burget Khan was too independent,” said Hajji Ehsan, a member of the Kandahar government. “He was independently popular and Sherzai saw him as a threat.”
In the weeks following the killing, Ishaqzai tribespeople from around the country descended on Maiwand to pay their respects. The large Ishaqzai community in Pakistan staged angry protests. In the years to come thousands would be killed on all sides, but it would be the memory of Hajji Burget Khan’s murder that villagers would never relinquish.
Resurrecting the Taliban
The men of Band-i-Timor were no strangers to tragedy, and as the summer came they returned to their fields, gathering at the mosque on Fridays to talk about the work and the rains and the future. Then, one morning in August, three months after the death of Burget Khan, they learned that U.S. forces had raided Maiwand again, this time arresting the entire police force — 95 officers — in one precinct. The government announced that the captives were “al Qaeda-Taliban.”
Locals were mystified. “They were part of the government,” said the police chief of a nearby station. “The government paid for their salaries and food. I don’t understand how they could do this.” The policemen had, in fact, been appointed by Hajji Bashar, the Noorzai elder who had worked so assiduously to win support for the new government. Within days of the arrests, a new police unit took over the precinct — all of them Sherzai’s men. Meanwhile, the captured policemen in U.S. custody were beaten, some of them suffering broken ribs, and stripped of their possessions, only to be released eventually, with the government spokesman admitting that officials “never had hard evidence” of a connection to militants. Instead, the spokesman acknowledged that “these people were all tribesmen of Hajji Bashar and very loyal to him.”
The mood in Band-i-Timor continued to harden. If the government could do this “to their own people,” said Amanullah, a storeowner, “then there is no guarantee they won’t come after regular people. No one is safe from this.” Some weeks later, U.S. forces stormed Band-i-Timor once again, this time detaining Hajji Nasro, a local leader and supporter of Hajji Bashar who had also allied with the new government.
The noose was tightening around Hajji Bashar himself. At first he had met regularly with U.S. military and intelligence officials. The goal, he later told a reporter, “was to make the situation in Afghanistan stable and also to help the Americans negotiate with moderate members of the Taliban to reconcile with the government.” But now the writing was on the wall: the Americans were not fighting a war on terror at all, they were simply targeting those who were not part of the Sherzai and Karzai networks. Bashar fled with his family to Pakistan to wait for the dust to settle.
Bashar’s story might have ended there, if not for his unquenchable ambition to land a position in the Afghan government. By 2005 he would rekindle contacts with the Americans, this time through a private company working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Over tea in a series of meetings in Dubai and Pakistan, he opened up about some of his business activities in hopes of winning Western backing for his political aspirations.
U.S. officials, however, had other plans. Bush administration officials had drawn up a list of the most wanted international drug barons who posed a threat to U.S. interests. When Assistant Secretary of State Bobby Charles saw it, he asked, “Why don’t we have any Afghan drug lords on the list?” This was, in fact, a thorny problem, because some of the biggest Afghan narcotics kingpins — Gul Agha Sherzai and Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother, chief among them — were allied with Washington, and in some cases even paid by the Americans. Finally, U.S. officials settled on a name: Hajji Bashar. He was a small-time player on a list of heavyweights, and potentially valuable to Washington as a peace broker, but political expediency sealed his fate.
Bashar was lured to an Embassy Suites hotel in New York City. For days he spoke with officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency on intelligence matters, sharing meals and tea. When they finished, he was — to his astonishment — handcuffed and read his rights. A trial on drug charges followed, and he is now serving a life sentence at Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center.
The Noorzais and Ishaqzais, the two largest tribal populations of Maiwand, had lost key leaders, both of them bridges to the Americans, and now the communities felt cut adrift. “We felt decapitated,” said elder Kala Khan. “How could we convince our people that the Americans were our allies after this?”
As the seasons turned, the raids continued. Band-i-Timor was also the home of Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, former head of the Taliban air force, who had retired and offered his backing to the new government. Watching the violence unfold, he repeatedly approached government officials, pledging his support to anyone who would listen. Finally, learning that he was on the American target list, he, too, fled to Pakistan. Unlike Hajji Bashar, however, he abandoned reconciliation. Years later, he would become one of the leaders of the Taliban insurgency.
To the Americans, Sherzai’s “intelligence” rang true because the tribes populating Maiwand had supported the Taliban when the movement first appeared. But the exigencies of the war on terror meant that U.S. forces were unable to recognize when those same tribes switched allegiances in 2001 — which is precisely what made Maiwand so lucrative in Sherzai’s eyes. There were weapons to be requisitioned, tribal elders to be shaken down, reward money to be collected — boundless profits to be made. For Sherzai and his allies, it was indeed the New Dubai.
Once, when soldiers had come through Band-i-Timor, locals would smile and call out in greeting, but now they only watched in silence. People started carrying weapons again. The raids continued and villagers began fighting back, and that meant some people were caught in the middle. Soon, for many there was no choice but to leave.
Whole villages decamped to Pakistan, deserting their fields, returning to refugee camps. It was a development that officials in Kandahar city could not ignore, but they insisted that it was a necessary evil in the fight against terror. “Sometimes, the best way to catch a fish is to drain the pond,” said Khan Muhammad, a high-ranking security official.
What if, however, there were no fish to begin with?
Anand Gopal, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books) from which this essay is an excerpt. He reported on the Afghan War for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor. No Good Men Among the Living was a National Book Award finalist and is a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award For Excellence in Journalism. It is the winner of this year’s Ridenhour Book Prize.
Excerpted from No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Copyright 2015 Anand Gopal
The Real Afghan War
It was a typical Kabul morning. Malik Ashgar Square was already bumper-to-bumper with Corolla taxis, green police jeeps, honking minivans, and angry motorcyclists. There were boys selling phone cards and men waving wads of cash for exchange, all weaving their way around the vehicles amid exhaust fumes. At the gate of the Lycée Esteqial, one of the country’s most prestigious schools, students were kicking around a soccer ball. At the Ministry of Education, a weathered old Soviet-style building opposite the school, a line of employees spilled out onto the street. I was crossing the square, heading for the ministry, when I saw the suicide attacker.
He had Scandinavian features. Dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt, and carrying a large backpack, he began firing indiscriminately at the ministry. From my vantage point, about 50 meters away, I couldn’t quite see his expression, but he did not seem hurried or panicked. I took cover behind a parked taxi. It wasn’t long before the traffic police had fled and the square had emptied of vehicles.
Twenty-eight people, mostly civilians, died in attacks at the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, and elsewhere across the city that day in 2009. Afterward, U.S. authorities implicated the Haqqani Network, a shadowy outfit operating from Pakistan that had pioneered the use of multiple suicide bombers in headline-grabbing urban assaults. Unlike other Taliban groups, the Haqqanis’ approach to mayhem was worldly and sophisticated: they recruited Arabs, Pakistanis, even Europeans, and they were influenced by the latest in radical Islamist thought. Their leader, the septuagenarian warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, was something like Osama bin Laden and Al Capone rolled into one, as fiercely ideological as he was ruthlessly pragmatic.
And so many years later, his followers are still fighting. Even with the U.S. withdrawing the bulk of its troops this year, up to 10,000 Special Operations forces, CIA paramilitaries, and their proxies will likely stay behind to battle the Haqqanis, the Taliban, and similar outfits in a war that seemingly has no end. With such entrenched enemies, the conflict today has an air of inevitability — but it could all have gone so differently.
Though it’s now difficult to imagine, by mid-2002 there was no insurgency in Afghanistan: al-Qaeda had fled the country and the Taliban had ceased to exist as a military movement. Jalaluddin Haqqani and other top Taliban figures were reaching out to the other side in an attempt to cut a deal and lay down their arms. Tens of thousands of U.S. forces, however, had arrived on Afghan soil, post-9/11, with one objective: to wage a war on terror.
As I report in my new book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, the U.S. would prosecute that war even though there was no enemy to fight. To understand how America’s battle in Afghanistan went so wrong for so long, a (hidden) history lesson is in order. In those early years after 2001, driven by the idée fixe that the world was rigidly divided into terrorist and non-terrorist camps, Washington allied with Afghan warlords and strongmen. Their enemies became ours, and through faulty intelligence, their feuds became repackaged as “counterterrorism.” The story of Jalaluddin Haqqani, who turned from America’s potential ally into its greatest foe, is the paradigmatic case of how the war on terror created the very enemies it sought to eradicate.
The Campaign to Take Out Haqqani: 2001
Jalaluddin Haqqani stands at about average height, with bushy eyebrows, an aquiline nose, a wide smile, and an expansive beard, which in its full glory swallows half his face. In his native land, the three southeastern Afghan provinces known collectively as Loya Paktia, he is something of a war hero, an anti-Soviet mujahedeen of storied bravery and near mythical endurance. (Once, after being shot, he refused painkillers because he was fasting.) During the waning years of the Cold War, he was beloved by the Americans — Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson called him “goodness personified” — and by Osama bin Laden, too. In the 1980s, the U.S. supplied him with funds and weapons in the battle against a Soviet-backed regime in Kabul and the Red Army, while radical Arab groups provided a steady stream of recruits to bolster his formidable Afghan force.
American officials had this history in mind when the second Afghan War began in October 2001. Hoping to convince Haqqani (who had backed the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the post-Soviet years) to defect, they spared his territory in Loya Paktia the intense bombing campaign that they had loosed on much of the rest of the country. The Taliban, for their part, placed him in charge of their entire military force, both sides sensing that his could be the swing vote in the war. Haqqani met with top Taliban figures and Osama bin Laden, only to decamp for Pakistan, where he took part in a flurry of meetings with Pakistanis and U.S.-backed Afghans.
His representatives also began meeting American officials in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and the United Arab Emirates, and the Americans eventually offered him a deal: surrender to detention, cooperate with the new Afghan military authorities, and after a suitable period, he would be free to go. For Haqqani, one of Loya Paktia’s most respected and popular figures, the prospect of sitting behind bars was unfathomable. Arsala Rahmani, an associate of his, who would go on to serve as a senator in the Afghan government, told me, “He wanted to have an important position in Loya Paktia, but they offered to arrest him. He couldn’t believe it. Can you imagine such an insult?”
Haqqani declined the American offer, but left the door open to future talks. The prevailing ethos in the U.S., though, was that you were either with us or against us. “I personally always believed that Haqqani was someone we could have worked with,” a former U.S. intelligence official told journalist Joby Warrick. “But at the time, no one was looking over the horizon, to where we might be in five years. For the policy folks, it was just ‘screw these little brown people.’”
In early November, the U.S. began bombing Loya Paktia. Two nights later, warplanes attacked Haqqani’s home in the town of Gardez, near the Pakistani border. He was not present, but his brother-in-law and a family servant died in the blast. The next evening, U.S. planes struck a religious school in the village of Mata China, one of many Haqqani had built in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which provided room, board, and education to poor children. Malem Jan, a Haqqani family friend, showed up the next morning. “I had never seen anything like it,” he said. “There were so many bodies. The roof was flattened to the ground. I saw one child who was alive under there, but no one could get him out in time.” Thirty-four people, almost all children, lost their lives.
Haqqani was in his primary residence in the nearby village of Zani Khel, a dusty cluster of mud houses that had once been an anti-Soviet stronghold. “We heard the blast, and then the sound of planes in the sky,” a cousin, who lived next door, told me. “We became very afraid.” Haqqani retreated to the house of Mawlawi Sirajuddin, a village chief. Not long after, the house shook violently from a direct airstrike. Haqqani was grievously wounded but managed to climb out of the rubble and escape. Sirajuddin, though, was not so lucky: his wife Fatima, three grandsons, six granddaughters, and 10 other relatives were killed.
The next morning, Haqqani sent word to his subordinates and former sub-commanders advising them to surrender. The Americans, however, had already found the local ally in Loya Paktia that they’d been looking for, a would-be warlord and supporter of the exiled Afghan king named Pacha Khan Zadran. With a thick uni-brow and handlebar mustache, PKZ (as he came to be known to the Americans) looked something like an Afghan Saddam Hussein. Flamboyant, illiterate, and quick-tempered, he was in many ways the opposite of Haqqani, under whom he had briefly fought during the anti-Soviet jihad. He had arrived in Loya Paktia shortly after the Taliban fled in mid-November and promptly declared himself governor of the three provinces. In no time, he had sealed his ties to the Americans by promising to deliver the man they now wanted most: Jalaluddin Haqqani.
“The last time I saw him,” Malem Jan said, “he was worried and upset. He told me to save myself and leave, because Pacha Khan would not allow us to live.” One early morning in late November, Haqqani slipped across the border into Pakistan. He would never be seen in public again.
An Attempt at Reconciliation Up in Flames: 2001
On December 20, 2001, the American-backed Hamid Karzai was preparing for his inauguration as interim president of Afghanistan. Nearly 100 of Loya Paktia’s leading tribal elders set out that afternoon in a convoy for Kabul to congratulate Karzai and declare their loyalty, a gesture that would go far in legitimizing his rule among the country’s border population. From Pakistan, Haqqani sent family members, close friends, and political allies to participate in the motorcade — an olive branch to the new government.
About 30 vehicles long, the convoy drove through the desert for hours. Near sunset, it reached a hilltop and was forced to stop: PKZ and hundreds of his armed men were blocking the road. Malek Sardar, an elder from Haqqani’s tribe, approached him. “He was demanding that the elders should accept him as leader of Loya Paktia,” Sardar told me. “He wanted our thumb prints and signatures right then and there.” Sardar promised to return after the inauguration to discuss the matter, but PKZ would not budge, so the convoy backed up and headed off to find a different route to Kabul.
On his satellite phone, Sardar called officials in the Afghan capital and at the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, looking for help, but he was too late. PKZ, who had the ear of key American military figures, had informed them that a “Haqqani-al Qaeda” cavalcade was making its way toward Kabul. Shortly thereafter, amid deafening explosions, cars started bursting into flames. “We could see lights in the sky, fire everywhere. People were screaming and we ran,” Sardar said. The Americans were bombing the convoy. The attacks would continue for hours. As Sardar and others took cover in a pair of nearby villages, planes circled back and struck both locations, destroying nearly 20 homes and killing dozens of inhabitants. In all, 50 people, including many prominent tribal elders, died in the assault.
It was now late December, and in Qale Niazi, a village that had been a Haqqani stronghold in the 1980s, the bombing had frightened elders into taking control of a decades-old weapons dump. “We did not want Pacha Khan to take these weapons and use them,” said elder Fazel Muhammad. “They should belong to the government of Karzai, so we guarded it until they came.”
He was on his way to the village one night for a wedding party when he heard the American planes. A moment later, mud houses ahead of him exploded in a direct hit. A second bomb struck the weapons depot, setting off a series of eruptions. The night sky lit up, illuminating fleeing women and children. “Some helicopters came,” Muhammad said, “and then these people were no more.”
In the morning, Fazel Muhammad went looking for the house of his relatives, where the wedding party had been, but all he found there were pulverized mud bricks, twisted picture frames, deformed pots, a child’s shoe, a scalp with braided hair, and severed human fingers. Later, a tribal commission set up to investigate the massacre determined that PKZ had fed the Americans “intelligence” that Qale Niazi was a Haqqani stronghold. According to a United Nations investigation, 52 people had died: 17 men, 10 women, and 25 children.
Reconciliation and Flames: 2002
In six weeks, America’s campaign to kill Jalaluddin Haqqani had resulted in 159 dead civilians, a flattened village, 37 destroyed homes, a fractured tribal leadership, and the ascendancy of one man, Pacha Khan Zadran, as the most important player in Loya Paktia. Meanwhile, Haqqani and his followers were in hiding in Pakistan, watching the three provinces in which they had enjoyed prestige and riches slip out of their grasp. Life inside Pakistan proved little better. While Haqqani hid in Peshawar, his family had retreated to a suburb of Miram Shah, the capital of the tribal agency of North Waziristan. The Pakistani military was, at that point, working closely with Washington to round up al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects. In December, its troops raided the Miram Shah home, arresting his son Sirajuddin. Weeks later, they stormed the Peshawar hideout, with Haqqani barely escaping.
In the following months, U.S. Special Forces teams staged secret incursions into Pakistan to raid Haqqani homes and seminaries, inciting anger in the local community. “We will never allow anybody to destroy our religious institutions,” said Hajji Salam Wazir, a tribal elder. “I am surprised how the Americans use the Muslims,” he added. “Until yesterday, Haqqani was a hero and freedom fighter for the U.S., and they sent their own military experts to train him. Now he is a terrorist.”
Caught between the threat of Pakistani arrest and American assassination, Haqqani decided to reach out again to the new Afghan government. In March 2002, he dispatched his brother Ibrahim Omari to Afghanistan in a bid to reconcile with Karzai. In a public ceremony attended by hundreds of tribal elders and local dignitaries, Omari pledged allegiance to the new government and issued a call for Haqqani followers to return from Pakistan and work with the authorities. He was then appointed head of Paktia province’s tribal council, an institution meant to link village elders with the Kabul government. Soon, hundreds of Haqqani’s old sub-commanders, who had been hiding in fear of PKZ, came in from the cold.
Malem Jan was one of them. With long, curling eyelashes, daubs of kohl under his eyes, and polished fingernails, he had a taste for dancing, which he often performed solo to the delight of his comrades. He was also an accomplished commander, having fought under Haqqani during the early 1990s against the Communist government. In the spring of 2002, he rounded up his old fighters and soon they were working for the CIA as a paramilitary unit, providing security for American missions in search of al-Qaeda.
“It was a good time,” Malem Jan recalled. “We were working closely together, sharing meals, sharing gossip.” The CIA militias, of which there were a half-dozen in Loya Paktia, would soon enough grow into a 3,000-man shadow army, collectively called Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, which operates to this day outside of the Afghan government’s jurisdiction and answers only to U.S. forces.
Contacts between Haqqani and the CIA were rekindled, with his brother Omari acting as the intermediary. Plans were made for a meeting between Haqqani himself and Agency representatives. Key to a deal was the assurance that he would be allowed to return to Afghanistan and take part in Loya Paktia politics. The trouble was PKZ, who viewed such maneuverings with jealousy and was still angling to control the three provinces outright. “I must be allowed to take over as governor,” he declared to the Austin American-Statesman. “If it’s not me, it will be someone from al-Qaeda.”
When Karzai appointed a new man to head Paktia province, PKZ made his move, laying siege to the governor’s mansion and killing 25 people. At the same time, he convinced American military officers to clamp down on the Haqqanis. One evening, as Omari was visiting the house of a government official near Kabul, U.S. Special Operations forces showed up — without the CIA’s knowledge — and arrested him. That week, similar arrests of Haqqani followers took place across Loya Paktia.
As soon as Malem Jan realized what was happening, he fled to Pakistan, but a number of his subordinates were rounded up and dispatched to the new American prison at Bagram Air Base, a quickly expanding military command center. Swat Khan, his deputy, said that in his initial questioning he was hung by his wrists from the ceiling. Later, he was beaten. Finally, he was shipped to Guantanamo, where, a few years later, he attempted suicide. “It’s all there when I close my eyes,” he told me after his release. “The nightmare never leaves me.”
It took the CIA months to realize that Omari was in an American lockup. When he was finally released, he looked like a different man. It was a cold autumn day, on a hilltop near the town of Khost, when hundreds of tribal elders and government officials came to receive him. There were dignitaries from villages that had been bombed and attacked by American planes and PKZ’s forces, elders who had survived the disastrous convoy, farmers whose sons had been sent to Guantanamo.
“At first I couldn’t even recognize him,” said tribal elder Malek Sardar. “He wouldn’t talk about what they had done to him. It seemed too painful to ask.” Slowly, his voice quivering, Omari addressed the crowd. There was no hope in this government or the Americans, he told them. Some elders shouted insults at Karzai. Others said the Americans were no different from the Russians. Omari swore he would never set foot on Afghan soil again until it was free of “the infidels.” Not long after, he left for Pakistan.
The Haqqani Network: 2004-2014
In the summer of 2004, Malem Jan was sitting with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the second son of Jalaluddin, in their Pakistani base in the North Waziristan town of Miram Shah when they heard their names on the BBC. The Americans were offering $250,000 and $200,000, respectively, as rewards for information leading to their capture. Introverted, religious, and fiercely intelligent, the younger Haqqani was rapidly taking over the reins of his ailing father’s network, and he smiled at the thought of his deputy, Malem Jan, fetching a larger reward than him. “They say he who has the highest bounty on his head is the closest to God,” he joked.
The Haqqanis were now in open war against the Americans. Whereas his father had presided over Loya Paktia with popular support, Sirajuddin ruled from the shadows through fear — assassinations, kidnappings, extortion, and roadside bombings. Miram Shah had become the world capital of radical jihad, home to al-Qaeda and an assortment of Chechens, Uzbeks, and Europeans fighting under Haqqani’s banner. The ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, was now supporting the Haqqanis as way of influencing events inside Afghanistan, even as Islamabad publicly allied with Washington.
By classifying certain groups as terrorists, and then acting upon those classifications, the U.S. had inadvertently brought about the very conditions it had set out to fight. By 2010, the Haqqani network was the deadliest wing of an increasingly violent insurgency that was claiming the lives of countless civilians, as well as American soldiers. It was hard, by then, even to recall that, back in mid-2002, U.S. forces had been without an enemy: the remnants of al-Qaeda had fled to Pakistan, the Taliban had collapsed, and the Haqqanis were attempting to reconcile.
If Pacha Khan Zadran was able to convince his American allies otherwise, it was because of the logic of the war on terror. “Terrorism” was understood not as a set of tactics (hostage taking, assassinations, car bombings), but as something rooted in the identity of its perpetrators, like height or temperament. This meant that, once designated a “terrorist,” Jalaluddin Haqqani could never shake the label, even when he attempted to reconcile. On the other hand, when PKZ eventually broke with the Karzai government and turned his guns on the Americans, he was labeled not a terrorist but a “renegade.” (He eventually fled to Pakistan, was arrested, turned over to the Afghan government, and later was elected to parliament.)
In recent years, the U.S. has waged an intense drone campaign against the Haqqanis in their North Waziristan stronghold. Dozens of their commanders have been killed, including their top military chief, Badruddin Haqqani. Many others have been arrested. Today, the Haqqani network is a shadow of its former self.
The group’s influence, however, lives on. In 2012, I received a phone call from the family of Arsala Rahmani, the Afghan senator with whom I’d become friendly. That morning, a gunman had pulled up alongside Rahmani’s vehicle, idling in a crowded intersection, and shot him point blank. Later, I learned that a former Haqqani-aligned commander named Najibullah was the culprit; he had launched his own faction, Mahaz-e-Fedayeen, whose ruthlessness made the Haqqanis look like amateurs. Now in the crosshairs of U.S. counterterrorism forces, his group is but the latest enemy in a war that never seems to end.
Anand Gopal, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the just-published No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books). He reported on the Afghan War for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor and is now a fellow of the New America Foundation. You can follow him on twitter @Anand_Gopal_.
Copyright 2014 Anand Gopal
How the U.S. Created the Afghan War — and Then Lost It
[The research for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.]
One quiet, wintry night last year in the eastern Afghan town of Khost, a young government employee named Ismatullah simply vanished. He had last been seen in the town’s bazaar with a group of friends. Family members scoured Khost’s dust-doused streets for days. Village elders contacted Taliban commanders in the area who were wont to kidnap government workers, but they had never heard of the young man. Even the governor got involved, ordering his police to round up nettlesome criminal gangs that sometimes preyed on young bazaar-goers for ransom.
But the hunt turned up nothing. Spring and summer came and went with no sign of Ismatullah. Then one day, long after the police and village elders had abandoned their search, a courier delivered a neat, handwritten note on Red Cross stationary to the family. In it, Ismatullah informed them that he was in Bagram, an American prison more than 200 miles away. U.S. forces had picked him up while he was on his way home from the bazaar, the terse letter stated, and he didn’t know when he would be freed.
Sometime in the last few years, Pashtun villagers in Afghanistan’s rugged heartland began to lose faith in the American project. Many of them can point to the precise moment of this transformation, and it usually took place in the dead of the night, when most of the country was fast asleep. In the secretive U.S. detentions process, suspects are usually nabbed in the darkness and then sent to one of a number of detention areas on military bases, often on the slightest suspicion and without the knowledge of their families.
This process has become even more feared and hated in Afghanistan than coalition airstrikes. The night raids and detentions, little known or understood outside of these Pashtun villages, are slowly turning Afghans against the very forces they greeted as liberators just a few years ago.
One Dark Night in November
It was the 19th of November 2009, at 3:15 am. A loud blast awoke the villagers of a leafy neighborhood outside Ghazni city, a town of ancient provenance in the country’s south. A team of U.S. soldiers burst through the front gate of the home of Majidullah Qarar, the spokesman for the Minister of Agriculture. Qarar was in Kabul at the time, but his relatives were home, four of whom were sleeping in the family’s one-room guesthouse. One of them, Hamidullah, who sold carrots at the local bazaar, ran towards the door of the guesthouse. He was immediately shot, but managed to crawl back inside, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Then Azim, a baker, darted towards his injured cousin. He, too, was shot and crumpled to the floor. The fallen men cried out to the two relatives remaining in the room, but they — both children — refused to move, glued to their beds in silent horror.
The foreign soldiers, most of them tattooed and bearded, then went on to the main compound. They threw clothes on the floor, smashed dinner plates, and forced open closets. Finally, they found the man they were looking for: Habib-ur-Rahman, a computer programmer and government employee. Rahman was responsible for converting Microsoft Windows from English to the local Pashto language so that government offices could use the software. He had spent time in Kuwait, and the Afghan translator accompanying the soldiers said they were acting on a tip that Rahman was a member of al-Qaeda.
They took the barefoot Rahman and a cousin of his to a helicopter some distance away and transported them to a small American base in a neighboring province for interrogation. After two days, U.S. forces released Rahman’s cousin. But Rahman has not been seen or heard from since.
“We’ve called his phone, but it doesn’t answer,” says his cousin Qarar, the spokesman for the agriculture minister. Using his powerful connections, Qarar enlisted local police, parliamentarians, the governor, and even the agriculture minister himself in the search for his cousin, but they turned up nothing. Government officials who independently investigated the scene in the aftermath of the raid and corroborated the claims of the family also pressed for an answer as to why two of Qarar’s family members were killed. American forces issued a statement saying that the dead were “enemy militants [that] demonstrated hostile intent.”
Weeks after the raid, the family remains bitter. “Everyone in the area knew we were a family that worked for the government,” Qarar says. “Rahman couldn’t even leave the city because if the Taliban caught him in the countryside they would have killed him.”
Beyond the question of Rahman’s guilt or innocence, however, it’s how he was taken that has left such a residue of hate and anger among his family. “Did they have to kill my cousins? Did they have to destroy our house?” Qarar asks. “They knew where Rahman worked. Couldn’t they have at least tried to come with a warrant in the daytime? We would have forced Rahman to comply.”
“I used to go on TV and argue that people should support this government and the foreigners,” he adds. “But I was wrong. Why should anyone do so? I don’t care if I get fired for saying it, but that’s the truth.”
The Dogs of War
Night raids are only the first step in the American detention process in Afghanistan. Suspects are usually sent to one among a series of prisons on U.S. military bases around the country. There are officially nine such jails, called Field Detention Sites in military parlance. They are small holding areas, often just a clutch of cells divided by plywood, and are mainly used for prisoner interrogation.
In the early years of the war, these were but way stations for those en route to Bagram prison, a facility with a notorious reputation for abusive behavior. As a spotlight of international attention fell on Bagram in recent years, wardens there cleaned up their act and the mistreatment of prisoners began to shift to the little-noticed Field Detention Sites.
Of the 24 former detainees interviewed for this story, 17 claim to have been abused at or en route to these sites. Doctors, government officials, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, a body tasked with investigating abuse claims, corroborate 12 of these claims.
One of these former detainees is Noor Agha Sher Khan, who used to be a police officer in Gardez, a mud-caked town in the eastern part of the country. According to Sher Khan, U.S. forces detained him in a night raid in 2003 and brought him to a Field Detention Site at a nearby U.S. base. “They interrogated me the whole night,” he recalls, “but I had nothing to tell them.” Sher Khan worked for a police commander whom U.S. forces had detained on suspicion of having ties to the insurgency. He had occasionally acted as a driver for this commander, which made him suspicious in American eyes.
The interrogators blindfolded him, taped his mouth shut, and chained him to the ceiling, he alleges. Occasionally they unleashed a dog, which repeatedly bit him. At one point, they removed the blindfold and forced him to kneel on a long wooden bar. “They tied my hands to a pulley [above] and pushed me back and forth as the bar rolled across my shins. I screamed and screamed.” They then pushed him to the ground and forced him to swallow 12 bottles worth of water. “Two people held my mouth open and they poured water down my throat until my stomach was full and I became unconscious. It was as if someone had inflated me.” he says. After he was roused from his torpor, he vomited the water uncontrollably.
This continued for a number of days; sometimes he was hung upside down from the ceiling, and other times blindfolded for extended periods. Eventually, he was sent on to Bagram where the torture ceased. Four months later, he was quietly released, with a letter of apology from U.S. authorities for wrongfully imprisoning him.
An investigation of Sher Khan’s case by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and an independent doctor found that he had wounds consistent with the abusive treatment he alleges. U.S. forces have declined to comment on the specifics of his case, but a spokesman said that some soldiers involved in detentions in this part of the country had been given unspecified “administrative punishments.” He added that “all detainees are treated humanely,” except for isolated cases.
Some of those taken to the Field Detention Sites never make it to Bagram, but instead are simply released after authorities deem them to be innocuous. Even then, some allege abuse. Such was the case with Hajji Ehsanullah, snatched one winter night in 2008 from his home in the southern province of Zabul. He was taken to a detention site in Khost Province, some 200 miles away. He returned home 13 days later, his skin scarred by dog bites and with memory difficulties that, according to his doctor, resulted from a blow to the head. U.S. forces had dropped him off at a gas station in Khost after three days of interrogation. It took him ten more days to find his way home.
Others taken to these sites never end up in Bagram for an entirely different reason. In the hardscrabble villages of the Pashtun south, where rumors grow more abundantly than the most bountiful crop, locals whisper tales of people who were captured and executed. Most have no evidence. But occasionally, a body turns up. Such was the case at a detention site on an American military base in Helmand province, where in 2003 a U.S. military coroner wrote in the autopsy report of a detainee who died in U.S. custody (later made available through the Freedom of Information Act): “Death caused by the multiple blunt force injuries to the lower torso and legs complicated by rhabdomyolysis (release of toxic byproducts into the system due to destruction of muscle). Manner of death is homicide.”
In the dust-swept province of Khost one day this past December, U.S. forces launched a night raid on the village of Motai, killing six people and capturing nine, according to nearly a dozen local government authorities and witnesses. Two days later, the bodies of two of those detained — plastic cuffs binding their hands — were found more than a mile from the largest U.S. base in the area. A U.S. military spokesman denies any involvement in the deaths and declines to comment on the details of the raid. Local Afghan officials and tribal elders, however, steadfastly maintain that the two were killed while in U.S. custody. American authorities released four other villagers in subsequent days. The fate of the three remaining captives is unknown.
The matter might be cleared up if the U.S. military were less secretive about its detention process. But secrecy has been the order of the day. The nine Field Detention Sites are enveloped in a blanket of official secrecy, but at least the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations are aware of them. There may, however, be others whose existences on the scores of military bases that dot the country have not been disclosed. One example, according to former detainees, is the detention facility at Rish Khor, an Afghan army base that sits atop a mountain overlooking the capital, Kabul.
One night last year, U.S. forces raided Zaiwalat, a tiny village that fits snugly into the mountains of Wardak Province, a few dozen miles west of Kabul, and netted nine locals. They brought the captives to Rish Khor and interrogated them for three days. “They kept us in a container,” recalls Rehmatullah Muhammad, one of the nine. “It was made of steel. We were handcuffed for three days continuously. We barely slept those days.” The plain-clothed interrogators accused Rehmatullah and the others of giving food and shelter to the Taliban. The suspects were then sent on to Bagram and released after four months. (A number of former detainees said they were interrogated by plainclothed officials, but they did not know if these officials belonged to the military, the CIA, or private contractors.)
Afghan human rights campaigners worry that U.S. forces may be using secret detention sites like Rish Khor to carry out interrogations away from prying eyes. The U.S. military, however, denies even having knowledge of the facility.
The Black Jail
Much less secret is the final stop for most captives: the Bagram Internment Facility. These days ominously dubbed “Obama’s Guantanamo,” Bagram nonetheless offers the best conditions for captives during the entire detention process.
Its modern life as a prison began in 2002, when small numbers of detainees from throughout Asia were incarcerated there on the first leg of an odyssey that would eventually bring them to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In the years since, however, it has become the main destination for those caught within Afghanistan as part of the growing war there. By 2009, the inmate population had swelled to more than 700. Housed in a windowless old Soviet hangar, the prison consists of two rows of serried cage-like cells bathed continuously in white light. Guards walk along a platform that runs across the mesh-tops of the pens, an easy position from which to supervise the prisoners below.
Regular, even infamous, abuse in the style of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison marked Bagram’s early years. Abdullah Mujahed, for example, was apprehended in the village of Kar Marchi in the eastern province of Paktia in 2003. Mujahed was a Tajik militia commander who had led an armed uprising against the Taliban in their waning days, but U.S. forces accused him of having ties to the insurgency. “In Bagram, we were handcuffed, blindfolded, and had our feet chained for days,” he recalls. “They didn’t allow us to sleep at all for 13 days and nights.” A guard would strike his legs every time he dozed off. Daily, he could hear the screams of tortured inmates and the unmistakable sound of shackles dragging across the floor.
Then, one day, a team of soldiers dragged him to an aircraft, but refused to tell him where he was going. Eventually he landed at another prison, where the air felt thick and wet. As he walked through the row of cages, inmates began to shout, “This is Guantanamo! You are in Guantanamo!” He would learn there that he was accused of leading the Pakistani Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (which in reality was led by another person who had the same name and who died in 2006). The U.S. eventually released him and returned him to Afghanistan.
Former Bagram detainees allege that they were regularly beaten, subjected to blaring music 24 hours a day, prevented from sleeping, stripped naked, and forced to assume what interrogators term “stress positions.” The nadir came in late 2002 when interrogators beat two inmates to death.
The U.S. Special Forces also run a second, secret prison somewhere on Bagram Air Base that the Red Cross still does not have access to. Used primarily for interrogations, it is so feared by prisoners that they have dubbed it the “Black Jail.”
One day two years ago, U.S. forces came to get Noor Muhammad, outside of the town of Kajaki in the southern province of Helmand. Muhammad, a physician, was running a clinic that served all comers — including the Taliban. The soldiers raided his clinic and his home, killing five people (including two patients) and detaining both his father and him. The next day, villagers found the handcuffed corpse of Muhammad’s father, apparently dead from a gunshot.
The soldiers took Muhammad to the Black Jail. “It was a tiny, narrow corridor, with lots of cells on both sides and a big steel gate and bright lights. We didn’t know when it was night and when it was day.” He was held in a concrete, windowless room, in complete solitary confinement. Soldiers regularly dragged him by his neck, and refused him food and water. They accused him of providing medical care to the insurgents, to which he replied, “I am a doctor. It’s my duty to provide care to every human being who comes to my clinic, whether they are Taliban or from the government.”
Eventually, Muhammad was released, but he has since closed his clinic and left his home village. “I am scared of the Americans and the Taliban,” he says. “I’m happy my father is dead, so he doesn’t have to experience this hell.”
Afraid of the Dark
Unlike the Black Jail, U.S. officials have, in the last two years, moved to reform the main prison at Bagram. Torture there has stopped, and American prison officials now boast that the typical inmate gains 15 pounds while in custody. Sometime in the early months of this year, officials plan to open a dazzling new prison — that will eventually replace Bagram — with huge, airy cells, the latest medical equipment, and rooms for vocational training. The Bagram prison itself will be handed over to the Afghans in the coming year, although the rest of the detention process will remain in U.S. hands.
But human rights advocates say that concerns about the detention process still remain. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that inmates at Guantanamo cannot be stripped of their right to habeas corpus, but stopped short of making the same argument for Bagram. (U.S. officials say that Bagram is in the midst of a war zone and therefore U.S. domestic civil rights legislation does not apply.) Unlike Guantanamo, inmates there do not have access to a lawyer. Most say they have no idea why they have been detained. Inmates do now appear before a review panel every six months, which is intended to reassess their detention, but their ability to ask questions about their situation is limited. “I was only allowed to answer yes or no and not explain anything at my hearing,” says Rehmatullah Muhammad.
Nonetheless, the improvement in Bagram’s conditions begs the question: Can the U.S. fight a cleaner war? This is what Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal promised this summer: fewer civilian casualties, fewer of the feared house raids, and a more transparent detention process.
The American troops that operate under NATO command have begun to enforce stricter rules of engagement: they may now officially hold detainees for only 96 hours before transferring them to the Afghan authorities or freeing them, and Afghan forces must take the lead in house searches. American soldiers, when questioned, bristle at these restrictions — and have ways of circumventing them. “Sometimes we detain people, then, when the 96 hours are up, we transfer them to the Afghans,” says one U.S. Marine, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They rough them up a bit for us and then send them back to us for another 96 hours. This keeps going until we get what we want.”
A simpler way of dancing around the rules is to call in the U.S. Special Operations Forces — the Navy SEALS, Green Berets, and others — which are not under NATO command and so are not bound by the stricter rules of engagement. These elite troops are behind most of the night raids and detentions in the search for “high-value suspects.” U.S. military officials say in interviews that the new restrictions have not affected the number of raids and detentions at all. The actual change, however, is more subtle: the detention process has shifted almost entirely to areas and actors that can best avoid public scrutiny: Special Operations Forces and small field prisons.
The shift signals a deeper reality of war, American soldiers say: you can’t fight guerrillas without invasive raids and detentions, any more than you could fight them without bullets. Through the eyes of a U.S. soldier, Afghanistan is a scary place. The men are bearded and turbaned. They pray incessantly. In most of the country, women are barred from leaving the house. Many Afghans own a Kalashnikov. “You can’t trust anyone,” says Rodrigo Arias, a Marine based in the northeastern province of Kunar. “I’ve nearly been killed in ambushes but the villagers don’t tell us anything. But they usually know something.”
An officer who has worked in the Field Detention Sites says that it takes dozens of raids to turn up a useful suspect. “Sometimes you’ve got to bust down doors. Sometimes you’ve got to twist arms. You have to cast a wide net, but when you get the right person it makes all the difference.”
For Arias, it’s a matter of survival. “I want to go home in one piece. If that means rounding people up, then round them up.” To question this, he says, is to question whether the war itself is worth fighting. “That’s not my job. The people in Washington can figure that out.”
If night raids and detentions are an unavoidable part of modern counterinsurgency warfare, then so is the resentment they breed. “We were all happy when the Americans first came. We thought they would bring peace and stability,” says former detainee Rehmatullah. “But now most people in my village want them to leave.” A year after Rehmatullah was released, his nephew was taken. Two months later, some other villagers were grabbed.
It has become a predictable pattern: Taliban forces ambush American convoys as they pass through the village, and then retreat into the thick fruit orchards that cover the area. The Americans then return at night to pick up suspects. In the last two years, 16 people have been taken and 10 killed in night raids in this single village of about 300, according to villagers. In the same period, they say, the insurgents killed one local and did not take anyone hostage.
The people of this village therefore have begun to fear the night raids more than the Taliban. There are now nights when Rehmatullah’s children hear the distant thrum of a helicopter and rush into his room. He consoles them, but admits he needs solace himself. “I know I should be too old for it,” he says, “but this war has made me afraid of the dark.”
Anand Gopal has reported in Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. His dispatches can be read at anandgopal.com. He is currently working on a book about the Afghan war. This piece appears in print in the latest issue of the Nation magazine. To catch him in an audio interview with TomDispatch’s Timothy MacBain discussing how he got this story, click here.
Copyright 2010 Anand Gopal