The story of Abdul Razzaq Fattahi, the former Afghan Minister of Commerce, underscores the arbitrariness of the US’ notorious Guantanamo Bay prison.
Even by Guantanamo Bay’s dungeon’s noteworthy lax standards of admission, Abdul Razzaq’s imprisonment in the American dungeon was remarkable. He was imprisoned in a prison said to house “the worst of the worst” for no reason other than his name.
Abdul Razzaq’s case is further more galling because, prior to his imprisonment, he had not picked up a weapon for about a quarter of a century. Many of his colleagues in the Taliban cabinet had cut their teeth fighting either the Soviet occupation of the 1980s or in the subsequent civil war. Abdul Razzaq, however, had spent the 1980s and 1990s working in quiet civilian life. In the Taliban cabinet, too, his job was a strictly civilian role. His was the relatively minor position of commerce minister. After the American invasion, he retired to his farmland in north Kandahar. He was promptly swept up on the pretext of owning, as many Afghan men do, a personal firearm for self defence.
Subsequent interviews – where this painstakingly polite prisoner gave thanks that God had saved him from the “grave sin” of killing – showed that the United States had the wrong man. There was, as it happened, a Taliban minister then fighting in the Kandahar insurgency who shared the prisoner’s name: Abdul Razzaq Akhundzada, the former interior minister. This Abdul Razzaq was in turn also often confused with a third namesake: corps commander Abdul Razzaq Nafiz. Both had led troops in the north during the Taliban government. Both were now leading the insurgency in their native provinces when Abdul Razzaq Fattahi was captured – because, he suspected, of a local vendetta by rival tribesmen who framed him.
Nonetheless, an even minor level of due diligence should have been exercised; Abdul Razzaq is a fairly common name among Afghans, and in fact the United States had access to information that would have summarily cleared their prisoner’s name. A month before his prisoner review in autumn 2003, Fattahi’s namesake Abdul Razzaq Nafiz was killed in battle. Only months later, the more senior Abdul Razzaq Akhundzada temporarily quit the insurgency. Using contacts in Pakistani intelligence, he tried to negotiate a ceasefire, was promptly rebuffed, and returned to battle. Both these episodes, occurring on either side of the prisoner interview, should have told his captors that Abdul Razzaq Fattahi was not the man they wanted. Instead, he remained in captivity for four more years.
Nor was Fattahi the only man to be imprisoned on mistaken identity. Yet another Abdul Razzaq mistaken for the former interior minister was Abdul Razzaq Baraso, a veteran of the war against the Soviets. In 2000, Baraso’s son Hikmatullah Hikmati, serving as a warden in a Kandahar jail, abandoned the Taliban regime and helped two of their major opponents, the former Herat governor Ismail Khan and Abdul Zahir Arsala, escape captivity. Baraso, it appears, served as getaway driver during the jailbreak.
This jailbreak would had considerable repercussions: Ismail and Abdul Zahir went on to help the Americans in the subsequent invasion against the Taliban in 2001. The former reassumed his position in Herat. The latter, whose father Abdul Qadeer became deputy for Hamid Karzai, participated in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Yet, in a bitter twist, their rescuer Baraso was soon framed by a local rival. In spite of their own guarantees of his innocence, he was imprisoned in Guantanamo and succumbed to cancer in 2007. As in the case of Fattahi, local vendettas and a criminal level of American incompetence robbed an Afghan man of his freedom.
From Kunduz to Gitmo and Back Again
Not that the pendulum always swung one way. The 2014 USA-Taliban prisoner exchange that saw the release of five senior Taliban prisoners (the “Taliban Five”) – interior minister Khairullah Khairkhwa, army commander Fazel Mazlum(yar), spymaster Abdul Haq Wasiq, governor general Noorullah Noori, and border commander Muhammad Umari – was widely castigated, particularly in right wing circles, as an abdication of American security. As is often the case, treachery had played a role in their original imprisonment. Wasiq and his in-law Ghulam Rohani were abducted by American spies after being lured under the pretext of talks. Fazil and Nuri had been captured at the siege of Kunduz, where they had surrendered to the notorious commander Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum’s forces subsequently massacred several hundred prisoners and sold others off to Guantanamo.
Also captured at Kunduz was brigade commander Abdul Qayum Zakir. He “tricked” his way out, it appears, after pretending to be a conscripted foot soldier and assuring the Americans that he welcomed their occupation. Whether the Americans believed him is unclear. What is clear is that Karzai’s government, to whose custody he was subsequently transferred, knew his identity. They also knew that his brother, Abdul Salam Abid, was by the late 2000s leading a Taliban force in the insurgency’s stronghold at Helmand. The government offered to release Zakir if his brother would switch sides. As in the case of the various Abduls Razzaq at Kandahar, however, there appeared to have been a case of mistaken identity of Abduls Salam at Helmand.
Along with Abid, another Abdul Salam, former Taliban corps commander Abdul Salam Majruh, was also fighting in Helmand: this was confusing enough, yet the government appears to have contacted neither of them. They instead “flipped” a third Abdul Salam, of no particular importance, from the same clan as Zakir. He had been presumably confused with Zakir’s brother Abid. It was a spectacular blunder: Zakir led the subsequent insurgency against the Anglo-American all the way to the conquest of Kabul in summer 2021. Accompanying him in the takeover of the palace was another Guantanamo inmate, Ghulam Rohani. When coupled with the prominent political role played since then by the five Taliban leaders released in 2014, the wheel had well and truly turned and former prisoners returned to power.
Another Guantanamo with a similar background but different fate was Abdul Rauf Khadim. Khadim was a 1990s corps commander, Zakir’s clansman, lieutenant and came from Zakir’s district. The pair had been imprisoned together at Kunduz in 2001 and released in 2007. Increasingly dissatisfied with the Taliban, in 2014 Khadim joined Daesh and leading its front in his home district for six months. An American airstrike killed him in 2015.
Another former Guantanamo inmate who briefly joined Daesh was Abdul Rahim Muslimdost, formerly reputed as a prison poet. Daesh made sharp inroads into his home region of eastern Afghanistan Muslimdost soon broke away because of Daesh’s brutality, and was recently seen reconciling with the Taliban. Rohullah Wakil, from a famous Salafi family, was another easterner imprisoned at Guantanamo. This was even more bizzare as he had opposed the Taliban in the 1990s. It took a major uproar by his Safi clan and the personal request of Karzai to secure Rohullah’s release. He later founded a support group for former Guantanamo inmates.
The appearance of Daesh on the Afghan scene, and the fact that the Taliban usually fought them harder than did Kabul, opened up new opportunities for Taliban reconciliation with former foes. On the international stage, the Taliban successfully negotiated the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The former Guantanamo inmates played a major role in the process. Locally, they made common cause with former opponents such as Abdul Zahir Arsala in fighting the extremist group. A more strained “reconciliation” was reached at Herat with Abdul Zahir’s former cellmate, Ismail Khan. Khan had been progressively sidelined, allegedly for Iranian links, since 2004. He found himself recalled from retirement to fight the Taliban attack on Herat in 2021, but wa soon persuaded to stand down. The United States had seemed a promising suzerain in 2001. Twenty years of occupation, though, had disabused its former Afghan supporters of such notions.
The abovementioned are only a politically notable fraction of the nearly eight hundred inmates at Guantanamo. The vast majority of these did not represent any sort of threat as enemy combatants – let alone deserve a rank as “the worst of the worst”. Some were condemned by the treachery or vendetta of local rivals; others by the paranoia that so characterised the American dragnet of the period. Some, such as the five prisoners released in 2014, were bonafide Taliban commanders but hardly the swivel eyed fanatics of the sort that their captivity presumed. To the contrary, they were captured whilst trying to negotiate. They indeed went on to play a major role in negotiations. Others were in fact opponents of the Taliban who were relegated to prison purely on prejudices and misinformation rather than any opposition to the United States. A tiny fraction ended up drifting into more radical circles – yet even that followed, rather than preceded, their imprisonment.
The common denominator between different cases was a level of American bureaucratic incompetence that would be laughable were its consequences not so serious. In some cases, such as the escape of Abdul Qayum Zakir and Abdul Rauf Khadim, this incompetence has been manipulated by its intended targets. In most cases, however, the dragnet swept up people – Rauhullah Wakil, Abdul Razzaq Fattahi, Abdul Razzaq Baraso, and many others – who had nothing to do with Guantanamo’s stated purposes. Contrary to the paranoia and hysteria that marked the prison’s opening in 2002, the vast majority of the so-called “worst of the worst” have been released; these include such victims of circumstance as the teenager Omar Khadr. The continued detention of the remainder, such as the particularly stark and now famous case of Aafia Siddiqui, is especially puzzling given that the United States is no longer at war in Afghanistan and the broader region.
At the very best, such arbitrary callousness might serve as a cautionary tale for the future. A recently released British journalist, Peter Jouvenal, remarked of the fair treatment he received in his six months of Taliban captivity. His Taliban captor was a thirteen-year veteran of Guantanamo – almost certainly a reference to spymaster Abdul Haq Wasiq, imprisoned from 2001-14. He had “made a pledge to himself”, should he ever get out, that “he would never treat prisoners as badly as the Americans treated the Afghans.”
Questions as to the welfare of Afghan inmates in Taliban captivity, though, continue to be asked.