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US behind Afghan warlord's rise, fall

At Guantanamo, unruly chieftains join combatants

Gardez, the provincial capital that was home to Abdullah Mujahid, has grown since his departure. Shoppers at a market bustled about recently but residents say the insurgency rages in the background.
Gardez, the provincial capital that was home to Abdullah Mujahid, has grown since his departure. Shoppers at a market bustled about recently but residents say the insurgency rages in the background. (Jean Chung for The Boston Globe)

GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- When US special forces wanted to defeat the Taliban, they befriended Abdullah Mujahid, the police chief of this mountainous province. They visited his home with a gift of chocolates, and gave money and equipment to his fighters.

Mujahid met frequently with US troops, and even arrested and handed over a suspect the US military sent to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But as the threat of the Taliban receded, US forces sought to replace Mujahid -- an illiterate leader who had been accused of corruption -- with a professionally trained police chief. Soon, Mujahid was accused of being responsible for an attack on US forces. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he languishes not far from the man he arrested.

The fall of Mujahid offers a rare glimpse into the trials of postwar Afghanistan, where US special forces struggled to rein in the warlords they once wooed.

But it also reveals the extent to which the military is using the Guantanamo Bay detention center for a starkly different purpose than the one outlined by President Bush: to keep the worst terrorism suspects behind bars.

A Globe investigation found that the military has used Guantanamo Bay not just for terrorists "picked up on the battlefield" -- as Bush has repeatedly asserted -- but also for uncooperative or unruly tribal chieftains, many of whom had been key supporters of the US-led invasion.

The use of Guantanamo Bay for purposes other than fighting international terrorism could have legal significance, because Bush has tried to justify creating a place where detainees can be held without normal legal protections on the grounds that the prisoners are enemy combatants who might launch a terrorist attack if they are released.

Despite Bush's assertions, at least 52 detainees who had been held at Guantanamo Bay were not accused of ties to the Taliban or Al Qaeda, according to publicly released military records detailing the accusations against nearly 500 prisoners. At least a dozen were once officials in the post-Taliban government, arrested in their homes or offices during a broader US campaign to rein in warlords.

Mujahid was one. The former head of the United Nations office in Gardez, Thomas Ruttig, said he urged the Afghan government to remove Mujahid from his post because he was seen as an uneducated, disruptive, and corrupt figure. But Ruttig said he expected Mujahid to be fired or tried for corruption in Afghanistan, not held indefinitely in Cuba without a trial.

"I never dreamed he would be sent to Guantanamo," Ruttig said in a recent interview in Kabul.

John Sifton, a Human Rights Watch researcher, helped write a 2003 report that accused Mujahid and his inner circle of allowing their fighters to set up illegal checkpoints to take money from truck drivers. But he, too, said Mujahid should not have been sent to Guantanamo Bay.

"Guantanamo is not even vaguely the appropriate place for him," he said, adding that the administration shouldn't use its power to hold accused terrorists at Guantanamo to solve political or criminal problems in Afghanistan.

The distinction between Guantanamo and a regular military or civilian prison is significant because Guantanamo detainees are stripped of most of their rights, and can be held on unspecified charges without being given a chance to mount a normal legal defense.

For a year after Mujahid's arrest in July 2003, the military refused to release any information about why he was arrested. But in 2004, after a Supreme Court ruling forced the government to reveal why people were being held, the military accused Mujahid of "being responsible for" an attack in which a US soldier was killed, though UN and Afghan officials say Mujahid was not in Gardez at the time.

Then, in 2005, the military accused him of being a senior leader of a militant group operating in India-held Kashmir. But Pakistani news accounts suggest that another man by the same name who died last fall was a senior leader of that group.

Now, even the military has stopped saying that Mujahid belongs in Guantanamo Bay. In February, Pentagon officials informed his lawyers that he was among a group of at least 12 detainees who had been cleared to return to Afghanistan, either for release or further detention.

Pentagon spokesman Jeffrey Gordon declined to discuss the accusations against Mujahid, but said the decision to clear him for transfer does not "change the fact that he still poses a threat to the United States."

"We take into account many factors in the decision to transfer a detainee," Gordon said. "Those factors include the risk the detainee would pose if released, the prospects of the detainee reintegrating into society, and the capacity of the receiving government to hold the detainee if they deem detention is necessary to mitigate the threat."

Gordon declined to comment on why Mujahid had not yet been sent back to Afghanistan, where his wife and three children await him. Gordon said only that the US and Afghan governments are working on a transfer agreement.

Recently, Mujahid was moved from a communal living arrangement to a solitary cell, with only limited contact with other inmates.

"No one has told us why," said his lawyer, Carolyn Welshhans, who has taken his case pro bono, even though she has only limited access to him.

A call for volunteers
Enlisting the help of strongmen like Mujahid was once a key to the US strategy in Afghanistan. When the Taliban were defeated, only a few hundred US soldiers were on the ground -- most of them special forces Green Berets working alongside the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, a coalition of warlords who sometimes clashed in turf battles with one another.

In Gardez, Mujahid and his childhood friend Ziauddin -- who, like many Afghans, uses only one name -- filled the vacuum left by the fleeing Taliban. As members of the tiny ethnic Tajik minority, they suddenly had powerful patrons in the Tajik-led Northern Alliance and the new Afghan government.

Mujahid became police chief and Ziauddin became the local army commander. The government of US-backed President Hamid Karzai was so new that it had not yet begun to pay salaries or send equipment. So Mujahid and Ziauddin used untrained volunteers to patrol with their personal weapons.

Complaints quickly arose. Citizens in Gardez accused them of letting their fighters rob drivers at checkpoints, according to interviews with UN, US, and Afghan officials and a Human Rights Watch report. The fact that they came from a minority tribe also sparked opposition.

But many in town backed the two men, who were embroiled in a tribal war against Pacha Khan Zadran, a warlord in the south. Throughout 2002, the US military described Mujahid and Ziauddin's forces as pro-government in media reports, and called Zadran a renegade.

In spring 2002, US fighters recruited Mujahid and Ziauddin, among others, to help in the fight against remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in a mountainous area known as Shaikot.

The key point of contact between local strongmen and US special forces was a sunburned man known only as "Commander Mike," according to current and former Afghan and UN officials. Special forces operate only under first names or aliases.

Commander Mike was known in the lawless mountainous provinces for brokering deals with local warlords, according to humanitarian workers and Afghan soldiers in the area at the time. They said he was known to use scare tactics before a negotiation, sometimes exploding harmless bombs in the air above the heads of Afghan commanders to get their cooperation.

Commander Mike gave Ziauddin money and a satellite telephone to fight in Shaikot, as well as shoes, uniforms, and camping gear for about 320 fighters, Ziauddin said in an interview.

Later, when Mujahid's father returned from a religious visit to Saudi Arabia, Commander Mike brought chocolates to the family home and was given perfume in return, according to Mujahid's brother.

A year later, in spring 2003, a second man also called Commander Mike appeared at the special forces base in Gardez. This man wore a beard and was a "real fighter," according to Faiz Zaland, an Afghan aide to the provincial governor at the time who also served as a translator for the US military there.

The new Commander Mike came at a time when the US military was trying to replace troublesome strongmen with educated, modern leaders. The US government was also trying to set up the first "Provincial Reconstruction Team" in Gardez to work with the Afghan government, hoping to win the confidence of citizens by kicking out corrupt leaders and turning Gardez into a model of good government, according to interviews with US officials who worked in Gardez.

The new Commander Mike kept up relations with Mujahid and Ziauddin for a time. In February 2003, Mujahid arrested a suspect he handed over to special forces. The suspect was later sent to Guantanamo Bay.

But at the same time, Commander Mike was quietly working to banish Mujahid and Ziauddin from Gardez, according to former and current Afghan and UN officials who met with him frequently in security coordination meetings.

Zaland said Commander Mike was responsible for the arrests of Ziauddin, Mujahid, and Hafizullah Shabaz Khail, a district officer of neighboring Zurmat. Khail, who was also sent to Guantanamo Bay, met an American named Mike at the Spindak Hotel for several days of talks shortly before his arrest, according to military transcripts of Khail's testimony.

"Mike was the guy who followed all the cases," said Zaland, the former military translator, adding that the Americans had lost patience with their former allies. "During the Shaikot operation, Ziauddin and Mujahid helped the coalition forces a lot. But they were just negative-minded. They were illiterate, from the smallest tribe. They didn't have any background in the military or police."

The relationship sours

A key turning point came early in 2003, when General Dan K. McNeill -- now head of NATO's force in Afghanistan -- traveled to Gardez and met with Mujahid and Ziauddin to ask them to remove their fighters from two strategic hilltops that overlooked the town, according to Ziauddin and Zaland, the translator.

Ziauddin said he and Mujahid resisted and complained to their friends in the Afghan Ministry of Defense about the orders, saying that their enemies -- Pacha Khan Zadran and Al Qaeda -- would come in over the hills.

US forces eventually bombed Ziauddin's arms caches on the hills, but did not arrest him until many months later. Over time, US forces came to suspect Ziauddin and Mujahid of launching rockets at the new US Provincial Reconstruction Team base, according to interviews with US soldiers and Afghan officials who served in Gardez at the time.

Relations between Mujahid and the special forces deteriorated further in March 2003. US soldiers in Gardez had severely beaten a group of Afghan prisoners during an interrogation, and one of them had died, according to several former Afghan police and a report by the Afghan attorney general's office, which investigated the case.

The second Commander Mike ordered that the seven living prisoners be transferred to Mujahid's jail, according to the attorney general's report and Raz Mohammad Dalili, the Afghan governor at the time who helped make the arrangements for the transfers.

At a joint security meeting, Commander Mike threatened to kill Mujahid if he released the prisoners, according to the Crimes of War Project, a Washington human rights group that investigated the alleged abuse.

The Americans who dropped off the prisoners spoke briefly to Mujahid in his office behind a closed door and then drove away, said Mehboob Ahmad, Mujahid's personal driver.

Some of the prisoners were unconscious, and their bodies had turned black and blue, Ahmad said. Mujahid ordered that they be given medical treatment and mattresses, Ahmad said.

"Mujahid was upset. We all were," he said. "I think anyone who would have seen them in that condition would be upset."

Mujahid described the prisoners' injuries to Afghan military prosecutors, who later wrote a report recommending that the American soldiers be punished. In January of this year, two special forces soldiers received administrative punishments in connection with the prisoners' treatment. Major James Gregory, a spokesman, said at the time that the special forces command "takes all allegations of abuse seriously."

Weeks after the prisoners were dropped off at Mujahid's jail, the Afghan government decided to remove Mujahid from his post. Dalili, the governor, said in a recent interview in Kabul that the second Commander Mike helped persuade him -- and Afghanistan's central government -- to replace Mujahid with a professionally trained police chief.

Initially, Mujahid refused to allow the new chief into the town. But after negotiations -- and after Mujahid was offered a job as "highway commander" in Kabul -- he stepped down in an elaborate ceremony.

Around this time, Commander Mike called Mujahid to his office and advised him to leave Gardez, warning that he was at risk of being sent to Guantanamo Bay if he remained, said Ahmad, who drove Mujahid to that meeting.

Ruttig also recalled that Mujahid was told that he would be arrested if he stayed in Gardez.

Mujahid left Gardez for Kabul. He stayed a month, waiting for a letter of appointment for the new job, but it never came.

While he was away, US forces were ambushed near an abandoned police checkpoint near Gardez, killing one soldier and injuring two others.

Mujahid was held responsible for the attack because US forces believed that it had been carried out by one of his supporters as revenge for his removal from his post, Zaland said.

In July 2003, Mujahid returned to Gardez to attend a wedding. Days later, American forces arrived at his home and asked him to come to a meeting. He went willingly, but never returned. Months later, employees from the Red Cross in Kabul handed Mujahid's family a letter he had sent to them from Guantanamo Bay.

Mujahid's deputy at the police station, Fazel Ahmad Wasiq -- who today runs the US-assisted police training center in Gardez -- said it was a good thing for the town to get a new police chief. But he insists that Mujahid did not deserve to be sent to Guantanamo Bay.

After Mujahid's arrest, Wasiq said he visited Commander Mike and asked for an explanation.

"I said, 'You were so friendly with him. He was a good guy. Why did you arrest him?' " recalled Wasiq. The only explanation Mike gave, he said, was: " 'We were ordered to do it by higher-ups.' "

From chief to combatant
Six days after Mujahid's arrest, the Americans arrested Ahmad, his driver. Ahmad said they stripped him naked and at one point held him upside down for more than 10 hours during questioning. They asked him whether Mujahid had secretly hoarded weapons while he was police chief, he said.

"I replied that he has handed over all the weapons and kept not even a bullet," said Ahmad.

US soldiers also arrested Syed Nabi Siddiqui, a police colonel who had served under Mujahid and had stayed on to work with the new chief. Siddiqui said soldiers beat him, photographed him naked, and kept him in a cage while they questioned him.

"The American forces asked: 'Who is Mujahid? Is he a criminal? Did he kill somebody?' " Siddiqui said. "I replied that Mujahid is preventing the thieves from coming in the town."

Siddiqui said he also told them that -- decades ago -- Mujahid had been a member of Harakat-e-Mulavi, an Afghan group that fought the Russian invasion in the 1980s that is now believed to have ties to extremists. That allegation surfaced in Mujahid's file at Guantanamo Bay.

Both Ahmad and Siddiqui were released from US custody with a slip of paper that said they had been determined not to be a threat. They have both joined a lawsuit against former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld protesting their treatment.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Command investigated their cases and found no evidence that they were abused, said Chris Grey, a spokesman.

For months, Ziauddin avoided arrest by staying in Kabul, where his allies gave him a job at the Ministry of Defense.

But he returned to Gardez in fall 2003, sparking swift complaints from Afghan officials who accused him of extortion and threats. Within days of his return, US forces arrested him and detained him at Bagram Air Force Base for about a year. He is currently unemployed, but free.

Four years after his arrest, Mujahid still sits in Guantanamo Bay. In 2004, he was told he could call witnesses from Afghanistan to try to prove that he is not an "enemy combatant." But officers later told him none of his witnesses could be found -- even Afghanistan's interior minister.

The accusations against Mujahid were not drawn up by the special forces soldiers who knew him in Gardez. The Pentagon hired emergency workers with two weeks' training to search through intelligence reports to create the files against the detainees, according to an affidavit by Rear Admiral James M. McGarrah, a top Pentagon official.

The first file, drawn up in 2004, accused Mujahid of membership in Harakat-e-Mulavi, the extremist group that fought the Russians. But a year later, all mention of Harakat disappeared, replaced by a new allegation: that he was a senior leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group based in Lahore, Pakistan, that conducts terrorist operations in India-held Kashmir.

Mujahid was stunned.

"It seems you have confused me for someone else," he said in 2005, at the one review hearing before US military officers that he receives each year.

Mujahid's lawyers investigated the allegation. A Google search turned up a clue: A man named Abdullah Mujahid was indeed believed to be a senior leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba. But that man had been killed in November 2006.

Mujahid's lawyers planned to highlight the apparent mistake. But this past February, they received an e-mail from Pentagon officials, telling them Mujahid had been cleared to return to Afghanistan.

Yet, six months have gone by and he languishes in his solitary cell. Gordon, the Pentagon spokesman, said the US government is working closely with Afghan officials to transfer detainees such as Mujahid home. Five Afghan detainees were sent home last week, but Mujahid was not one of them.

His friends in Afghanistan, along with his lawyers and human rights workers, maintain that his presence at Guantanamo Bay is a misuse of the powers claimed by the president to hold terrorism suspects -- defined by Rumsfeld as "the worst of the worst."

"Here we have a man who, by many accounts, was helping the United States, and fought against the Taliban, and we have evidence to demonstrate that," said Welshhans, his lawyer.

To indefinitely imprison anyone without a trial, let alone someone like that, is unconscionable."

When -- or if -- Mujahid makes it home, he will find that much has changed.

His father has died. His children, ages 7, 6, and 5, have grown up without him.

The town has grown, too. Wasiq, his former deputy and friend, now runs a new police training facility. His successor -- the professionally trained police chief -- was fired after allegations of corruption. His sworn enemy, Pacha Khan Zadran, is now a member of Parliament.

But a few things have not changed, according to the people of Gardez: Americans who use only their first names still broker deals, make arrests, and detain people across the restive countrywide.

The insurgency they are fighting rages on.