It was 2am when a rocket launcher sent a grenade slamming into the front gate of Hafizullah Shahbaz Khiel’s walled compound. Screeching children and women ran into a small underground room. US and Afghan soldiers shouted: “Get over here, get over here. On the floor, heads down.”
Hafizullah, a former Guantanamo prisoner, knew not to resist. And so, his family says, he was wrongly taken into custody by the US — for the second time.
Hafizullah’s story shows just how difficult it is for the US to determine who is guilty and who is not in Afghanistan, where corruption rules and grudges are held for years, if not decades. It is a conundrum that the US faces as it prepares to close Guantanamo and empty it of the 245 prisoners still there.
The first time Hafizullah was seized, in 2002, he spent five years at Guantanamo. In legal documents, the US cites a source saying he helped al-Qaeda and planned to kill a government official.
But Hafizullah says he was turned in by a corrupt police chief as revenge and the Afghan government cleared him of all charges in December 2007.
Less than a year later, in September, the US raided his home.
This time he was accused of treating sick Taliban as a pharmacist.
Afghan officials have signed documents attesting to his innocence, but he is still in custody at Bagram Air Base, along with about 600 other prisoners.
Some Afghans claim the US is far too quick to arrest people without understanding the complexities of the culture.
“We are fed up,” said Ishaq Gailani, a member of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. “Bagram is full of these people who are wrongly accused. They arrest everyone — a 15-year-old boy and a 61-year-old man. They arrest them because they run away from their helicopters … I would run away too if I saw them. They don’t know who is the terrorist and who is not.”
Hafizullah was a village elder and a father of seven, from a family that goes back to generals and brigadiers in the army of Afghanistan’s King Amanullah Khan at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1998 he languished in a Taliban jail for several months, beaten and accused of opposing the Taliban. Fearful of the religious militia, he relocated his pharmacy to his home. People in his rural district of Zormat called him doctor and came to him for treatment.
In the heady days that followed the Taliban’s collapse in December 2001, Hafizullah was appointed a sub-governor. He was named to a province-wide Shura, or council, designed to unite government supporters and neutralize the Taliban and hostile warlords.
“I know Hafizullah very well. I appointed him to the Shura,” said Raz Mohammed Dilili, governor of eastern Paktia Province at the time. “He was respected by the people of his district of Zormat.”
The council decided that anyone found opposing the government would have their homes burned down and would be fined about US$50,000.
It also invited those who had been with the Taliban to come to the government or pay a fine of about US$20,000.
Hafizullah was tasked with keeping law and order in Zormat.
That’s where he ran afoul of Police Chief Abdullah Mujahed.
Dilili described Abdullah as a scoundrel who would have his men fire rockets at US forces, then blame his enemies and turn them over to the Americans. Abdullah and Hafizullah already had a history of enmity after serving in different mujahidin or warrior groups in the 1980s.