Where's Pentagon 'terrorism suspect'? Talking to Karzai

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 7, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Haji Sahib Rohullah Wakil spends his days going from one high-level official meeting to another with the swagger of a tribal elder, advocating for the needs of Kunar province, his home region.

Each encounter — with President Hamid Karzai, with Karzai's chief of staff or with one of Afghanistan's other presidential candidates — begins the same: They thank him for his honorable service to the people of Kunar.

Despite those endorsements, the Pentagon says that Wakil is among 74 former Guantanamo Bay detainees who've returned to or are suspected of returning to terrorism after their release from the island prison camp.

Wakil scoffs at the suggestion. So do those who know him.

"How could he be a terrorist? He is never far off the government's radar," leading Afghan presidential candidate Mirwise Yaseeni said. "His family is here. I have never known him to do anything criminal."

Pentagon officials didn't respond to a request for comment on why Wakil was included in a report that was leaked in May. The report itself says only that Wakil has "associations with terrorist groups."

The discovery that Wakil, far from being in hiding, operates openly among officials of Afghanistan's U.S.-allied government raises questions about the report's credibility, however. Despite his bravado, Wakil acknowledges that the report has him worried that he'll be detained again.

Never out of his reach are a stack of legal documents, letters signed by scores of high-ranking officials and frayed newspaper clippings that he believes prove that he isn't — and never has been — a terrorist. Documents in hand, he's always prepared to make the case he was never given the opportunity to make at Guantanamo.

"For six years, I was ready to go to court and defend myself. They should show the world their proof against me," Wakil said. "I am ready to answer any question."

Unknown officials leaked the Pentagon report naming Wakil to The New York Times just as debate was peaking over President Barack Obama's plans to shutter Guantanamo. On the same day that The Times published its story, former Vice President Dick Cheney cited the report in a speech blasting the idea of closing Guantanamo; that same day, Obama made his own presentation defending his plans.

In subsequent weeks, Congress rejected Obama's request for $80 million to pay for the closure and restricted his ability to relocate Guantanamo detainees to the United States.

Since then, The New York Times has said that its initial news story made a crucial error, lumping together 27 former detainees who the Pentagon said were confirmed as having returned to terrorism — including several who were dead or in prison — with 47 others, including Wakil, who were suspected terrorists, defined in part as those whose activities were "unverified or single-source but plausible."

Wakil's case adds more questions about just what's meant by "returning to terrorism."

Wakil, who's now 49, represented Kunar province in the grand assembly that helped name Karzai president in June 2002. Wakil met with American officials several times after they descended on Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

At the time he was well-known as an anti-Taliban commander and was considered a potential candidate to serve as Kunar's governor.

Wakil traces his detention to an August 2002 meeting he had with an American commander after U.S. troops shot a resident at a bazaar. Wakil said he went to the U.S. base in hopes of defusing tensions.

"'Don't take any direct action here. Coordinate your actions with the local forces. You don't understand the local security.' This is what I advised him," Wakil said. "I talked to the Americans as an elder of the area. 'If there is anything I can do, please let me know.'"

At the gate, as he was leaving the meeting, he and nearly a dozen others were detained and taken to Bagram air field. Within days, only he and Sabar Lal, his military commander, remained in custody. After seven months, he and Lal were transferred to Guantanamo, where for the next six years the tribal leader was known as detainee 798. Lal was released in October 2007, Wakil in April 2008.

"I told them I am a supporter of this government. Why am I detained?" Wakil said. "I said everyone in my province will fight for my release all the way up to the president. They told me no one will fight for you because you are a bad person."

His uncle had formed Jama'at-ud-Da'wah Pakistan, a Sunni Muslim-based group created in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The State Department considered it a terrorist organization. While Wakil admits that he was a member of the group, he said he was never a fighter, that his group promoted a certain thread of Islam, not terrorism.

According to Defense Department documents from Wakil's Combatant Status Review Board hearing at Guantanamo, the United States charged that Wakil helped members of al Qaida escape from Kunar into neighboring Pakistan. The U.S. also charged that he obtained weapons that were used in a rocket attack on the main military base in Kunar.

The charges, the documents say, were based on a source.

In response, Wakil told the review panel he thought that a political enemy, whom he didn't identify, had set him up. He denied working on behalf of al Qaida; instead, he said he suspected that an al Qaida operative had assassinated his uncle.

Mohammed Roze, who directs the Afghan government's peace and reconciliation commission in Kunar, said he thought that Malik Zarin, who was then the head of the rival Mushwani tribe, had turned Wakil in because the Mushwani tribe opposed a poppy-eradication program that Wakil had begun in Kunar around the time of his arrest. Zarin had built close ties with American forces in Kunar, Roze said. He said that Wakil was never a threat to American troops.

Wakil's reputation in his province eventually helped his case. Fellow residents compiled hundreds of letters on his behalf. Politicians, including some who'd eventually seek his support, also wrote on his behalf.

"To some extent, he might have used his influence" to earn his release, said Mohammed Akram, the administrative director of the national peace and reconciliation commission, which help Kunar's tribal leaders secure Wakil's release.

Upon his release to Afghan authorities, Wakil met with Karzai, who he said apologized for his detention.

"He told me, 'This was beyond my authority. I was very sad but I knew the people were fighting on your behalf,' " Wakil said. He's since met with the defense and interior ministers and with Karzai's chief of staff a half-dozen times.

Karzai's government confirmed Wakil's account. "Whatever Haji Rohullah says about meeting with Karzai and his chief of staff is true. He is an honorable man, so whatever he said happened is correct," Karzai's chief of staff, Omar Daudzai, told McClatchy.

Wakil calmly stroked his beard as he described rough treatment at Bagram and Guantanamo, though he prefers to refer to his treatment by his American captors as "disputes." He said he was now working on behalf of his province and encouraging people to support the government and participate in the national election Aug. 20.

He raised his voice only once, as he described his anger that once again he's facing accusations and no trial.

"Where is the justice? I am still being threatened because of this," Wakil said, his arms flailing. "But I do not want to retaliate. People respect me now more than before because they know I am innocent. It is my job as a tribal elder to suffer on behalf of my people."

(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)

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A New York Times editor's note

Follow national security news at McClatchy's Nukes & Spooks.

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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