Special Report

Our Ghaffar Gaffe

Should it be U.S. policy to release terrorists so that they may kill again?

By 9.29.04

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Afghan security forces were on the move last Saturday night in the Uruzgan province, trying to capture or kill Taliban leader Abdul Ghaffar, believed to be responsible for several attacks on coalition forces, as well as the murder of an U.N. engineer. Once cornered, Ghaffar fought to the death. The governor of Uruzgan province, Jan Mohammad Khan, told the BBC shortly after the battle that Ghaffar "was a major threat to security especially ahead of elections. His death means a lot for the security of our province."

The tragedy of it all is that Ghaffar was not so very long ago an inmate of Camp X-ray at Guantanamo Bay, unable to harm anyone. Captured in late 2001, Ghaffar was apparently released on his own recognizance a year or so later. (Afghan and American officials cannot pinpoint his actual release date, an alarming sign of disarray in and of itself.) Ghaffar had barely changed out of his orange jumpsuit when he rejoined the Taliban as a regional financial and operational commander for southern Afghanistan.

This month alone the U.S. military sent 11 prisoners back to Afghanistan and 34 back to Pakistan. How many of these former Taliban and al Qaeda fighters will rejoin their old comrades in arms? How many will our troops have to face again in gun battles? How many innocent Afghanis will die in car bombings and terrorist attacks perpetrated by fighters once neutralized by coalition forces?

In the aftermath of the Ghaffar incident, U.S. military spokesman Major Scott Nelson admitted to the BBC that reintegration remained difficult because many of the parolees have been "brainwashed" by militant Islamists.

"The specific reintegration program is the responsibility of the government of Afghanistan," he said. "However, we are certainly concerned about how they reintegrate them."

Clearly there is cause for concern over reintegration, and that is only exacerbated by the fact that a low-intensity guerrilla war continues in Afghanistan. "Reintegration" is unlikely to be successful until the country is stabilized under a legitimate government. There will be no legitimate government until the October 9 presidential elections. This is why militant "dead-enders" are fighting so hard.

It is difficult to measure the level of bravery necessary to vote or run for office in Afghanistan today. Voter intimidation by warlords and thugs runs rampant, and many candidates are reporting threats of torture or death. And yet millions have registered to vote (many of them women), and candidates remain standing.

"I will vote because I have become sick of war," Abdul Wahid, an unemployed teacher from the northern province of Faryab, told Reuters. "When I was born, there was fighting in Afghanistan. Now I am 22 years old and am a father of a son, but the fighting is still going on."

We owe more to Abdul Wahid than we do to Abdul Ghaffar, and until these sorts of threats to a budding civil society in Afghanistan have been eliminated, there is no excuse for trying to "reintegrate" criminals and religious fundamentalists whose main goal is to disrupt democratization. Above all we should remember the depravity and cruelty of the Taliban regime, and the long suffering of the Afghani people. Again, we owe them more than that.

Afghanis understand the stakes. "People like Ghaffar even on being released from prison return to violence and terror," Rozi Khan, an Afghan security official, told the BBC. "It is their nature so their deaths means peace for our country."

Dressing up as inmates from Guantanamo Bay and writhing in makeshift cardboard cages has become a perennial favorite among the activist set over the past two years. Street theater aside, however, there is a reason we're holding folks like Abdul Ghaffar, and it's not simply because we enjoy giving Human Rights Watch and the U.N. another switch to whip us with. We're holding them because there is still a war on, and an enemy still organized against us. Let's not allow impatience and misguided international meddling doom a noble enterprise.

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