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Guantanamo imprisonment stokes Afghan hatred of US

Agence France Presse
by Mamoon Durrani
January 9, 2012

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Ten years ago US troops took Haji Shahzada from his rural Afghan home in the early hours of the morning and sent him on a bizarre journey to prison in Cuba.

Ten years later, back home on his small farm, he hates the American people with a passion and says he would take his revenge if he had the chance.

Akhtar Mohammad was also dragged from his home by American troops who invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, and also dispatched to the notorious US military prison at Guantanamo Bay on the Caribbean island.

He too is bitter, but in a reflection of the complex relationship between the two countries, the car salesman does not want US troops to leave Afghanistan yet, fearing a bloody power struggle between competing warlords.

Both men were accused of being militant members of the hardline Taliban Islamist movement which was ousted from power by a US-led coalition in the wake of the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.

Both say they were innocent. And their captors failed to prove otherwise, releasing them after years in jail and thus making them martyrs to a system widely reviled by rights groups around the world.

"I was given a letter that I was innocent. What should I do with this letter now after I spent four years in jail?" asked Shahzada, aged about 50, his thin face framed by a large, greying beard.

"They entered my home, they handcuffed me in my home, my women were there, my children were sleeping there," he told AFP at his house outside the southern city of Kandahar.

"If I have a chance to come to power, I will take my revenge and punish the Americans. They are not good people, they won't be our friend. They should leave our country now."

The injustice of imprisonment without trial and reports of harsh treatment in the cages at Guantanamo -- which received its first prisoners from the global war on terror on January 11, 2002 -- fuelled anti-American sentiment, says Afghan writer and analyst Waheed Mujhda.

"Guantanamo has been a big contributing factor to growing violence and militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the US," he told AFP.

"There were a lot of people who were not Taliban but were imprisoned in Guantanamo. I personally know people who have joined the Taliban after their release from Guantanamo."

Shahzada said he was accused by his captors of being Mullah Khairullah, a senior Taliban leader in the area, adding: "There were five or six other people taken as Mullah Khairullah."

The father of eight tells of being humiliated by being stripped naked and having to use the toilet alongside others -- taboo and offensive in the Afghan code of moral conduct.

"I'm amazed that my heart didn't stop from shame, how could I become such a weak Pashtun doing this... I don't know," Shahzada said.

The Pashtuns, who mainly live in Afghanistan's south, are fiercely proud of their conservative culture and the men of their independence and manhood.

Shahzada, like fellow former prisoner Akhtar Mohammad, says he was not a member of the Taliban, who were targeted by the US for hosting Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

"When the Taliban were overthrown from power, the Americans attacked my house," Mohammad told AFP from his car dealership in Marawara district of eastern Kunar province.

They claimed he had worked with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and knew Bin Laden, jailing him first in the US military prison at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul for four months and then in Guantanamo Bay for nearly four years.

"It was totally unjust," said Mohammad, a tall, bearded 45-year-old. "I haven't seen Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, only heard their names."

Mohammad said he wanted compensation from the US for his imprisonment, but did not want to see US troops leave Afghanistan just yet.

"If the Americans pull out their troops from Afghanistan first, civil strife and internal fighting will start back in the country. The American troops should leave Afghanistan when the situation is right in the future."

About 130,000 US-led troops remain in the country, now fighting a Taliban-led insurgency across Afghanistan. The coalition combat troops are set to leave the country by the end of 2014, handing control to Afghan forces.

At least 20 Afghan citizens are believed to be among the 171 remaining prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and both the Afghan government and the Taliban want them freed.

But the Taliban have reportedly asked for the inmates to be sent to Qatar, where the movement plans to set up a political office seen as a precursor to possible peace talks with the US, while the government wants them sent to Kabul.

The issue of Afghan prisoners held by US forces took a fresh twist last week when President Hamid Karzai abruptly announced that he wanted all inmates at Bagram prison outside Kabul -- known as "Afghanistan's Guantanamo" -- transferred to Afghan control within a month.

The move came amid signs that Karzai is concerned at being sidelined in talks between the Taliban and the US. He insists that any negotiations should be led by his government.

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