Thinking Aloud: More About Who’s Who in the Afghan Deal

June 4, 2014 by Darius 

As a brief follow-up to the “Who’s Who in the Afghan Deal” post from two days ago [], I would note that the information I presented was compiled largely from various news reports and an online database of bios of important people in Afghanistan that is non-US and based in part on in-country assessments.

I intentionally did *not* base the information I presented solely or primarily on the prisoners’ Guantanamo case files, as many media outlets did, because the information released from those case files is crafted to tell a very specific story, a story that must justify why the US has detained these men for more than a decade.

To give an example: according to the information released from his Guantanamo case file, Abdul Nabi Omari (sometimes given as Mohammad Nabi Omari) was “one of the most significant former Taliban leaders detained” at Guantanamo.  However, according to the Afghan bio database, “Witnesses who know the Khost Taliban were mystified as to why the US authorities believe Omari is one of the major figures they have in custody.”  The Afghan community considered Omari a sufficiently small fish that the Afghan High Peace Council apparently did not include him in its 2011 request for Guantanamo prisoner release.  But interrogators at Guantanamo were convinced that Omari’s lack of useful information was prima facie evidence that he was not telling the truth:  the official evaluation of Omari’s story, from Guantanamo documents about Omari released by WikiLeaks in 2011, includes, “Detainee continually leads questioning away from himself by providing innocuous information about known Khowst region ACM [anti-Coalition militia] leaders.  These insights offer hints detainee may possess unexploited knowledge of ACM related activities.”  “Hints.”  “May.”  Kind of thin reasoning to hold someone without trial for 11.5 years.

What is the truth about Omari?  It’s impossible to say, but context suggests it is almost certainly something quite short of “one of the most significant former Taliban leaders detained.”

Why?  Politics.  Former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who personally interrogated many of the detainees captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan and later brought to Guantanamo, wrote in his book The Black Banners that on several occasions he and his colleagues were pressured from higher up the chain of command to exaggerate the importance or knowledge of a detainee in order to make the detainee’s capture out to be a greater achievement.  Sometimes, it was hard to accept that a prisoner really was a two-bit player who knew nothing the US cared about.

The case files are a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, the case files needed to document information for a possible military trial and justify why a detainee was being denied release.  They would need to state the threat in the strongest possible language.  On the other hand, as the Obama Administration has been releasing some of the detainees in dribs and drabs over the last couple of years, the language from the case files has been used by political opponents, as it is again now, to paint a picture of dangerous, hardened jihadis recklessly released back into the world.

Case files should be considered something like memoirs: they are not impartial records, they are promoting a particular version of a story, a version that burnishes the role of the star character.  In the case of the Guantanamo prisoner files, the star character is both the prisoner and the crafty interrogators who worked tirelessly to get to the bottom of the matter.  Funny how they both come out looking just how one would expect they should.

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