U.S. troops repatriated to Afghanistan on Saturday four Guantánamo captives — whose release was specifically sought by President Ashraf Ghani — in the Obama administration’s surging bid to empty the detention center.
The transfer reduced the detainee population to 132 — more than two dozen fewer than a year ago. And more transfers are expected before Congress is entirely controlled by the Republicans, some of whom oppose the prison’s closure and opposed this transfer in particular.
The transfer is an expression of confidence in the security situation under Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, who took over from Hamid Karzai on Sept. 28 with a goal of being a unifying figure.
Leaving Guantánamo on Friday were Mohammad Zahir, 61, Khi Ali Gul, 51, Shawali Khan, 51, and Abdul Ghani, 42, all of whom were taken to the prison camps in southeast Cuba in 2003. They spent about half their decade at Guantánamo approved for release.
One of the captives, Abdul Ghani, was originally considered a candidate for a war crimes trial for alleged firing rockets on U.S. bases in 2003. But he was cleared for release, like the other three, in a 2009 review by a task force led by the Justice Department.
He is not believed to be related to the president who sought his release.
“Abdul Ghani was a poor man who never should have been deprived of liberty in the first place let alone more than a decade,” said Barry Wingard, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who was assigned to defend him. “As his military legal team we wish him well, as we never doubted his innocence.”
In September 2010, a federal judge upheld Khan’s military detention although an interagency task force approved his repatriation earlier that year.
President Ghani formally asked for the four men within weeks of his election, according to a senior administration official who was allowed to discuss the behind-the-scenes negotiations but not be publicly identified. The official said, among the last dozen Afghans at Guantánamo, these four were “at the front of the queue” because they had been cleared so long ago and represented no particular political identity.
Rather, they were seen as wrong-place, wrong-time people and Ghani wanted their return to signal his leadership of Afghans across the political spectrum.
The four were cleared in a 2009-10 interagency review but earlier this year a U.S. general based in Afghanistan had expressed reservations about the return, according to two administration officials who had knowledge of the process but aren’t allowed talk about it.
Those released this year included five Taliban to temporary custody in Qatar in exchange for the release of POW Bowe Bergdahl, the year’s most controversial release; six Arabs to Uruguay, the first to South America in the history of the detention center; the first former forever prisoner whose status was downgraded by a parole board and returned to his native Kuwait; and five men resettled in Europe.
The Pentagon is clearing out a backlog of transfers that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel approved and sent to Congress before his resignation. While the new Congress can’t stop the transfers, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), has repeatedly urged the Obama administration to suspend its surge.
“This repatriation reflects the Defense Department’s continued commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo in a responsible manner,” said Paul Lewis, the Pentagon’s special envoy for closure of the prison camps.
The Afghan government was not required to set up a rehabilitation program for the men. Instead, the government agreed to work with the families of each of the four to reintegrate them into Afghan society more than 10 years after the U.S. military profiled them as enemies and put them on flights to Guantánamo for interrogation.
The men left Friday but, at Afghanistan’s request, the Pentagon did not disclose the transfer until after the four men were reunited with families.
In fact, they were gone from Guantánamo by the time the White House issued a statement by President Barack Obama of disappointment that Congress had once again blocked the transfer of detainees to the United States for any purpose — trial, medical treatment, continued detention.
“Earlier this month, the Department of Defense transferred the last remaining third-country nationals held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, ending U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan,” Obama said. “Yet halfway around the world, the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, remains open for the 13th consecutive year, costing the American people hundreds of millions of dollars each year and undermining America’s standing in the world.”
He added, in an echo of his campaign promise: “The Guantánamo detention facility’s continued operation undermines our national security. We must close it.”
It also followed by two weeks the high-profile transfer of six men to Uruguay, framed by President José Mujica as a humanitarian gesture.
As though to prove it, he released a letter last week from the State Department’s Special Envoy for Closure of Guantánamo declaring the six men sent to Uruguay were not terrorists.
The release of the four Afghans reduced the detention center census to the lowest number of prisoners since the earliest days of its existence, Jan 20, 2002, when the detainee population at Camp X-Ray reached 144.
Across the years, the Guantánamo detention center held 215 Afghan men — the largest of any nationality among the 780 captives who passed through the prison camps. The weekend transfer left just eight Afghans as the U.S. winds down military operations in their country.
The majority of remaining captives are Yemeni — 86 of the 132. Only one has been convicted of a crime, Ali Hamza al Bahlul, a Yemeni serving a life sentence as Osama bin Laden’s media secretary. Six other captives await death-penalty trials in the Sept. 11 and USS Cole attacks.
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Read President Obama’s full Guantánamo statement here.