Mohammed Naim Farouq
By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
GARDEZ, Afghanistan — Sitting down to a cup of tea, Mohammed Naim Farouq apologized for being late. He'd been in his village presiding for hours over a meeting of local leaders trying to decide guilt in a tribal dispute.
Asked whether it was hard to make such decisions, Farouq shrugged: Disagreements that lead to murder aren't uncommon.
In lawless stretches across Afghanistan, men such as Farouq, made powerful by tribal ties and guns, have for centuries walked a gray line between order and brute force.
Farouq said that he'd had several run-ins with the Taliban during the 1990s, and that his brother was exiled from Afghanistan. Eventually, Farouq said, the Taliban relented because its leaders "realized that I am from a big tribe . . . so we came to an agreement". Each side agreed to let the other alone.
After the U.S. and its Afghan allies toppled the Taliban in late 2001, Farouq became the security commander of Zormat district, a violent patch of land near Gardez, patrolling its dusty roads with a group of tribesmen in pickups with heavy machine guns mounted in the back. It's not clear whether the new, U.S.-backed government appointed Farouq to that position or, more likely, whether he just had more guns than anyone else in the area.
Farouq was arrested in 2002 after he chased down, in a pickup with a large gun in the back, a convoy of U.S. troops who'd detained several of his police officers.
"They asked me who I was, and why was I following them," he said. "I said my name is Commander Farouq, and I am the police chief of this district."
He said the Americans asked him to follow them to their base. Once there, Farouq said, he was handcuffed and blindfolded and then, in front of the base, for all the world to see, his pants and shirt were cut off him by a soldier's knife. It was a disgrace for Farouq, who as a Pashtun said he'd rather be killed than have his naked body shown in public.
"They stripped me naked, out in the open, where everybody could see," Farouq said. "I was thinking that these are infidels who have come to a Muslim country to imprison us, just like the Russians," whom U.S.-backed Islamic fighters drove out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
He was flown that day to Bagram Air Base, Farouq said, where he was held for about 40 days. The interrogators there accused him of working with the Taliban, he said. Farouq denied it.
He said he was sent to Kandahar Airfield from Bagram, and held there for about three months.
The day he arrived, "they took me into interrogation completely naked," Farouq said.
"They asked me if I knew Osama bin Laden," Faroug said. "I said, 'Fuck bin Laden and fuck your wife, too. Bin Laden came and destroyed our nation, and you came and destroyed our nation. But at least bin Laden was a Muslim and did not humiliate us like this.' "
In a story that many other detainees who were at Kandahar repeated, Farouq said he saw a U.S. soldier drop a Quran in a barrel that had been sawed in half to be used as a toilet.
"If I had a gun I would have shot that soldier," he said. "We began shouting and beating ourselves and asking God to punish this man."
U.S. officials have denied widespread mistreatment of the Quran and said that allegations that Qurans were dropped into toilets at Guantanamo are false. The U.S. military has released no comprehensive reports about alleged abuse of the Quran at Kandahar.
Farouq was taken to Guantanamo later that year, and once there, he alleged, he and a large group of men were stripped naked, then put in a line — blindfolded, he said — and marched to a station where they were issued new clothes. Along the way, he said, soldiers were yelling and laughing at them, and putting cameras up close to their body parts and snapping pictures.
Farouq said he wasn't beaten at Guantanamo, however.
In his case, as in many others, it's not clear whether U.S. troops had captured a Taliban operative or created one.
After interviewing Farouq in Guantanamo and reviewing his case, Afghan Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabit concluded that he was a rural gangster, not a terrorist. Farouq, Sabit found, wasn't linked to the Taliban or to al Qaida.
"He was with a group that was kidnapping people. It was a criminal group. It did a lot of extortion," the attorney general told McClatchy.
A senior United Nations official in eastern Afghanistan who's familiar with Farouq said it was a mistake to detain him.
"It's crazy to arrest people who can help bring about stability when there are very few people in these fragile areas who can do that," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "It's obviously not constructive to detain people who are not enemies of the state."
Farouq was released from Guantanamo in July 2003, and since then he reportedly has become something more than a local thug.
When the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2006 released a stack of 20 "most wanted" playing cards identifying militants operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with Osama bin Laden at the top, Farouq was 16 cards into the pile. The DIA said that Farouq had ties to al Qaida and to the Taliban, and was leading a group of Taliban militiamen.
A senior Afghan intelligence official said that Farouq now met with Taliban leaders every two weeks to discuss operations. The official also said that Farouq was a suspect in the murders of an informant for the Afghan intelligence bureau in his province and an employee of that bureau, the official said.
"Farouq has met several times with the top Taliban commander in this area, but he denies it," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn't have permission for the interview.
In an interview in Gardez last June, Farouq denied that he's ever been involved in attacks on American soldiers, but he spent more than three hours describing times that he said U.S. troops punched and kicked him, from Bagram Air Base to Cuba.
At the end of the interview, Farouq got up to leave. He shook hands with the reporter and, in the Pashtun tradition, invited the reporter to visit him in Zormat. Farouq said he'd be glad to slaughter a lamb in the reporter's honor.
The reporter said thank you but that Zormat was far too dangerous these days for an American.
"Why did the Americans treat me this way?" he asked. "I wanted to keep my district peaceful."