By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
KABUL, Afghanistan — Alif Khan can't go home.
After he returned from Guantanamo in March of 2003, Taliban leaders in Khost, his native province, sent word that he should join them. Avenge your time in prison, they said, and take up arms against the infidels.
Khan said they asked him to move to the Pakistani province of Waziristan and join the Taliban struggle.
When he declined, the Taliban began spreading the word that Khan had been released from Guantanamo after less than a year because he'd made a deal with the Americans, because he was a spy. Spies, everyone in Khost knows, often meet the same fate: They're beheaded and tossed on the side of the road.
"They said if they got the opportunity, they would kill me," Khan said.
So now he lives in Kabul, selling cars and property, and quietly slipping back to Khost once a year to see his family.
Afghan troops arrested him in Gardez in early 2002 while he was riding in a car from Kabul to Khost. He said that the same men had arrested him a few days earlier, on the way to Kabul, but released him when he paid a bribe with a stack of Pakistani rupees and a Rado watch.
This time, however, the men dragged him to their headquarters, beat him on his feet with sticks, then handed him over to the Americans, he said.
Years later, it still isn't clear why he was arrested. He was released before the U.S. military began its tribunal process at Guantanamo, so there are no public records of the charges against him.
The security chief in Gardez at the time, Abdullah Mujahid, is now in Guantanamo after being charged with organizing attacks on American troops. His men had a reputation for corruption — extortion was a frequent pastime — and for drumming up charges against their political and tribal enemies.
Afghan security and political officials whom McClatchy interviewed in Kabul, Khost and Gardez said they'd never heard of Khan, which suggests that if he had ties to Islamic militants, they weren't very strong.
His relatively fast exit from Guantanamo suggests that whatever the allegations against him were, they either weren't very serious or were found to be false.
At Bagram Air Base, where he was held for about 45 days, Khan said, interrogators accused him of being a member of the Taliban. The same was true during the 25 days that followed at Kandahar Airfield.
He then spent nine to 11 months at Guantanamo, where interrogators kept asking him whether he was a Taliban member, he said. He went in for questioning twice a day his first month, then began going a month or two without seeing an interrogator, he said.
At Guantanamo, Khan said, he received occasional letters from his family through the Red Cross: "Hello and greetings from your brother Dawood. We the whole family and relatives are ok. We pray for your release." The U.S. military blacked out large parts, however, citing security concerns.
"I thought that if they don't even allow entire letters to come from my family that it meant they would kill us," Khan said. "I didn't think I would ever return to Afghanistan."
In March 2003, though, he was released and flown back to Afghanistan.
Five years later, he hasn't been able to rebuild much of his life. He had to spend about $5,000 to buy his business and property back from the warlords who'd seized it when he was detained, then he had to move to Kabul.
Human rights group workers and journalists have interviewed him several times, and some of them suggested to him that the U.S. or Afghan government might compensate him. The months and years have passed, however, and nothing has happened.
After he told his story to a McClatchy reporter last August, he pulled out a laminated card that was signed by the noncommissioned officer in charge of detainee operations at Bagram, where he landed when he returned from Guantanamo.
The card has his name and detainee number, and it says: "This individual has been determined to pose no threat to the United States military or its interests in Afghanistan."
Khan looked at the card, then at the reporter. He wanted to know what it meant.
Unlike many other former detainees, Khan said that he was never hit at any of the detention camps. He hastened to add that his stay wasn't pleasant. At Bagram, Khan said, he had to sleep in shackles and the guards beat on the walls to keep him awake. At Kandahar, he saw other detainees beaten in the tents where they lived, usually because they didn't obey orders or ignored the guards during prayer times. The guards also took dogs into the tents and let them jump toward detainees to scare them, Khan said, but no one was hurt.
Khan said he had no idea what to think about being at Guantanamo.
"I was living in a cage in the middle of the ocean," he said. "I saw Arabs try to hang themselves, but the guards came in time and took them to the hospital. Maybe it was because they were there for a long time, because they had no hope."