By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
KABUL, Afghanistan — Ghalib Hassan recognized his captors.
Hassan was a district chief in Nangarhar province for the Afghan Interior Ministry. The men who were holding him, in a basement at an airstrip in Jalalabad during March 2003, were U.S. soldiers who used to come to his office and talk about how to bring security to his area, Nangarhar's Achine district.
So why, Hassan asked, were those same soldiers — special forces troops, by his description — now beating him? Why were they pushing his head into a bucket of water until he passed out?
Hassan said later in an interview that he had no idea.
"At night they would strap me down on a cot, and put a bucket of water on the floor, in front of my head. And then they would tip the cot forward and dunk my head in the bucket," he said. "They would leave my head underwater and then jerk it out by my hair. I sometimes lost consciousness."
The soldiers screamed at him to confess that he supported the former Taliban governor of Nangarhar. It made no sense, Hassan said. The Taliban had expelled him from Afghanistan in 1996 because he and other former anti-Soviet fighters refused to disarm and recognize the Taliban regime.
The Taliban "were very hard-line, they were very fundamentalist," Hassan said. "They arrested me in my village, they put me in jail for two months and they beat me badly. They beat me in my coccyx so badly that I still can't sleep on my right side."
Hassan said he attacked Taliban positions as a guerrilla fighter operating from Pakistan during the late 1990s, then swept into Afghanistan to battle them — including the fight at Tora Bora — with a large group of U.S.-backed Afghan fighters in late 2001.
He explained all this to the U.S. soldiers, he said, but they wouldn't believe him.
"I told them, 'I am the security commander of a district. How can you say I am against the government?' " Hassan said. " 'Where is your proof?' "
Hassan told his story to a McClatchy reporter in a small room owned by relatives on the outskirts of Kabul. Men wandered in and out during the interview: a cousin who sells computers in Pakistan, a cousin who works as a driver in Kabul. The lights flickered off and on before they went out completely and lamps had to be brought in.
Din Mohammed, who was the governor of Nangarhar when Hassan served there after the Taliban left power, said the Americans made a terrible mistake by arresting the security commander.
"I know Hajji Ghalib very well, and he did not have any links with al Qaida or the Taliban," said Mohammed, who's now the governor of Kabul and is a longtime ally of the U.S.-backed Afghan government. He used the honorific title of "hajji," for one who's been on the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
Tribal rivals who resented Hassan's gruff style set him up, Mohammed said.
"For example, when someone came to his office and complained about something, Haji Ghalib would get angry and slap them," Mohammed said. "This was a rural area, so if you slap one man, you slap the whole tribe."
Mohammed said he'd tried to intercede with local American military officers to get Hassan released, explaining that he was the victim of his own bad behavior and that he was committed to fighting the Taliban. The U.S. officers couldn't be convinced that their informants were out to settle personal scores, Mohammed said.
A week before his arrest in February 2003, Hassan said, his office had gathered the weapons that his men had captured from Taliban fighters — about 13 truckloads, he said — and handed them over to the Americans.
When the U.S. troops came to his office, Hassan thought they were there to empty a storage room of the remaining weapons. Instead, they arrested him and took him to the airport at Jalalabad.
In addition to pushing him underwater — a variation on the method known as waterboarding _American soldiers also, on four occasions, put a plastic bag over his head and wrapped it tightly around his neck, Hassan said.
They kept the bag in place, with Hassan gasping for air, "until I almost passed out, with sweat all over my body, and then they removed it," he said.
After a week of that treatment at the Jalalabad airport, Hassan was flown to the detention camp at Bagram Air Base, where he was held for five months.
During interrogations there, often twice a day, the allegations against him became clearer: The Americans accused him of using his position in the Interior Ministry to support Taliban fighters.
Hassan said the interrogators said the same things every day: "You were planning to use the weapons in storage against the Americans. They said they found a letter to me from Taliban commander Mullah Omar. At other times they said they found a letter from Osama bin Laden."
"They asked me about these letters frequently, and I always said, show me the proof, show me these letters. They never showed me anything," Hassan said. "I said the Taliban stole my property, they stole my house and they made me leave my country."
Mohammed, the governor, said that the weapons depot the Americans accused Hassan of using to store weapons for attacks on U.S. troops was used for the opposite reason: It was a stockpile of guns and ammunition taken from local militants who would have used them against American soldiers in the area.
Hassan was flown to Guantanamo in late 2003.
After seeing a medic, Hassan was taken to a room where a man and a woman in civilian clothes and a man in U.S. military uniform sat at a table. The woman introduced herself as a fellow law-enforcement officer, then she said she had a question. The woman asked Hassan how many chickens he had in his house.
Hassan was flummoxed. In Afghanistan, he told her, tending chickens is a woman's job. Everyone laughed.
"I was surprised that they could be so stupid," he said.
Hassan was sent to isolation for a month and interrogated only twice during that time. He was asked the same questions as in Bagram, he said.
After that, he said, he went 14 months without being asked a single question before intermittent interrogations began.
"Every time I was interrogated I asked them, if I was with the Taliban, how is it that I carried out my job as a security director?" he said. "I told them I fought against the Taliban at Tora Bora."
After almost two years, he was moved to Camp Four, an area for low-risk detainees.
He said he spent his time reciting the Quran, and reading poetry and history books arranged for by the Red Cross. He also tried to figure out who'd told the Americans he was linked to the Taliban.
"In Afghanistan there were a lot of political parties. They all oppose each other. I knew that one of these parties was responsible for this; that they had lied to the Americans," he said.
During his hearing at a review board, he was told that the Americans had three letters that implicated him as an insurgent.
Hassan said they were fakes.
One of the board members agreed: "Obviously, we've had discussions about this case prior to this event. Just for purposes of expediency, (you need to know) that all three of us have not put much credibility to any of these letters that we received."
The board's presiding officer concurred: "We feel they are highly suspicious."
Hassan wondered aloud why if the officers had questions about the letters, he was at Guantanamo in the first place.
A board member replied: "You are not asking us questions."
Hassan showed them a letter he'd received from the security commander in Jalalabad.
"He said hello to me and he wrote 'God willing' and the rest was redacted," he said. "The security commander in Jalalabad was my boss, and he wrote this letter to me and he supports me. If I was a criminal or something . . . a con or a cheater . . . he would not be talking to me or writing me a letter."
The board said it would enter the letter as evidence.
Abdul Jabar Sabit, Afghanistan's attorney general, interviewed Hassan at Guantanamo and was briefed about his case.
"We said he should be released, because we did not identify him as being dangerous to society," Sabit said.
Hassan was released from Guantanamo around February 2007. He has no job. The Afghan government gave him a letter saying that he had all the legal rights and protection afforded any other citizen. He told a McClatchy reporter that despite almost four years in captivity, he'd like to work for the Interior Ministry again, he supported his country and had no problems with the Americans. But there, in a darkened room, surrounded by a dozen men, Hassan didn't look as if he meant what he was saying.
He looked like a tired, angry man who wasn't sure whether he'd get his life back. And in Afghanistan, the country he once worked to secure, that's a dangerous thing.