By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
SOROBI, Afghanistan — Nusrat Khan is disabled. About 20 years ago, one side of his body went numb; then a year or two later, the other half did, too.
In Afghanistan, the doctors said only that he was ill; in the United States, they probably would have said that he'd had at least two strokes. He's barely able to move without a cane and one of his sons holding him on either side. He's more than 75 years old. He might be 76; he might be 80. He's not sure.
The American military held Khan, a member of the first U.S.-backed Afghan congress after the fall of the Taliban, for more than three years at Guantanamo on charges that the elderly, illiterate and near-physically incapacitated man was an insurgent leader.
American and Afghan forces arrested him in March 2003. He'd gone to live at his son's house and be with his grandchildren after the son, Izatullah Nusrat, was detained on similar charges about three weeks earlier.
The soldiers who took Khan from his son's house said they found 700 weapons there, including rockets. Izatullah Nusrat said the weapons were in another part of the compound where he lived, and that the Afghan government paid him and 50 other men to guard them.
Nusrat Khan said he didn't know a thing about the weapons, the 50 men or the rest of it, and he asked a tribunal board at Guantanamo, "How could I be an enemy combatant if I was not able to stand up?"
Nevertheless, father and son were accused of being commanders under insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ally of Pakistan and the United States in the 1980s campaign against Soviet forces in Afghanistan who turned against American troops after the fall of the Taliban.
Izatullah Nusrat acknowledged that he'd worked for Hekmatyar from 1992 to 1996, but he said he quit after the Taliban routed Hekmatyar's forces and took over the country in 1996.
Nusrat Khan denied fighting for Hekmatyar. In fact, he denied being anything other than an old man who'd once fought to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan but who for the past decade hadn't done much of anything.
Asked whether his son worked with Hekmatyar, Khan told a tribunal at Guantanamo: "You can ask him that. I don't know." His son was released from Guantanamo last year, then held at an Afghan prison until this April.
An Afghan government official who works at the national peace and reconciliation office, which checks the backgrounds of former Guantanamo detainees, said that Khan was arrested because of a decades-old rivalry.
.Mohammed Akram Mirhazar, the assistant director of the reconciliation office, said that officials with the northern alliance, which worked closely with American forces to overthrow the Taliban, had fed U.S. troops false information about Khan. They did so, Mirhazar said, because they had a long-standing grudge against Khan, who'd led a rival faction during the war against Soviet occupation.
"They did this just to take revenge; it had to do with old feuds from the time of jihad" against Soviet troops, Mirhazar said. "Nusrat had no links with the Taliban; he has been sitting at home for more than 10 years."
After he interviewed Khan at Guantanamo, Abdul Jabar Sabit, Afghanistan's attorney general, concluded that the elderly man may once have had ties to Hekmatyar, but that in recent years: "He was sick and he was unable to do anything to anyone."
Khan met a McClatchy reporter at a gas station waiting room in the town of Sorobi, where his son once lived, in the mountain passes between Kabul and Jalalabad. An AK-47 leaned in the corner. Young men came in frequently to see whether Khan needed anything.
Talking slowly, often with an effort that made his long white and gray beard tremble, Khan punctuated his conversation with nods and pauses. His face, with kind eyes and deep creases, was ancient and sand-scrubbed.
After he was arrested in late March 2003, Khan said, he was taken to the U.S. detention camp at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, and kept there for what he thought may have been about a month.
For most of those four weeks, he said, he was kept in an isolation cell wearing a blindfold and earphones, with his hands tied behind his back.
"My mind was not doing well . . . I don't know how long I was in there. I didn't know day from night. I don't know how many days or months I was in Bagram," Khan said. "I didn't understand anything."
Asked what the experience was like, Khan shook his head.
"It is not necessary to remember that time again," he said.
He paused for a moment, and added: "When I was in isolation, I couldn't even see myself."
The only breaks from the darkness, he said, were the interrogations with CIA and military officers that came every three days or so.
"They asked me very stupid questions like . . . 'On what grounds did the Americans arrest you?' I told them, 'You are asking questions like a child — ask me what my real crime was. Tell me what my crime was.' They never responded to this," Khan said.
"I told them, 'I am not important enough to meet Hekmatyar. This is a stupid question. You need to improve your intelligence-gathering. You want to control the world, but you don't know why I'm here.' "
He described his transfer to Guantanamo: Unable to walk, he was strapped to a stretcher and hoisted into a plane.
"I was taken to the plane to Guantanamo on a stretcher, like I was a corpse," he said. "I told the doctors at Guantanamo, 'Look, you cruel men, look at my age. You brought me here and I can barely walk.' "
The interrogations continued at Guantanamo with roughly the same results. Khan told the Americans that they had no idea what they were talking about, and the Americans took notes.
"I told them (U.S. interrogators), 'The only issue here, the only reason I am here, is Islam. I am a Muslim, and that is why I'm here,' " he said.
After the first few months of interrogations every two or three days, Khan said, he went a year and a half without being called in for questioning.
Two or three months into his time at Guantanamo, and after an initial month of isolation, he was moved to Camp Four, an area for low-risk detainees. Khan said he stayed there for the next three years. During his time at Camp Four, Khan said, the Americans moved his son next to him.
"I cannot read, so I passed the time, the days and nights, with God," Khan said. "We were in the house of cruel men; all I was left to do was think, to think about my future."
When he sat in front of a military review board at Guantanamo, he warned the U.S. officers that they were making a terrible mistake by detaining men like him.
"Bin Laden, we hate him more than you guys, and you people do not realize who is an enemy and who is a friend," he said. "When you came to Afghanistan, everybody was waiting for America to help us build our country. . . . The people that hated you were very few, but you just grabbed guys like me. Look at me . . . the things that Americans are doing to us, even if we are not bad guys, we will turn into bad guys and go to the other side."
He sat motionless during the interview with McClatchy in Sorobi, which lasted nearly three hours.
When a journalist left the room at the end, Khan hoisted himself up and sat on a windowsill. Thinking that no one could see him, he steadied himself with his right arm against the wall. His left hand dug under the cushion he'd been sitting on, and pulled out his cane, which he'd been hiding.
He paused, then lurched forward and threw both hands on the cane and held on as his body shook for a few moments. Just then, he glanced through a window and saw the journalist watching him.
Khan looked down and didn't move another inch, not wanting to stumble in front of a Westerner.