I’d barely made it into the operations center when my intelligence sergeant shoved a piece of paper into my hand. I’d come in looking for an update on three new Taliban commanders in our area of operations. They’d arrived a few months before and they’d already conducted several successful attacks on US convoys and now were building an IED network.
“Captain, you ain’t gonna believe this,” the sergeant said. “These guys just got released from Gitmo.”
It was June 2005, and the first prisoners were just beginning to be released from the prison at Guantanamo Bay. We were never notified of their release. They arrived in Afghanistan and immediately rejoined the insurgency in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. To Afghans, there is no such thing as rehabilitation.
As we hunted each one, I felt betrayed. We were being forced to police up guys we had already captured. One was killed soon after he returned to Afghanistan. Another Special Forces team working in Kandahar killed the second commander. The third was captured by my team and returned to prison. We found him in the village of Gumbad before morning prayers with a cache of weapons and explosives.
Now, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has done the same thing to his own army. Last week, Karzai released 65 insurgents from prison. He did it knowing it would undermine his military and what little regional stability they had created in rural areas. He did it despite protests from the United States. He did it knowing they had killed American and Coalition soldiers. He did it because his days are numbered as president, and so are the United States’ days in Afghanistan.
Pashtuns make up about 60 percent of the people in Afghanistan. There are two Pashtun tribes, the Durrani and Ghilzai. The Durranis are more political, whereas the Ghilzai are the warring tribe. Karzai is a Durrani. Taliban leader Mullah Omar is Ghilzai. In order for Karzai to maintain peace in Afghanistan, he must cut deals. The prisoner release is a political move by Karzai to keep the tribal peace in Taliban-controlled areas. This is how business is done over there. Karzai is just playing it on the world stage.
The US Army Special Forces trained me to focus on one part of the world—Afghanistan. I was one of the first 11 people trained to speak Pashtu, the predominant tribal language. I have been in and out of Afghanistan over the last 11 years, living in remote firebases and villages. I have deployed to Afghanistan eight times and I am one of a mere handful of people in the entire US military that has seen every aspect of the war from the 2002 until the present. So I understand the Afghans’ strategy of playing both sides. But from the foot soldier’s point of view, Karzai and, to a lesser extent, the Obama administration, has betrayed the people of Afghanistan.
Karzai recently said the release was “of no concern to the US.” He could not be more wrong. When US troops could be killed or wounded because of this decision, it is very much our concern.
Does he think these men just gave up and turned themselves in? Does he think they will return to their villages and not pick up arms again? Afghans expect to be punished when they are guilty. The Afghan people know those insurgents are guilty. Releasing them shows Karzai’s government, and by extension the whole central government, is weak and easily bullied by the Taliban.
Coalition soldiers will be killed or wounded because of this decision. The release of these 65 insurgents will return experienced fighters to the battlefield with information about our tactics and procedures. When we captured one of the Taliban commanders released from Gitmo, he had documents highlighting our tactics and procedures. They also wrote guidelines on our interrogation procedures with a focus on the rules we had to follow. What concerned me the most was we found copies of the documents all over Kandahar. The commanders returned smarter and more lethal, and now a new generation will take on an Afghan military still finding its footing.
Karzai has dragged out signing the status of forces agreement, and it is unlikely he’ll do it before he leaves office. That decision and the release of the prisoners further demoralize an already fragile Afghan military. Each man released was caught after months of intelligence work and raids that cost lives. Coalition and Afghan troops will now have to put themselves at risk yet again to capture these insurgents. Karzai is forcing the Afghan Army to fight for territory it has already won.
The prisoners are joining a revitalized Taliban insurgency that has weathered President Obama’s “troop surge” and is just watching the clock as the war winds down. In 2009, President Obama announced the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and threw away years of dangerous work. The impact was immediate.
Before the announcement, the Taliban council in Quetta, Pakistan, was on the fence as to whether to keep fighting. The Taliban saw no end in sight and their people were being killed or captured faster than they could be replaced. But after the announcement, villages that had stayed in the middle to survive now had no other choice but to support the insurgency. The Taliban used to tell villagers, “The American’s have the watches but we have the time.”
Obama made the Taliban saying true. He started the countdown to defeat and the actions of Hamid Karzai are just nails in American coffins.
MAJ (Ret.) Rusty Bradley deployed to Afghanistan eight times, most recently in 2012. After 21 years in the Army, he medically retired in 2013. Bradley is also the author of the book Lions of Kandahar. www.lionsofkandahar.com