Ex-Guantanamo detainee runs for office in Afghanistan

By Dion Nissenbaum
McClatchy Newspapers

SOROBI, Afghanistan – In a country whose young parliament is filled with warlords, suspected drug barons, one-time mujahedeen fighters and religious zealots, Izatullah Nasrat Yar can still make history.

Yar has set out to become the first “enemy combatant” from Guantanamo Bay to become an elected Afghan lawmaker in this fall’s legislative elections.

After nearly five years in America’s controversial prison, Yar is one of 2,500 candidates running in a September election that is expected to be a barometer of the nation’s political maturity.

“I believe there is no need for fighting now,” Yar said in an interview at his family-run gas station on the road between Kabul and Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. “This is the time to fight with the pen and words. This is the time to put down the weapons.”

In many ways, Yar’s personal odyssey is emblematic of the larger political morass that has ensnared the United States in a costly nine-year war to stabilize Afghanistan.

Not far from this gas station, Yar’s journey to Guantanamo began on March 1, 2003, when U.S. forces turned up at his home to ask some questions.

Yar left his house with American forces, expecting to return within the hour.

It was more than five years before he saw most of his family again.

In his youth, Yar served as a local commander for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, one of two main insurgent groups that fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with U.S. backing and are now allied with the Taliban. For days, interrogators at Bagram Air Base grilled Yar about his ties to Hekmatyar and accused him of planning rocket attacks on American forces. They challenged his contention that the 700 weapons stored in his family compound were collected at the request of the new Afghan government.

As Yar’s detention dragged on, his father, Nusrat Khan, decided to complain. He, too, was arrested. Soon, the feeble father in his 70s was on his way to join his son, as one of the oldest prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

Yar, who’s a Pashtun, the ethnic group that dominates southern Afghanistan and the Taliban movement, suggested that the Americans had been duped by rival Tajiks in his village who were looking to boost their power and influence.

It was another two years before Yar was released from Guantanamo, and six more months in an Afghan jail before he was a free man. His father was released in 2006.

“Based on my experience, it seemed that there was a pretty high probability that they were the victims of allegations made by rivals,” said Peter Ryan, the Philadelphia-based attorney for Yar, his father and more than a dozen other Guantanamo detainees. “He always came across to me as a sincere and well-intentioned person who was mystified as to why he was in Guantanamo and deeply, deeply troubled to be so far away from his family.”

Yar returned to Afghanistan with a palpable disdain for Americans.

“When they took me to the plane and shaved my beard, I realized that Americans are the cruelest people in the world and they’re very stupid,” Yar said. “You destroy the life of someone whose crime is unproved and claim you are protecting human rights.”

Yar called Afghan President Hamid Karzai the leader of a U.S. “puppet government,” but said running for parliament was the best choice among unpalatable options.

Taliban stalwarts, who control about a third of Sorobi, have indirectly discouraged Yar from taking part in the election. Although several candidates already have been attacked during the campaign, Yar appeared unfazed.

“There are two ways: One is the Taliban way and one is the government way,” he said. “I choose the government. I think it is the better way to serve the country and people.”