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” once held at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 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 who are running in a September election that’s expected to be a barometer of the nation’s political maturity.
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“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’s 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. (McClatchy interviewed and profiled Khan in its series on Guantanamo detainees in June 2008, at www.mcclatchydc.com/detainees.)
For years, Yar told the same story to interrogators. He admitted to being a one-time ally of Hekmatyar, but said he’d cut ties with the militant leader in 1996. Yar denied planning attacks on Americans, and said Afghan government officials had asked him to store the weapons at his compound.
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.
“They couldn’t find any excuse to get rid of us (so) they just tied these allegations on (to) us to get us put in jail,” Yar told a Guantanamo detainee review board in 2005. “Anybody who is not on their side would be put in jail so they can get total control of the government.”
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.”
During his time in Guantanamo, Yar lost significant weight and began to take medication for depression.
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.”
Were it not for pressure from his family and tribe, Yar probably would be just as happy to look after the gas station on a green bend along the muddy Panjshir River.
Campaign posters of the bearish, bearded former detainee are plastered to the sides of the gas pumps and his stoic profile looks down from a billboard above the Spartan station.
Yar, who has two wives and a dozen children, is counting on support from his tribe in the upcoming election, but his success in a crowded race remains uncertain.
There are widespread concerns that power brokers across Afghanistan will rig the vote and throw the tenuous balance of power between Karzai and the parliament in favor of the president.
International elections officials are bracing for problems with the Sept. 18 election. The United Nations already has criticized the Afghan government for allowing scores of questionable candidates with ties to illegal armed groups to remain on the ballot.
The International Crisis Group, an independent Brussels-based research center, has urged Afghan leaders to postpone the election because of concerns that the same kind of vote stealing that tainted Karzai’s re-election last year will undermine this year’s vote.
Even though security problems have worsened since Karzai was re-elected and voters in strategic swaths of the country could be unable to vote, there appears to be little appetite for postponing the elections, however.
“It’s not just an academic point,” said one Western diplomat in Kabul, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity so he could be more candid in discussing his views about the Afghan election. “One of the biggest challenges is narrowing the gap between the government and the people and an election is a fundamentally important mechanism to do that, whether it’s a perfect election or not.”
While many election experts are wary of the upcoming vote, there’s broad agreement that postponing it would be a mistake.
“I believe postponing the elections would further undermine the legitimacy of this government and will add to the disillusionment of those communities and groups who feel they are marginalized totally by the government,” said Nader Nadery, the head of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan and a veteran human rights activist.
“They strongly believe that the only way for them currently is to be elected in parliament, and if for whatever reason the elections are postponed, they would accept the conspiracy theory that the government is trying to control and marginalize other ethnic groups from the centers of power,” Nadery said.