Released Detainees Join Fight

Times Staff Writer

At least eight inmates released from detention at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have returned to the battlefield against U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan, prompting complaints inside the Pentagon that international pressure had undermined the U.S. effort to fight Islamic fundamentalism.

The most recent case is that of Abdullah Mehsud, a former Taliban commander released from the detention facility in March, who masterminded the recent kidnapping of two Chinese engineers in Pakistan. One of the engineers was killed during an Oct. 14 rescue attempt by the Pakistani military.

The Mehsud case and incidents involving at least seven other former detainees demonstrate that mounting international pressure to either file charges against the prisoners or release them has led to inevitable mistakes, officials say.

"I think it's time to question whether we are releasing too many of them," said a senior Defense Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The sheer number of people we are seeing on the battlefield is cause for concern."

With the fading memory of the Sept. 11 attacks, officials say, international sympathy and legal support have gradually increased for about 550 inmates currently at the Guantanamo facility. Many have been held without charges or court hearings.

Since late 2002, the Pentagon has released 202 detainees from Guantanamo, 146 of whom have been freed outright and 56 who have been handed over to the government of their homelands.

Officials were also alarmed that Mehsud, a Pakistani national, may have hidden his true identity from U.S. interrogators during his 25 months in captivity. Recently, he has bragged to Pakistani reporters that he convinced his U.S. captors he was of Afghan descent.

"If he fibbed, we've said from the beginning that these guys are masters of deception," said Maj. Mike Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman.

Aftab Khan Sherpao, Pakistan's minister of the interior, confirmed that Mehsud was not on the list of Pakistani detainees who had been held at Guantanamo Bay.

After the U.S. military released him into Afghanistan in March, Mehsud traveled over the country's eastern border and entered the tribal areas of Pakistan, where senior Al Qaeda leaders were believed to be hiding. U.S. officials believe he has built ties with Al Qaeda militants since his release from Guantanamo Bay.

U.S. officials also believe they have recaptured one of three teenage detainees released from Guantanamo Bay in January. Pentagon officials would not confirm the name of the former prisoner but said he was recaptured during combat operations near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

A third former inmate, Maulavi Ghaffar, was killed in August by Afghan forces in Oruzgan province in central Afghanistan. Ghaffar, released from Guantanamo Bay in 2003, was soon after appointed the Taliban's regional commander in Oruzgan and Helmand provinces, where he directed attacks against U.S. Special Forces, U.S. and Afghan officials said.

Some Pentagon officials expressed frustration that even as they were pressured by U.S. allies and international human rights groups to expedite the release process, they were at the same time criticized when they mistakenly released inmates who returned to the battlefield.

"It's damned if we do, damned if we don't," said a second Defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In July, the Supreme Court ruled that detainees in U.S. custody had the right to challenge their imprisonment in court, rejecting President Bush's claim that the war on terrorism gave the United States unchecked power to imprison so-called enemy combatants.

Since then, the Pentagon has established panels to review the case of each prisoner at Guantanamo Bay to determine whether they should remain in detention.

Some who have worked on detainee policy issues contend that these cases could be evidence of flaws in how the military assesses the potential threat of individual detainees.

"It raises questions about the screening process," said Mark Jacobson, who was a special assistant for detainee policy at the Pentagon until September 2003. "Also, the U.S. and Afghan governments haven't set up any programs to reintegrate these people into society. We should expect that many of them would return to extremist jihadism when they return to Afghanistan."

According to Jacobson, each prisoner at Guantanamo Bay is subjected to two separate investigations. One, a Criminal Investigative Task Force investigation, determines whether the detainee should face criminal charges. A parallel assessment is made by intelligence officers, who determine whether there is any more intelligence to glean from the inmate.

If a detainee is considered to no longer be a threat or to be of little intelligence value, Defense officials said, he is released.

Mehsud was originally captured along with several thousand Taliban fighters in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in December 2001, by U.S.-allied warlord Abdul Rasheed Dostum. After a brief time in an Afghan prison, Mehsud was handed over to U.S. troops and was subsequently sent to Guantanamo Bay.

Since his release from U.S. custody, Mehsud -- whose real name is Noor Alam -- has become a hero to anti-U.S. fighters active in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In June, Mehsud took command of about 200 Islamictribesmen fighting the Pakistani military in South Waziristan, in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions. He is now known as Commander Mehsud.

In an interview with tribal journalists last week -- the same day Pakistani commandos stormed a mud compound in South Waziristan to rescue the Chinese engineers -- Mehsud criticized U.S. policies toward Muslims and said that the American-led occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan had to be avenged.

Mehsud said he did not fear death, and that he had willingly taken this course.

"There is no going back from me and my colleagues," he said. "We would fight America and its allies, which include the [Pakistani] government, until the very end."

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Special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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