The first time I came face to face with Americans was in the fall of 2001, after an Afghan warlord sold me to the United States for bounty money. I had been shackled and left naked and hooded for I don’t know how long. When someone pulled the hood off of my head, the first thing I saw were five or six American soldiers dressed like Rambo, all pointing rifles at me, their laser sights lighting up my chest.
I heard yelling in English and an interpreter translated for me: “Where is Osama bin Laden?! Where is Mullah Omar? What’s the next target?”
I was 18 years old. I wasn’t an al Qaeda or Taliban fighter. I was a student researcher and I had been kidnapped by militia on the highway outside of Kunduz weeks before the United States invaded, a common practice among warlords at that time.
During my early captivity, the warlord kept me in a compound where I taught his daughter Arabic while he tried to ransom me to the Saudis. When I heard that the Americans had invaded Afghanistan, I thought I was going to be saved.
I didn’t know that before they invaded, the United States dropped leaflets offering life-changing amounts of money for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. I was neither, but my captor could get more money for me this way. Like many Guantánamo prisoners, I was sold to the United States for bounty money in the early days of the Afghan war.
I knew Afghani farmers who were sold by rival neighbors. I knew a Yemeni man injured in a car accident who had traveled to Pakistan for brain surgery, where he was sold. I knew journalists, cooks, aid workers, engineers, and many more. There were so many of us, the Americans opened the Guantánamo detention camp exactly four months after 9/11 to detain and interrogate men and boys, mostly innocents sold to the United States as alleged fighters and terrorists. (A 2006 Seton Hall Law School report documents this.)
In the early days of Guantánamo, when we lived like animals in cages, when we had no idea where we were and why we were being imprisoned, we tried to convince our captors that they had made a mistake. I saw that the Americans were angry and afraid and that they wanted justice for what had happened on 9/11. I couldn’t even imagine a building over 100 stories tall. I felt sad for the innocent people who were killed and for their families. Killing innocents is not a part of Islam. But I didn’t have anything to do with it, and I thought that when the Americans understood that, they would let me go. We all thought this.
We were called many things at Guantánamo, but to most people we became “detainees,” a name that implied that our situation was temporary but one which allowed us to be held indefinitely, without charges, outside of United States and international law. Stripped of my name, I became Detainee 441. I spent nearly 15 years detained, 8 of them in solitary confinement. In all, 779 men have been imprisoned at Guantánamo over almost 20 years.
US political leaders and the military have worked hard to portray us as “the worst of the worst.” And yet as early as the spring of 2002, the generals in charge knew that most of us had little intelligence value. Even then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complained in 2003 to “stop sending dirt farmers to Guantánamo.” And yet the prison remained open, becoming another front in the war on terror, a battle lab where enhanced interrogations were tested and justified.
During that time, I saw guards, interrogators, and even generals tear themselves apart trying to reconcile what they knew to be true and right in their hearts with the impossible mission they had been given: to detain and interrogate men and treat them with such inhumanity. I know of guards who committed suicide; I know a Muslim chaplain and West Point graduate who was harassed and charged with terrible crimes; and I know countless other American military whose lives were turned upside down because of Guantánamo. No one who came through Guantánamo left unharmed.
President Biden has now promised, “We’re ending America’s longest war.” I am no historian or prominent political figure, but I have seen the war on terror up close, and I know that America’s forever war can’t be over until other fronts opened up to support it have been shut down, too. The US government cannot separate Afghanistan from Guantánamo.
I know now that America is not the country I once thought it was. But that does not mean it’s too late to turn back.
America must begin to reconcile with its past and with policies enacted to carry out wars like the one in Afghanistan, policies that transformed the United States into the kind of enemy it once feared, one capable of breaking its own laws and moral codes. As Biden himself recently argued, “The United States cannot afford to remain tethered to policies creating a response to a world as it was 20 years ago.” Guantánamo and the current state of Afghanistan embody the failures of the war on terror caused by the politics of fear. While the United States can no longer control what happens in Afghanistan, it owns Guantánamo and controls its fate entirely.
When I was released in 2016 and sent to Serbia against my wishes, I had never been charged with a crime. In fact, the tribunal determined that I wasn’t who they thought I was. Today, 39 men remain imprisoned at Guantánamo at an estimated annual cost of $13 million per prisoner. Only two men have been convicted of crimes, while 10 others face possible charges, though any evidence to support convictions is tainted by years of torture. Nine men have been approved for release and the remaining 18 are being held indefinitely without charges.
History may not look kindly on Biden pulling out of Afghanistan and letting it fall to the Taliban. But if he can close Guantánamo and reckon with America’s plunge into torture and arbitrary detention, he could be remembered as the president who helped correct America’s moral compass. Otherwise, America may be gone from Afghanistan, but the forever war continues.
Mansoor Adayfi is the author of “Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantanamo.”