Anger After a Raid Kills a Wealthy Afghan With a Murky Past
By RAY RIVERA
Published: September 4, 2011
KABUL, Afghanistan — In life and death, Sabar Lal’s story was riddled with conflicting narratives.
After the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, he claimed to be on the side of the Americans in the hunt for Al Qaeda, but United States troops accused him of helping Osama bin Laden and his allies flee to Pakistan.
After five years in the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, he returned to Afghanistan in 2007 and built a new life with his two wives and nine children. They lived comfortably in a wealthy section of Jalalabad, one of the safer big cities in the country.
But suspicions lingered, and on Friday, coalition and Afghan forces killed him in a night raid at his residence, acting on intelligence that he had been using his wealth to help lead and finance insurgent attacks in the Pech Valley in Kunar, the northeastern province where he grew up.
His death has angered members of the Afghanistan High Peace Council, who are responsible for reconciliation efforts with militants. Council members say that just days earlier they had won a promise from coalition forces to stop bothering Mr. Lal after they had detained him last month. NATO officials insist they had not detained him.
These conflicting details, among many others, add to the puzzle of Mr. Lal’s life before and after Guantánamo. His killing comes as the Peace Council, appointed by President Hamid Karzai, is struggling to persuade Taliban fighters to lay down their arms and rejoin society. Some council members worried Sunday that NATO’s raid on Mr. Lal’s compound could further undermine those efforts.
“It really hurts the prestige of the Peace Council among the people of Afghanistan,” said Haji Deen Muhammad, a council member. “More importantly, those Taliban members who were released through our process are going to have big concerns that this will happen to them.”
Council members said NATO and Afghan forces detained Mr. Lal, who was in his late 40s, in an operation early last month, then turned him over to the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency. But after assurances from Afghan intelligence officials and high-level government officials that he did not pose a threat, the council, working closely with its NATO counterparts, obtained his release, said Farhadullah Farhad, the council’s deputy chief executive officer.
“Everybody was involved,” he said, adding, “They would not have released him unless he was proven innocent.”
Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings Jr., a spokesman for the NATO-led military coalition, said that until the operation that killed Mr. Lal, NATO forces had never “detained him or had him in custody.” Officials with the National Directorate of Security did not respond to questions on Sunday.
White House officials have long worried about Guantánamo detainees reverting to terrorism after their release. More than 600 prisoners have been released or transferred to prisons elsewhere since 2002, a Defense Department spokeswoman said Sunday. Last year, the Obama administration told Congress that 117 former detainees were confirmed or suspected of turning to terrorist activity. The prison still holds 171 detainees.
Mr. Lal, who was identified in Guantánamo records as Sabar Lal Melma, was viewed by officials there as someone more committed to self-interest than to any cause. He had come from a wealthy family in Kunar Province and had ties to prominent tribal elders. Through years of fighting against the Soviets in the late 1980s and later against the Taliban, he knew the treacherous mountain terrain along the Pakistan border intimately, information valued by American forces searching for Qaeda crossing routes.
After the Taliban’s fall in late 2001, he was given the rank of brigadier general and put in charge of 600 border security troops in Kunar.
But as Americans searched for Bin Laden in the mountainous Tora Bora region south of Kunar, they suspected Mr. Lal of orchestrating rocket attacks against American forces. They also suspected that he and a prominent tribal elder were helping Arab fighters, perhaps even Bin Laden himself, escape to Pakistan.
In August 2002, American troops arrested Mr. Lal and the elder, Haji Rohullah Wakil, along with 10 other associates after a meeting with United States military officials in Asadabad. They were transferred to Guantánamo Bay later that year. In a 2005 assessment, Guantánamo officials said that Mr. Lal “seems to side with any group or organization that is willing to pay or reward him for his cooperation, from coalition forces to Arabs fleeing Afghanistan.”
At a military tribunal during his detention at Guantánamo, Mr. Lal denied the allegations. When the Americans arrived, he said, according to a transcript, “I joined them, I ate with them, I went places with them. I helped them.”
Guantánamo officials later dropped the allegation that he helped Bin Laden escape, and deemed him a “medium risk.” In September 2007, they transferred him to Afghan custody. The Afghan government released him about 20 days later.
Mr. Wakil, who was released the next year, said in an interview on Sunday that Mr. Lal always felt he had been wrongly imprisoned. “We all think we had been imprisoned unjustly,” Mr. Wakil said.
Mr. Lal moved to Jalalabad with his family shortly after his release, and ran a small but lucrative real estate business.
“He was living there peacefully with no link to anyone,” Mr. Wakil said.
But suspicions continued. NATO officials said in a statement after the raid that Mr. Lal was responsible for attacks in the Pech District and was “a key affiliate of the Al Qaeda network,” tied to senior members of the group throughout Kunar Province and Pakistan.
Mr. Muhammad, the Peace Council member, questioned why a night raid was even necessary when Mr. Lal was living in the middle of a peaceful city where people knew him. “I don’t know what kind of justice it is to kill someone when it would have been very easy to detain him if they had any suspicion that he was linked to insurgents,” he said.
Among the people NATO detained at Mr. Lal’s home that night, Mr. Wakil said, was another former Guantánamo prisoner, Said Amir Jan, also known as Ghorzang.
Mr. Wakil also appears to have remained under suspicion after his release from Guantánamo. In a 2009 Pentagon report, he was listed as one of 47 former detainees suspected of reverting or turning to terrorist activity.
It is unknown if Mr. Lal was on the list because not all the names were published.
Now, like so many aspects of his life, even the details of his death are in dispute. NATO said in a statement that Mr. Lal was killed after he ran out of the home wielding an assault rifle as they tried to arrest him.
But a night watchman named Rahmatullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name, said he was at the residence the night of the raid and gave a different account.
He said coalition forces stormed the compound, handcuffed and blindfolded Mr. Lal and his other guests, then took Mr. Lal out to a veranda. About 20 minutes later, Mr. Rahmatullah said, “we heard gunshots.”