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The Taliban's Return Complicates Prisoner Releases At Guantanamo Bay


President Biden's administration has been moving to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Since shortly after the 9/11 attacks, that prison has held detainees in what the U.S. once called its war on terror. Bernard Harcourt is a lawyer for one prisoner recently released, and he told NPR last month that he was hopeful many more detainees would be let go.

BERNARD HARCOURT: Everything that's coming out of the Biden administration - both from the Department of State, Department of Defense - is that the Biden administration is going to close Guantanamo. And this is the first step, and it's a really important first step.

INSKEEP: Now there's a complication. When Taliban fighters seized Afghanistan's presidential palace last week, news agencies carried photos of the scene, and one of the people in those photos was a prisoner released from Guantanamo. What does that mean for the effort to release the rest? NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer has made several trips to Guantanamo and is on the line. Sasha, good morning.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is this guy?

PFEIFFER: So he was a Taliban commander who had been arrested shortly after 9/11, sent to Guantanamo and later released. But there he was in that photo last weekend, celebrating at the presidential palace. Not a good look for Gitmo. And another Taliban leader who reportedly helped orchestrate the Taliban's comeback is also a former Gitmo prisoner. He had been released in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, the captured U.S. Army soldier. So all this raises concerns they never should have been released, and if we let more Gitmo prisoners go - there are 39 men still there - they could also end up back with the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Is it possible to document how many people in total have left Gitmo and ended up back on the battlefield?

PFEIFFER: The government tries to do that, but it's controversial. The U.S. says of the more than 700 Gitmo prisoners who've been released over the years, 17% - 17 - later reengaged in terrorism. But the percentage can be as little as 5%, depending on the years analyzed. And many people dispute those numbers, say they're full of errors. One Guantanamo defense lawyer skeptical of that data is Michel Paradis. He says the U.S. defines reengagement in terror so broadly that it's misleading.

MICHEL PARADIS: Reengagement can include, for example, giving interviews or writing books or making speeches that are critical of the United States and their treatment in Guantanamo.

PFEIFFER: So he believes the number of ex-Gitmo prisoners involved in terrorism, in the sense of murder and mayhem, is much smaller than the government claims. But he acknowledges recidivism does happen, and he says with the Taliban back in charge, Biden may be more cautious in his approach to Guantanamo and may put more prisoner transfers on hold.

INSKEEP: Some of these guys have been at Guantanamo for most of the last 20 years. Are they really eager to get back into the fight?

PFEIFFER: Right. And that's all speculative. The lawyers, as you point out, say that they're aging, ill men who were tortured in custody and are in no condition to take up arms. Of course, even if they're not charging around with a rifle, they could still play a leadership or inspirational role. But another Guantanamo defense attorney I spoke with, Alka Pradhan, downplays that idea.

ALKA PRADHAN: Every guy I have represented just wants to get as far away from the United States as they can. They want to go away, live quietly. So the idea that they'd leave Guantanamo after 20 years and want to be leaders of some sort of Taliban militia or even want to go to Afghanistan, to that kind of chaos, it's just psychologically not where any of them are.

PFEIFFER: And, Steve, the prisoners' lawyers also note that about a quarter of Gitmo inmates have already been cleared for release, so the U.S. has determined they're no longer a threat, and whatever country they eventually go to has to provide security assurances.

INSKEEP: But we have to note that even if she says it's not where they are psychologically, it appears it was where at least a couple - or at least a few former Taliban leaders were psychologically. So how reliable are the safeguards?

PFEIFFER: Well, it's a combination of legal contract and honor system by the country that takes them. But I spoke with a former White House lawyer named Chris Camponovo, who used to work on Guantanamo detainee policy, and he said sometimes countries would promise to keep an eye on former Gitmo prisoners and still lose track of them. So he says because of the Taliban takeover, there's understandable nervousness about where Gitmo prisoners might end up if they're released.

CHRIS CAMPONOVO: There's a fair amount of rational apprehension about what's going to happen in Afghanistan. If it's back to what it was pre-9/11 - and I have seen some anecdotal evidence that bad guys are returning to Afghanistan - it's a possibility and probably a pretty likely possibility that people will return to the battlefield there.

PFEIFFER: But he also said if President Biden's goal is to close Guantanamo, as he said, then he has to accept a risk of recidivism, just like there's a risk in our domestic prison system of someone reoffending once they're released. The question is, does the current situation in Afghanistan create an unacceptable level of risk?

INSKEEP: NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer. Always appreciate your reporting. Thanks.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.