Following the death at Guantánamo last week of Awal Gul, an Afghan held for nine years without charge or trial, his body was returned to his home country, where 5,000 people attended his funeral on Monday in the Najmul Jihad area of Jalalabad. With typical insensitivity, the US authorities responded to Gul's death - apparently as the result of a heart attack after taking exercise - by claiming that he was "an admitted Taliban recruiter and commander of a military base in Jalalabad," who "at one point allegedly operated an al-Qaeda guesthouse" and also admitted meeting with Osama bin Laden "and providing him with operational assistance on several occasions."

These allegations were greeted by one of Gul's lawyers, W. Matthew Dodge, as "outrageous" and "slander," and the New York Times, which picked up on Dodge's complaints, along with Reuters, noted that Dodge "said that his client had resigned from the Taliban, and that in three years of litigation, the government never claimed or pointed to any evidence that his client had run any Qaeda house or admitted providing support to Mr. bin Laden."

While it is mildly reassuring that two mainstream media outlets picked up on the blatant lies peddled by the US authorities, it remains deeply depressing that Gul had never had his day in court to challenge the basis of his detention (as mandated by the Supreme Court in June 2008, when the prisoners were granted constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights), and that the Obama administration had decided that he was one of 48 prisoners who should continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial, and I maintain, as I stated last week, that "his sad and lonely death, in a place increasingly shorn of all hope, is a depressing indictment of the US government's ongoing and apparently permanent inability to treat the men at Guantánamo with anything other than heartless disdain."

It would be appropriate, therefore, if Gul's death - which has only confirmed the callousness of America in the eyes of so many Afghans - were to lead to the release or transfer of other Afghans still held in the prison, but with ferocious opposition from Congress when it comes to proposals to release any Afghans (or anyone else, for that matter), it seems unlikely that any of the two dozen or so Afghans still held in Guantánamo will be leaving anytime soon.

This will only serve to reinforce the ill-will towards the US government that was expressed at Gul's funeral, and that was reinforced, in a genuinely restrained manner, by Muhammad Tahir, Gul's brother-in-law, who told The News in Pakistan that family "did not know if he died [a] natural death or had been killed." Tahir explained:
It is cruelty meted out to Awal Gul and our family. He was living in Jalalabad after the establishment of Hamid Karzai government in 2001 when he was called by a (pro-government) commander who handed him over to US Army. Neither Awal Gul was an offender nor had he gone underground. But despite this he was kept as prisoner for nine years without proof of any crime against him or trial.
Noticeably, however, Gul's death coincided with a call for the release from Guantánamo of Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, the Taliban's former interior minister, and the governor of Herat prior to his capture on February 2002, which was issued by Afghanistan's High Peace Council, a 68-member group appointed by President Karzai to assist with reconciliation efforts.

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The Daily Telegraph, which reported the story, and noted that the council "risks angering [the] US" by doing so, explained that the council had decided that the release of Khairkhwa and of other Afghan prisoners held in Guantánamo "would be a confidence-building gesture needed to entice the insurgents to talks." Mullah Arsala Rahmani, an Afghan senator and former Taliban minister, who is now the chairman of the council's political prisoners committee, told the Telegraph that "detainees would play a role in future talks," and stated, "Khairkhwa was an important man for the Taliban and his release would show the Americans are serious about negotiation. He is a good man and is well respected among the Taliban."

Mullah Rahmani also noted that "a delegation had delivered [a] written request to the US last month," and that the recommendation "had also gone to Hamid Karzai." On Tuesday, responding to a question about the High Peace Council's call for Mullah Khairkhwa's release at a press conference in Kabul, the New York Times reported that President Karzai supported the move, stating, "If he wants to talk, we welcome him. We would talk to him, we would arrange his release."

Despite President Karzai's support for the initiative, the US government has so far failed to respond. The Telegraph noted that the Obama administration has said in the past that it welcomes "Afghan-led initiatives, particularly the efforts of the high peace council," but "has also previously refused to include Guantánamo prisoners in any talk of a negotiation," and also noted that the US embassy in Kabul and the US military "both declined to comment on the request."

The Telegraph also reported that a senior Afghan government aide "said US officials were 'not happy' with proposals to release the 20-odd Taliban" still in Guantánamo, and outlined the Taliban's position as follows:
The Taliban have publicly spurned talks with what they consider a puppet government until after the withdrawal of all Nato troops. Privately they are not opposed to negotiation, but first want safe conduct, prisoners released and names removed from a sanctions blacklist, according to former Taliban now on the council.
Despite the Obama administration's stonewalling, attempts to persuade the US government to release prisoners seem likely to continue, and lawyers for Khairkhwa "confirmed they had been notified of the request." Frank Goldsmith, of lawyers Goldsmith, Goldsmith and Dews, told the Telegraph, "We are hopeful that our government will respect the recommendation and release our client to Afghan authorities, based on the conditions in the recommendation, so that he can help in the peace process."

Those comments sound remarkably sensible, but it remains to be seen whether good sense can permeate the barriers to meaningful discussion erected by hysterical and/or cynical lawmakers in the US, or can persuade the Obama administration to do anything that would remotely resemble decisive and constructive action on Guantánamo or the Afghan reconciliation process.

All the signs so far indicate that the door will remain closed, and that Awal Gul's death will not even be allowed to contribute to any kind of progress either in closing Guantánamo, or contributing to the end of hostilities in Afghanistan. The lesson, as ever, seems to be that, when it comes to blind vengeance and futile aggression, the US has no intention of relinquishing the leading role it assumed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and is also unwilling to recognize, either in Afghanistan or in Guantánamo, that there are, or ever were, profound differences between al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Note: Please also see this statement by former Guantánamo prisoners from Afghanistan, including Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, calling for the release of the remaining Afghans in Guantánamo, which was published by Cageprisoners (translated from Pashtu) on January 25.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon - click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.