August 10 is a dark day for me. It is the anniversary of the day when my son, Mahmood Habibi, was arrested in Kabul and disappeared. I have not heard a word from him since, and the U.S. government has not been able to get answers from the Taliban.
Mahmood is an impressive person. At an early age, he started working for a better Afghanistan. He studied hard and developed an expertise in civil aviation. He rose quickly based on his skills, eventually serving as Afghanistan’s director of civil aviation. After many years of working for the future of Afghanistan, he earned his U.S. citizenship shortly after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and became a proud American.
Prior to the U.S. withdrawal, Mahmood started working as a consultant for ARX Communications, an American company that operates the infrastructure for Afghanistan’s civilian airports, things like radar and air traffic control systems.
Mahmood went in and out of Afghanistan numerous times without a problem. He was always sure to be honest, professional, and above board with all his work. This is part of what protected him. The other part was that he was working to help Afghanistan thrive. With operating civilian airports, Afghanistan — regardless of who is in charge — can engage in trade, receive visitors, accept foreign development assistance, conduct diplomacy, evacuate people for medical treatment, etc.
The U.S. has provided more than $8 billion in assistance to Afghanistan and Afghan refugees since the US departure, according to the latest quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. “This includes more than $2 billion, primarily for humanitarian and development aid in Afghanistan, and $3.5 billion transferred to a newly created Afghan Fund to recapitalize the Afghan central bank and for related purposes,” the office reports. “In addition, the United States obligated $2.7 billion in FY 2022 for the Department of Defense (DOD) to transport, house, and feed Afghan evacuees.”
On July 31, 2022, the U.S. conducted a strike in Kabul that killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The Taliban were embarrassed by the strike in their capital, and their General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) — Afghanistan’s version of the FBI — retaliated by arresting numerous people with ties to the U.S. or American companies.
My son, who had arrived in Kabul a few days after the strike, was arrested with thirty of his work colleagues one year ago today. We believe that nearly all of those rounded up have been released, but for some inexplicable reason, my son has now been held for a year without explanation, charges, or contact with his family.
Efforts by the State Department to make the Taliban shed light on Mahmood’s situation have been unsuccessful. The Taliban at first feigned ignorance of my son, then claimed they were not holding him. An inquiry to the Ministry of Communications resulted in a response indicating that he is in the hands of the GDI, but the GDI has so far failed to acknowledge this.
The company my son works for immediately brought in a law firm to represent the company in this matter. We still do not understand why his company needs a law firm involved when there is no legal case in the U.S. or elsewhere. Mahmood’s wife and small child have been living with us because they do not have any source of income, yet their employer has spent thousands to hire a law firm. We have asked his employer several times what the law firm is doing for Mahmood. We have never gotten an answer.
Kabul has always been full of rumors — some well-founded and others far-fetched. Six months into this nightmare, we heard that Mahmood might not actually be in the custody of the Taliban but is instead in the custody of the Haqqani Network, with the complicity of the GDI. We heard that the Haqqani Network thinks Mahmood may have had something to do with the Zawahiri strike.
This is absolutely false. I am very close to my son, and he has never been involved in such activities. He was working on infrastructure in plain view of everyone, behaving in an honorable way, and staying uninvolved in politics. He also was not present in the country when it happened.
If anyone holding my son thinks he was involved in this, as they clearly thought about the others from his company, they have not brought charges or demanded a ransom. Instead, they are holding an innocent man against his will with no ability to defend himself, no due process, and no contact with his government or his family. They are working against their own interests, as he was there to invest in Afghanistan’s future by helping to keep their airports open.
Mahmood has lost an entire year of his life. His detention has not only devastated me and Mahmood’s mother, his brothers, his wife, and his little daughter, but it will also negatively affect Afghanistan and its people.
The Taliban government keeps asking officials of the former government to come home to help the country thrive. They largely refuse, knowing that they can be arrested and disappear like my son.
The Biden Administration and Congress should also be carefully considering how decisions are made concerning aid, sanctions relief, diplomatic recognition, and criminal charges against those who hold Americans hostage.
If Afghanistan’s GDI has my son, then he is a wrongful detainee, and the State Department should classify him as such. If the Haqqani Network has my son, then he is a hostage being held by a designated foreign terrorist organization and the FBI should step in, by statute, to build a case for prosecution. If the Taliban is allowing terrorists to kidnap and hold American citizens in their capitol, that makes it the Taliban’s responsibility. This should greatly diminish their legitimacy and their chance of receiving any of Afghanistan’s frozen assets.
But the bottom line is that this cruel game serves nobody’s purposes. It must end so that my son can come home to his family.
Ahmadullah Habibi is the father of American citizen Mahmood Habibi.
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