Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. today accused Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) of lobbying to send Taliban prisoners being held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison back to Afghanistan – a point the two-term congressman disputes, but still will likely emerge as an issue in next year’s campaign.
“If they have committed crimes, we support their prosecution,” Malinowski told the Los Angeles Times in 2006, when he was running the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. “If their crime was that they were Taliban, then they should be sent back to Afghanistan.”
Kean is seeking a rematch with Malinowski in New Jersey’s 7th district in 2022 after coming within 1% of unseating him last year.
“In yet another instance of poor judgement, Malinowski lobbied for their release. Today, some of them are helping run Afghanistan,” Kean said. “As thousands of Americans and our allies are currently trapped in Afghanistan fearing for their lives, we deserve to know if Tom Malinowski stands by his naïve foreign policy position.”
But Malinowski’s office strongly pushed back on Kean’s assertion, suggesting that many of the Guantanamo prisoners were small-time players who were given up in order to protect some of the region’s most powerful terrorist leaders.
“While Tom Kean Jr was trying and failing to climb the political ladder in New Jersey, Tom Malinowski was challenging the Bush administration’s now discredited policy of filling Guantanamo with mostly insignificant prisoners while letting the senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders get away,” said Naree Ketudat, a spokesperson for Malinowski.
Still, the detainees would not have been set free, but instead transferred to the custody of the Afghan government – which was under the control of President Hamid Karzai, a U.S. ally.
In the Op-Ed referenced by Kean, Malinowski also argued that many of the Afghans in the Guantanamo prison were “insignificant.”
“Fewer than half were caught on battlefields in Afghanistan or by U.S. troops. A majority were turned over by Pakistan — often for cash bounties,” Malinowski wrote. “Few ‘combatants’ are even accused of having fought. Many are held simply because they were living in a house associated with the Taliban or working for a charity linked to the group.”
Malinowski said that “prisoners who claimed to know nothing were subjected to increasingly brutal treatment until some confessed or accused others.”
“The U.S. got Guantanamo, the Pakistanis got paid and Al Qaeda and the Taliban mostly got away,” wrote.
Malinowski, who served as an Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Human Rights before his election to Congress, has criticized the deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Two weeks ago, he signed on to a letter to President Joe Biden ask him to hold U.S. forces there until the evacuation of U.S. citizens and allies was completed.
In an Op-Ed penned for the Washington Post last year, Malinowski slammed President Donald Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban that led to the release of about 5,000 Taliban members.
“In 2020, he led bipartisan opposition in Congress to Trump’s disgraceful surrender deal with the Taliban, while Tom Kean Jr. supported Trump, and this year he held President Biden accountable to save the lives of our Afghan partners, while Kean Jr. did nothing,” Ketudat said.
According to Kean, the Obama administration negotiated the exchange of former Taliban Interior Minister Khairullah Khairkhwa for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2014. Khairkhwa had been arrested following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was viewed as a close ally of Usama bin Laden.
The Taliban had held Bergdahl captive for five years after he deserted his post.
The race to unseat Malinowski might emerge as one of the premier House races in the 2022 midterm elections, depending on how the 7th district looks after redistricting.
Malinowski, who ousted a five-term GOP congressman in 2018, has spent much of 2021 being hammered by Republicans for failing to properly report personal stock transactions.
That pushed Malinowski to put his personal assets into a blind trust, but a House Ethics probe is still ongoing.
Kean, who formally announced his candidacy in July, has already won the backing of top national Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise, but he still faces challenges for his party’s nomination.
Rik Mehta, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration official who challenged U.S. Senator Cory Booker in 2020, is already seeking party support to take on Malinowski.