President Barack Obama and his advisers have long sought to release the five most dangerous Taliban commanders held in U.S. custody at Guantánamo. Bipartisan opposition scuttled a possible deal in 2012 because of a consensus that the “Taliban Five,” as they’ve come to be known, posed too great a threat. Even Senate Democrats were unwilling to go along with the administration’s plans then. But last week the president had the Taliban Five transferred to Qatar. Although administration officials stressed that this was primarily a swap to get back an American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, they have always had an additional motive for letting the Taliban Five go.
The Obama administration has hoped, based on scant evidence, that returning the Taliban Five to their brethren would be a “confidence-building measure.” It is supposed to coax the Taliban’s leadership into meaningful peace talks. This reconciliation effort would be led by the Afghan government, which opposed releasing the Taliban Five, but would also involve the United States. Obama has wanted to make this concession from the outset to convince the Taliban, an extremist group long allied with al Qaeda, that they can trust us to abide by the terms of whatever imagined deal is struck in the future.
President Obama alluded to this theory of the hoped-for negotiations in his statement heralding Bergdahl’s release. After praising Qatar for its help in brokering the deal, the president said the prisoner swap could “open the door” to more talks.
“The United States also remains committed to supporting an Afghan-led reconciliation process as the surest way to achieve a stable, secure, sovereign, and unified Afghanistan,” Obama said in his statement on May 31. “While we are mindful of the challenges,” he went on, the deal “could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground.” Other administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, made similar remarks.
The Taliban wasn’t impressed. The day after Obama’s statement, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid dismissed the idea of future negotiations. The prisoner swap “won’t help the peace process in any way, because we don’t believe in the peace process,” Mujahid said.
The Taliban’s renunciation of the “peace process” was entirely predictable. Mullah Omar’s group has never been serious about reconciliation. National Security Council officials who briefed the press after the Bergdahl deal was finalized even told the press that the Taliban had no interest in broader talks. Omar’s spokesmen have, however, consistently demanded that the Taliban Five be released. And the Taliban has long been willing to exchange Bergdahl for them.
In June 2013, for instance, Taliban representative Suhail Shaheen described the group’s thinking in an interview with the Associated Press. “First,” he said, “has to be the release of detainees”—that is, the Taliban Five—and only after that would the Taliban “want to build bridges of confidence.” This amorphous confidence-building process has been so alluring to the administration, which has desperately sought peace talks, that the president is still talking about it years after it became clear that the Taliban has no intention of agreeing to the U.S. government’s demands.
In fact, while the Taliban stuck to its demands (freedom for the Taliban Five), the Obama administration abandoned all of its preconditions. Originally, the State Department said it would only talk to the Taliban on three conditions: if it laid down its arms, agreed to abide by the Afghan constitution, and renounced al Qaeda. The Taliban repeatedly and openly rejected these demands, and so the State Department abandoned them. As the New York Times reported, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “first signaled the opening for talks by recasting the administration’s longstanding preconditions” as “necessary outcomes” in 2011.
Three years later, the Taliban has still shown no willingness to agree to any of these three preconditions-turned-outcomes. And releasing the Taliban Five will not help matters. These are men who devoted their lives to building an Islamic state based on the Taliban’s harsh version of sharia law, which cannot accept any other laws as the basis for governance, including the current Afghan constitution. All five have been committed to pursuing this goal by violent means, even if they are willing to use other means as well. All five were deemed “high” risks to the United States, its interests, and allies by Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the detention facility. President Obama’s own Guantánamo Review Task Force considered all five too dangerous to release and recommended that they be held indefinitely. Two of the five have long been suspected of committing or ordering war crimes in pre-9/11 Afghanistan.
And then there is the issue of the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda. The Taliban regime harbored al Qaeda in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. Even today al Qaeda has a foothold in parts of the country, including the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. If the Taliban retakes control of other parts of Afghanistan after American forces leave, then we could find ourselves right back where this all began, with the Taliban giving al Qaeda the freedom to operate. Nonetheless, some in Washington cling to the fanciful notion that the Taliban can make a clean break from al Qaeda. This is one of the principal reasons that the Obama administration is willing to bend over backwards to pursue peace talks with the Taliban.
According to leaked and declassified files prepared at Guantánamo, however, the Taliban Five were among those who helped cement the relationship between Mullah Omar’s organization and al Qaeda in the first place.
* Mohammad Fazl served as deputy minister of defense and the army chief of staff for the Taliban. He is one of the two leaders who has long been a suspected war criminal. According to a leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment, Fazl worked closely with a top al Qaeda commander known as Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who is still held at Guantánamo. Al Iraqi reported to Osama bin Laden and led the deceased al Qaeda master’s chief fighting unit, the Arab 055 Brigade, in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. The 055 Brigade is described in the JTF-GTMO files as being al Qaeda’s “primary formation supporting Taliban military objectives” and “was almost exclusively comprised of Arabs, many of whom had affiliations with other international terrorist groups.” In addition to leading al Qaeda’s paramilitary forces, al Iraqi is suspected of playing a direct role in the July 7, 2005, bombings in London. The JTF-GTMO files for Fazl link him to al Qaeda leaders other than al Iraqi as well.
* Norullah Noori is another senior Taliban leader who, like Fazl, remains wildly popular within the organization. Like Fazl, Noori has long been suspected of committing war crimes. In late 2001, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations urged the international community to try the pair for overseeing atrocities committed against civilians. While at Guantánamo, Noori and Fazl were asked about their role in slaughtering thousands. They “did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state,” according to JTF-GTMO’s threat assessment. Noori was also “directly connected” to al Qaeda, and intelligence reports indicate he was colluding with the group as early as the mid-1990s.
* Abdul Haq Wasiq was once the Taliban’s deputy minister of intelligence. Wasiq “utilized his office to support al Qaeda” and “arranged for al Qaeda personnel to train Taliban intelligence staff in intelligence methods.” The training was headed by Hamza Zubayr, an al Qaeda instructor who was killed during the same September 2002 raid that netted Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the point man for the 9/11 operation. Wasiq “was central to the Taliban’s efforts to form alliances with other Islamic fundamentalist groups to fight alongside the Taliban against U.S. and Coalition forces after the 11 September 2001 attacks,” according to JTF-GTMO’s threat assessment.
* Khairullah Khairkhwa was once the Taliban’s governor of Herat, the westernmost province in Afghanistan, and he held other political and military roles. JTF-GTMO found that he was “directly associated” with both Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Khairkhwa may have helped oversee one of bin Laden’s training camps. And Khair-khwa’s deputy reportedly worked with Al Wafa, a charity that served as a front for al Qaeda. Khairkhwa helped organize meetings between the Iranian regime and the Taliban, during which the Iranians agreed to support the Taliban’s war against the United States.
* Mohammad Nabi Omari “served in multiple leadership roles” for the Taliban. According to JTF-GTMO, he “had strong operational ties to Anti-Coalition Militia (ACM) groups including al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), some of whom remain active in ACM activities.” Intelligence cited in the JTF-GTMO files indicates that Omari held weekly meetings with al Qaeda operatives to coordinate attacks against U.S.-led forces.
It is easy to see why the Taliban is confident in its ability to negotiate with Washington. The group secured the release of prominent leaders in U.S. custody under the terms it demanded. There is no good reason for Americans to be similarly confident in the Obama administration’s ability to negotiate with the Taliban. The U.S. government has abandoned its preconditions for talks while the Taliban hasn’t budged. The Taliban has repeatedly said it will not agree to the Obama administration’s goals. And now, five dangerous al Qaeda-linked Taliban commanders have been freed.