Some in the Obama administration are desperate to jumpstart peace negotiations with the Taliban in advance of NATO’s summit in Chicago next month.
To date, those negotiations have gone nowhere. The Taliban has outright rejected the administration’s goals for the talks. An effort to send the five most senior Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo to Qatar, where the Taliban has opened a political office, ran into a number of roadblocks. The dangers posed by the Taliban five concern even top Democrats, who openly question the administration’s effort to transfer them. And Qatar, a top fundraising hub for the Taliban and al Qaeda, would not agree to keep the Taliban five in custody once they were transferred out of American hands. These are just some of the problems the Obama administration has encountered.
But now, according to an account by Missy Ryan for Reuters, the administration is “brainstorming” about a new possibility. This isn’t policy yet, an anonymous official cautions, but the administration is considering transferring just one of the Taliban five to Afghan custody.
The Taliban leader in question is Khairullah Khairkhwa. Why Khairkhwa? Reuters reports that he “is seen by American officials as less dangerous than other senior Taliban detainees now held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba.”
That sounds more reassuring than it is. Each of the Taliban five was deemed a “high” risk to the U.S. and its allies by JTF-GTMO. Obama administration officials have testified that their “high” risk status hasn’t changed. Trying to determine which one of the five is the least dangerous is a fool’s errand.
Two of the five, according to leaked JTF-GTMO files, are “wanted by the United Nations (UN) for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiite Muslims.” Khairkhwa is not wanted for war crimes, but that hardly mitigates his decades-long allegiance to the Taliban. It also does not wash away his extensive dossier of alleged terrorist-related activities.
I first profiled Khairkhwa, using declassified documents produced at Guantanamo, in 2006. I have updated this story on a number of occasions, including after the Afghan High Peace Council began petitioning for his release, after leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessments were released online, and after a D.C. District Court rejected Khairkhwa’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
Ryan’s account in Reuters is better than most reporting on Guantanamo because at least the voluminous record on Khairkhwa is consulted. Readers learn that he had ‘direct’ ties to Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Even so, key details are not included.
The full story alleged in the files is fascinating. Mullah Omar appointed Khairkhwa as governor of the Herat province well before 9/11. Khairkhwa was allegedly involved in the opium trade and helped to manage one of bin Laden’s terrorist compounds in Herat. Khairkhwa denied these allegations during hearings at Guantanamo. But Khairkhwa did not deny another allegation: that he helped establish the Taliban’s relationship with the Iranian regime in the post 9/11 world.
A D.C. District Court found that Khairkhwa “has repeatedly admitted that after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he served as a member of a Taliban envoy that met clandestinely with senior Iranian officials to discuss Iran's offer to provide the Taliban with weapons and other military support in anticipation of imminent hostilities with U.S. coalition forces.”
A leaked JTF-GTMO adds this detail: “The Iranian delegation offered to open the borders to Arabs who wanted to cross into Afghanistan to fight against U.S. and Coalition forces.”
The ‘Arabs’ almost certainly included al Qaeda recruits and operatives.
The part about Iran wasn’t mentioned by Reuters.
Reuters reports that the Gitmo files “described [Khairkhwa] as more of a civilian than a military figure.” But that’s not really true. “Civilian” is how those who have lobbied for Khairkhwa’s release from Guantanamo have described him. It is an entirely misleading description, as the D.C. district court found. Of course, arranging an anti-American coalition with the Iranians was not a “civilian” duty.
The word “civilian” is included only once in the ten-page leaked JTF-GTMO file for Khairkhwa, and there it is how Khairkhwa himself described his activities as governor of Herat. The same file describes him as a “military commander” and details his allegedly extensive terrorist activities.
Reuters describes the idea of transferring Khairkhwa in anticipation of negotiations as a “long shot,” but says there are “few alternatives.”
The Obama administration’s desperation to negotiate peace with the Taliban, despite all of the problems and the Taliban’s obstinacy, has led it to brainstorm about long shots.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.