The Obama administration is still pursuing negotiations with the Taliban, even if it doubts a viable negotiating partner sits across the table. And, as part of this ad hoc diplomatic effort, the administration is considering the transfer of Taliban members held at Guantanamo back to Afghanistan. Those are the two key takeaways from a new piece published by Reuters (“Secret U.S., Taliban talks reach turning point”).
The administration has been secretly pursuing these talks with the Taliban for a while, but a close reading of the Reuters account reveals there is little hope that they are going anywhere.
Reuters quotes a senior U.S. official as saying, “We imagine that we're on the edge of passing into the next phase. Which is actually deciding that we've got a viable channel and being in a position to deliver…” The phrasing here does not inspire confidence. The administration is left to “imagine” which phase the talks have reached and they are still not sure if they have a “viable channel” for conducting meaningful negotiations in the first place.
These are, of course, fundamental problems.
As Reuters correctly notes, past attempts at such talks have been futile, with the Americans engaging phony emissaries or Talibs with little to no real power. Earlier this year, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who led the Afghan High Peace Council, was assassinated by a suicide bomber claiming to represent Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura Taliban. That same council has repeatedly tried to broker the talks.
Even the State Department, which is leading this effort, is not especially confident. Unnamed “senior officials” place “the odds of brokering a successful agreement at only around 30 percent.” That low probability of success is actually a rather high guesstimate coming from the most dovish corridor of the U.S. government.
“There's a very real likelihood that these guys aren't serious ... which is why are continuing to prosecute all of the lines of effort here,” one senior U.S. official told Reuters. Imagining that “these guys” – whoever they may be – aren’t serious is rather easy.
Into this amateur effort at statecraft the Obama administration has now injected the possibility that it will acquiesce to Taliban demands to free some detainees from Guantanamo. Reuters reports: “It is not known which ones might be transferred, nor what assurances the White House has that the Karzai government would keep them in its custody.”
We do know, however, the Afghan High Peace Council has previously lobbied for the release of the four top Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo. There is no reason to believe that those four detainees would be willing participants in any attempts at “reconciliation.”
The four Taliban leaders are: Abdul Haq Wasiq (former Taliban deputy minister of intelligence), Mullah Norullah Noori (a former Taliban governor and military commander), Mullah Mohammed Fazl (the Taliban army’s chief of staff), and Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa (the former Taliban governor of the Herat province).
All four were deemed “high” risks by U.S. military intelligence officials, according to leaked memos authored by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO). In addition, JTF-GTMO recommended that all four remain in the Defense Department’s custody, as opposed to being transferred to the Afghan government. Approximately 200 other Afghans have been repatriated from Guantanamo. Two of the four are wanted by the U.N. for war crimes.
The biographies of these men, including intelligence contained in the leaked JTF-GTMO files, make it difficult, if not impossible, to see how they could be honestly interested in peace. All four had extensive ties to al Qaeda prior to their capture, meaning they are unlikely to foreswear al Qaeda’s violence going forward – a key goal of the peace talks.
Abdul Haq Wasiq (Internment Serial Number #4)
Abdul Haq Wasiq, the former Taliban intelligence official, “had direct access to Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) leadership,” according to a JTF-GTMO threat assessment. 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.”
JTF-GTMO concluded that Wasiq “utilized his office to support al Qaeda and to assist Taliban personnel elude capture” in late 2001. Wasiq also “arranged for al Qaeda personnel to train Taliban intelligence staff in intelligence methods.”
Al Qaeda’s training of Taliban operatives, arranged by Wasiq, was reportedly conducted by Hamza Zubayr, a terrorist who was formerly an instructor at one of al Qaeda’s most important training camps. Zubayr was killed during the same September 2002 raid that netted 9/11 facilitator Ramzi Binalshibh. The assistance from Zubayr was crucially important to the Taliban’s intelligence efforts, according to the JTF-GTMO file, because many of the administrators in the Taliban Ministry of Intelligence “had no prior intelligence background.”
Mullah Norullah Noori (ISN #6)
Another leaked JTF-GTMO summarizes the intelligence on Mullah Norullah Noori. JTF-GTMO describes Noori as a “senior Taliban military commander” who was engaged in hostilities “against U.S. and Coalition forces in late 2001.” Noori is “wanted by the United Nations (UN) for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiite Muslims.”
When the JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Noori was authored in February 2008, his brother was still active in the fight against the coalition. Noori’s “brother is a Taliban commander directing operations against U.S. and Coalition forces in Zabul Province.” Noori himself “remained a significant figure to Taliban supporters” even after his capture.
In addition to his ties to Mullah Omar and other senior Taliban leaders, Noori was “associated with…senior al Qaeda members and other extremist organizations.”
Declassified memos authored at Guantanamo provide more details about Noori’s al Qaeda ties. Noori “fought alongside al Qaeda as a Taliban military general, against the Northern Alliance” in September 1995. Noori also “hosted al Qaeda commanders” and “met a subordinate of Osama bin Laden to pass a message from the Taliban supreme leader” - that is, a message from Mullah Omar.
Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Taliban army chief of staff (ISN #7)
Mullah Mohammad Fazl was one of the Taliban's most experienced commanders prior to his capture in Nov. 2001. Like Noori, according to another leaked JTF-GTMO file, Fazl is “wanted by the UN for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiites.”
Fazl “was associated with terrorist groups currently opposing U.S. and Coalition forces including al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), and an Anti-Coalition Militia group known as Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami.”
Fazl had “operational associations with significant al Qaeda and other extremist personnel,” according to JTF-GTMO. One of the high-ranking al Qaeda commanders Fazl long cooperated with was Abdel Hadi al Iraqi, who led Osama bin Laden’s Arab 055 Brigade in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. The 055 Brigade was bin Laden’s chief fighting force and served alongside Taliban units.
Immediately “following the assassination of Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in September 2001,” al Iraqi explained to U.S. officials, “the Northern Alliance was demoralized” and the al Qaeda leader met with Fazl to “coordinate an attack with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance.”
Prior to his detention, Fazl “wielded considerable influence throughout the northern region of Afghanistan and his influence continued after his capture.” Fazl’s “name and capture have been used in recruiting campaigns by the Taliban.”
“If released,” JTF-GTMO warned in the February 2008 memo, Fazl “would likely rejoin the Taliban and establish ties with [Anti-Coalition Militia] elements participating in hostilities against U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan.”
Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, former governor of Herat province (ISN #579)
Khairkhwa was one of Mullah Omar’s closest confidantes prior to his capture. According to a JTF-GTMO file, Khairkhwa “was directly associated” with both Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar. “Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks,” the leaked JTF-GTMO file reads, Khairkhwa “represented the Taliban during meetings with Iranian officials seeking to support hostilities against U.S. and Coalition Forces.” In June, a DC district court denied Khairkhwa’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus based, in large part, at his admitted role in brokering the Taliban’s post-9/11 deal with the Iranians.
As the governor of Afghanistan’s western Herat province, Khairkhwa and “his deputy were probably associated with a militant training camp in Herat operated by deceased al Qaeda commander (in Iraq) Abu Musab al Zarqawi.”
In declassified memos prepared at Guantanamo, U.S. officials alleged that Khairkhwa became a major drug trafficker as well. Khairkhwa reportedly built three walled compounds that he used to manage his opium trade. And he allegedly oversaw one of Osama bin Laden's training facilities in Herat, too. One U.S. government memo notes that only Khairkhwa or bin Laden himself “could authorize entrance” to the facility, which was one of bin Laden's “most important bases” and “conducted terrorist training two times per week.”
Catch and release in Afghanistan
A leaked State Department cable underscores the difficulties that both the Bush and Obama administrations have had in transferring war on terror detainees to Afghan custody. The cable, which originated at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on August 6, 2009, notes that on “numerous occasions” American officials “have emphasized with Attorney General Aloko the need to end interventions by him and President Karzai, who both authorize the release of detainees pre-trial and allow dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court.”
The cable makes it clear that this is a problem with respect to: detainees transferred from the American-run facility in Bagram to Afghan custody, detainees transferred from Guantanamo to Afghan custody, as well as narco-traffickers. When the Afghan government accepts transferred detainees, it is supposed to take certain security precautions. In some cases, the U.S. government expects the Afghans to try them in their courts. It often doesn’t work out that way, however.
The leaked State Department cable cites dozens of pre-trial releases that the U.S. government found problematic.
Top Taliban commanders, such as Mullah Zakir, have been released from Afghan custody after being transferred from Guantanamo. Zakir is the Quetta Shura Taliban’s top military commander.
There is no reason to think that the situation would be different with any of the four Taliban commanders discussed above. If they are among the Guantanamo detainees the Obama administration is considering repatriating, then the Taliban may very well replenish its leadership ranks as part of a misguided “peace” effort.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.