There is a concerted push to sanitize the records of four of the five Taliban leaders transferred from Guantanamo to Qatar. But before delving into some of the specifics, let us recount the basic facts.
All five of the released Taliban leaders were deemed “high” risks to the U.S., its interests, and its allies by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO). President Obama’s own Guantanamo Review Task Force evaluated the five and concluded that they should be held indefinitely under the laws of war. There was bipartisan resistance in Washington, including from leading Senate Democrats, to releasing the five, because of the dangers they pose. There was also significant opposition within the U.S. military and intelligence community to releasing them. Tellingly, these are the five jihadist leaders the Taliban wanted back the most and the Taliban celebrated their release, saying that the release of its “five senior leaders” from U.S. custody brought “tears of joy.”
Despite abundant evidence that the five are what virtually everyone thinks they are, some are trying to rewrite history. And so the Los Angeles Times published a piece this week entitled, “Most of 5 freed Taliban prisoners have less than hard-core pasts.”
The LA Times concludes, “A closer look at the former prisoners…indicates that not all were hard-core militants. Three held political positions in the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and were considered relative moderates.”
This is flat false.
A closer look at what is known about Khairullah Khairkhwa, one of the Taliban Five that the LA Times says was merely a moderate political leader, demonstrates just how erroneous the newspaper’s account is. Khairkhwa was a senior Taliban leader and one of Mullah Omar’s most trusted subordinates. He had military responsibilities and was even tied to Osama bin Laden.
The authors open by introducing Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai as a character witness. “He was a friendly man and did not try to force his views on you,” Yusufzai says of Khairkhwa. The facts say otherwise.
Readers would never know that similar sanitized versions of Khairkhwa’s story have been offered in American courts twice before. And these versions were rejected by American judges — twice before.
On May 27, 2011, District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina issued his opinion rejecting Khairkhwa’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. And, on December 14, 2012, the D.C. Circuit Court issued its ruling affirming Judge Urbina’s opinion. The two rulings are completely at odds with the story the LA Times and other Khairkhwa apologists tell.
Far from being a moderate political figure, the courts found that Khairkhwa was intimately involved in the Taliban’s military operations.
“Even after his appointment as Governor of Herat in 1999, [Khairkhwa] remained integrally involved in the Taliban’s military forces, operating within the Taliban’s formal command structure and facilitating the movement of Taliban troops both before and after the commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom,” Judge Urbina’s opinion reads. “Moreover, on the eve of Operation Enduring Freedom, [Khairkhwa] was dispatched to Iran by Taliban leaders in Kandahar to discuss Iran’s offer to provide military assistance to the Taliban in anticipation of the imminent U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.”
The Iranians promised the Taliban three things during this and other meetings: to provide the Taliban with weapons, open the borders for “Arabs” (meaning al Qaeda operatives) traveling to Afghanistan to fight, and to help negotiate a pact with the Northern Alliance. The third initiative was fruitless, as the Northern Alliance remained opposed to the Taliban. The other two have come to fruition. In the years that followed Khairkhwa’s meeting with the Iranians, Iran supplied the Taliban with weapons. And, according to the Obama administration, al Qaeda operates a facilitation network inside Iran to this day that shuttles fighters to and from South Asia. In other words, the terms of assistance offered by Iran were very real.
Khairkhwa’s military role went far beyond the meetings with the Iranians. According to Judge Urbina’s ruling, Khairkhwa “has also exhibited a detailed knowledge about sensitive military-related matters, such as locations, personnel and resources of Taliban military installations, the relative capabilities of different weapons systems and the locations of weapons caches.”
Judge Urbina continued:
Furthermore, the petitioner operated within the Taliban’s formal command structure, providing material support to Taliban fighters both before and after the outset of hostilities with U.S. coalition forces. These facts are consistent with the Taliban’s governance model, in which nearly all senior Taliban officials were tasked with both civilian and military responsibilities.
Notice that the court’s straight-forward assessment of the Taliban’s “governance model” flies in the face of what the supposed “experts” told the LA Times. The publication claimed that three of the Taliban five, including Khairkhwa, held strictly “political” roles that were divorced from military affairs. This was simply not so.
And, according to the Circuit Court, Khairkhwa knew so much about the Taliban’s arms that he “provided detailed information of the Taliban’s assessments of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and of the Taliban’s efforts to obtain and protect Stinger missiles.”
In a op-ed for CNN.com, Anand Gopal, a fellow at the left-leaning New America Foundation, argued that the “Taliban prisoner swap makes sense.” Gopal opens by claiming that “Early in 2002, Taliban leader Khairullah Khairkhwa phoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai asking for a job.” Gopal says that Khairkhwa “was hoping to use” his relationship with Karzai “to switch allegiances to the new U.S.-backed Afghan government.” But before a deal could be made, Gopal claims, Khairkhwa was betrayed by “a rival Taliban figure.”
This is not what happened, according to the D.C. District Court and the Circuit Court, both of which rejected Khaikhwa’s claims. First, the District Court found that there is no evidence Khairkhwa attempted to turn himself into American forces (another story that was floated during Khairkhwa’s habeas hearing). Nor is there any convincing evidence that Khairkhwa was trying to join, or surrender to, Hamid Karzai and the new Afghan government. Khairkhwa’s apologists have offered different versions of the story (Gopal says Kharikhwa’s supposed offer came in early 2002, others say in late 2001), but none of them ring true.
District Court Judge Urbina found (citations omitted):
Likewise, even if the petitioner contacted Hamid Karzai in mid-November 2001 to discuss the possibility of surrender, the petitioner did not turn himself in, but was instead captured in Chaman, Pakistan approximately three months later. The petitioner has provided no credible explanation for what he was doing or what steps he had taken to disassociate himself from the Taliban during the months after he allegedly contacted Hamid Karzai to discuss the possibility of surrender.
Judge Urbina went on to evaluate other aspects of Khairkhwa’s story. Khairkhwa claimed that he went to Chaman, Pakistan (instead of turning himself in Afghanistan, which would have been the easier option) simply because he needed medical treatment for his stomach. Not so, according to the District Court (citations omitted):
[Khairkhwa], however, was not captured at a medical office in Chaman. Rather, it is undisputed that the petitioner was captured at the Pakistani residence of senior Taliban official Abdul Manan Niazi. As previously discussed, Niazi was a former Taliban military commander and Governor of Kabul, who had personally overseen the massacre of thousands of Shiites in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1998 and was part of the Taliban delegation that traveled to Iran in October 2001 to discuss Iran’s offer to provide military assistance to the Taliban. The fact that [Kharikhwa] was captured at the home of a hardline Taliban military commander greatly undermines the [Khairkhwa’s] contention that he had disassociated himself from the Taliban prior to his apprehension by Pakistani authorities.
In sum, Judge Urbina found:
Throughout his tenure in the Taliban, [Khairkhwa] remained a prominent leader and a close ally of Mullah Omar. [Khairkhwa’s] ties to Mullah Omar persisted even after a U.S. cruise missile struck Mullah Omar’s vehicle in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, and Mullah Omar limited his contacts to his most trusted lieutenants, including [Khairkhwa].
Contrary to Gopal’s claims that Khairkhwa was trying to turn himself in, he remained very much in the fight after the U.S.-led invasion began. The Circuit Court found a complete “absence of anything showing that he dissociated himself from the Taliban.” Contacting Karzai or other officials is not evidence that Khairkhwa had a change of heart. He was merely seeking possible alternative paths for survival during the initial American onslaught — “hedging his bets,” as the District Court found. But even then Khairkhwa stuck with the Taliban.
The book on Khairkhwa is even more disturbing. During Khairkhwa’s habeas proceedings, according to Judge Urbina’s decision, the U.S. government “raised a host of additional allegations against [Khairkhwa], including allegations that the petitioner had ties to Usama bin Ladin, harbored al Qaida operatives in Herat during his tenure as Governor of Herat and commanded a Taliban garrison at Mazar-e-Sharif during Operation Enduring Freedom.” The court did not address these allegations because other evidence was “sufficient to establish the lawfulness of [Khairkhwa’s] detention.”
As THE WEEKLY STANDARD has reported, the allegations of Khairkhwa’s ties to bin Laden and al Qaeda are contained in the declassified and leaked files authored by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO). The fact that the government introduced these allegations into evidence during Khairkhwa’s habeas proceedings demonstrates that the Obama administration still believes this evidence to be true. That is, the Obama administration still believes that Khairkhwa was tied to al Qaeda’s most senior leader.
In any event, there is no material dispute over Khairkhwa’s importance, regardless of the tales some are now spinning.
According to Judge Urbina’s ruling, Kharikhwa “rose to the highest level of the Taliban and had close ties to Mullah Omar, who repeatedly appointed [Kharikwha] to sensitive, high-profile positions.” Even “after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, [Khairkhwa] remained within Mullah Omar’s inner circle, despite the fact that Mullah Omar had limited his contacts to only his most trusted commanders.”
Khairkhwa was so important, in fact, that he served as a member of the Taliban’s Supreme Shura council — an elite body of ten Taliban leaders that served directly under Mullah Omar in the Taliban’s government. As the Circuit Court found, the Supreme Shura “supervised subordinate councils responsible for military operations” and was staffed with “military commanders. Khairkhwa was “no exception,” as he, too, had commanded Taliban forces.
And now Khairkhwa has been released to Qatar. It is no wonder why Mullah Omar is so pleased.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.