Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, doesn’t make statements often. Omar is so reclusive that some have even speculated that he is either dead, or otherwise incapacitated in Pakistan. But on Sunday the Taliban released a statement attributed to Omar, who declared the release of the top five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo a “great victory” for the mujahideen of Afghanistan.
The five Taliban leaders were undoubtedly among the most dangerous detainees held by the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks. Over the weekend, however, the Obama administration announced that they had been exchanged for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban since 2009. The Taliban had long demanded the exchange as a prerequisite for beginning “peace talks” in earnest with the U.S. The talks have thus far gone nowhere. And it says much about the Obama administration’s approach to diplomacy that the U.S. was willing to drop its preconditions for the talks (including that the Taliban renounce al Qaeda), while the Taliban stuck to its upfront demands.
The prisoner swap would not have been possible without assistance from the government of Qatar, as all of the parties involved made clear. Mullah Omar heaped praise on Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, the Amir of Qatar, for his help in brokering the deal and for agreeing to host the Taliban leaders.
In earlier statements, both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry similarly thanked Qatar for its assistance. “For his assistance in helping to secure our soldier's return, I extend my deepest appreciation to the Amir of Qatar,” Obama said in his statement. “The Amir’s personal commitment to this effort is a testament to the partnership between our two countries.”
Kerry echoed this sentiment. “I extend my personal gratitude to the Government of Qatar – and especially to the Amir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani – who played such an instrumental role in returning Sergeant Bergdahl home,” Kerry said in his statement on the exchange for Bergdahl. “We work every day with Qatar on a range of critical foreign policy priorities. This effort – one that was personally so close to our hearts here – exemplifies how vital our partnership with Qatar is and will remain.”
President Obama and Secretary Kerry whitewashed Qatar’s troubling record in their statements. The Obama administration itself has documented, repeatedly, the permissive environment the Taliban and like-minded extremists enjoy in Qatar when fundraising for their jihad.
In 2012, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was so concerned with Qatar’s lax attitude towards the jihadists that he fought against the transfer of the Taliban Five. According to the Wall Street Journal, Panetta and other Defense Department officials were concerned because Qatar had “balked at U.S. demands that it take steps to ensure the detainees can't leave the country after they are handed over.”
The Obama administration has reportedly signed a memo of understanding with the Qatari government that bars the Taliban Five from traveling for just one year. The administration has declined to share this memo with concerned congressmen, and its precise details are unknown to the public. But the current Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has taken a softer stance than his predecessor and is satisfied with the arrangement.
Hagel has gone so far as to argue that the prisoner exchange may lead to a meaningful peace deal with the Taliban, which is wishful thinking, to put it mildly. There is no evidence that the Taliban is willing to change its course, especially with American forces being withdrawn from Afghanistan on a fixed schedule. They simply wanted their senior leaders freed.