Shortly after opening its political office in Doha, Qatar earlier this week, the Taliban floated the idea of exchanging U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been in captivity since 2009, for the top five Taliban leaders in U.S. custody at Guantanamo. The offer, which has been a longstanding Taliban demand, was first reported by the Associated Press.
While the U.S. has stripped away its preconditions for the problematic peace talks, the Taliban has continued to insist that the proposed prisoner exchange is a necessary first step for going forward. “First has to be the release of detainees,” Shaheen Suhail, the Taliban’s spokesman, told the Associated Press. “Yes. It would be an exchange. Then step by step, we want to build bridges of confidence to go forward.”
It is easy to see why the Taliban is so keen on freeing them. The five Taliban leaders in question are among Mullah Omar’s most notorious commanders.
Below are short profiles for each of the “Taliban Five.” The summaries have been culled from longer profiles, which rely on leaked and declassified Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) files, as well as other sources. All of the citations below were found in the JTF-GTMO files.
Two of the Taliban commanders have been wanted by the UN for war crimes. JTF-GTMO deemed all five of them “high” risks to the U.S. and its allies. And all five worked closely with al Qaeda prior to their detention.
The Obama administration wants to convince the Taliban to abandon its longstanding alliance with al Qaeda. But these men contributed to the formation of that relationship in the first place. It is difficult to see how their freedom would help the Obama administration achieve one of its principal goals for the hoped-for talks.
Mullah Mohammad Fazl (Taliban army chief of staff): 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.” In addition to being one of the Taliban’s most experienced military commanders, Fazl worked closely with a top al Qaeda commander named Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who headed al Qaeda’s main fighting unit in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 and is currently detained at Guantanamo.
Mullah Norullah Noori (senior Taliban military commander): Like Fazl, Noori is “wanted by the United Nations (UN) for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiite Muslims.” Beginning in the mid-1990s, Noori “fought alongside al Qaeda as a Taliban military general, against the Northern alliance.” He continued to work closely with al Qaeda in the years that followed.
Abdul Haq Wasiq (Taliban deputy minister of intelligence): Wasiq arranged for al Qaeda members to provide crucial intelligence training prior to 9/11. The training was headed by Hamza Zubayr, an al Qaeda instructor who was killed during the same September 2002 raid that netted Ramzi Binalshibh, 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 a leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment.
Khairullah Khairkhwa (Taliban governor of the Herat province and former interior minister): Khairkhwa was the governor of Afghanistan’s westernmost province prior to 9/11. In that capacity, he executed sensitive missions for Mullah Omar, including helping to broker a secret deal with the Iranians. For much of the pre-9/11 period, Iran and the Taliban were bitter foes. But a Taliban delegation that included Kharikhwa helped secure Iran’s support for the Taliban’s efforts against the American-led coalition in late 2001. JTF-GTMO found that Khairkhwa was likely a major drug trafficker and deeply in bed with al Qaeda. He allegedly oversaw one of Osama bin Laden’s training facilities in Herat.
Mohammed Nabi (senior Taliban figure and security official): Nabi “was a senior Taliban official who served in multiple leadership roles.” Nabi “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 Nabi held weekly meetings with al Qaeda operatives to coordinate attacks against U.S.-led forces.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.