The five Taliban leaders who President Barack Obama freed from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for U.S. Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl are now part of the Taliban’s peace talks in Qatar with the U.S. government.
The former detainees, dubbed “the Taliban Five,” had been high-ranking members of the Taliban government prior to its overthrow by U.S. forces in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The five men were released by the Obama administration and arrived in Qatar on June 1, 2014. Bergdahl was released on May 31, 2014, as part of the prisoner exchange.
The U.S. government, led by U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, has been negotiating for months with Taliban representatives in Qatar. The Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, has been excluded from these discussions at the request of the Taliban, to the government’s frustration. Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah harshly criticized Khalilzad’s efforts, and the U.S. recently walked out of a meeting at the presidential palace in Kabul in what was seen by many as a snub in response.
The New York Times reports that the Taliban has purposely made the Taliban Five a prominent part of its talks in Qatar: “In recent months, as the American and militants took up intense negotiations to try to end the conflict in Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership made a point of including the former prisoners. Each day during the recent round of talks in Doha, Qatar, the five men sat face to face with American diplomats and generals.”
The Taliban Five are Norullah Noori, Mohammad Fazl, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Khairullah Khairkhwa, and Mohammad Nabi Omari. Noori was a Taliban governor and is believed to be involved with the massacres of thousands of Hazara, Uzbek, and other Shiite minorities. Fazl was a high-ranking official in the Taliban military and also engaged in large-scale ethno-sectarian killing. Wasiq was a member of the Taliban’s intelligence services and worked with outside terror organizations. Khairkhwa helped found the Taliban and was close to Mohammad Omar and Osama bin Laden. And Omari was accused of having connections to al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, and other groups.
The Taliban regime was among the most repressive and brutal in the world, its treatment of women and religious minorities was abhorrent, and it actively harbored and protected al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden for years. The Obama administration’s decision to release the Taliban Five in exchange for Bergdahl had been opposed by many at the Pentagon and was strongly criticized by Republicans at the time.
The peace talks come amid continued fighting between the U.S. and the Taliban.
Two U.S. soldiers, Spc. Joseph P. Collette and Sgt. 1st Class Will D. Lindsay, were killed in Afghanistan last Friday. They died in Kunduz Province as a result of wounds they suffered during combat operations during Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed credit for the attack.
More than 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded in Afghanistan since combat operations began there in October 2001.
There are roughly 14,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan helping train the Afghan Armed Forces. The U.S. also carries out counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts against the Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist elements that have found a safe haven in the country.
The Taliban has also continued its attacks on the Afghan National Army throughout the peace talks, with one such high-profile assault earlier this month resulting in an entire Afghan company being wiped out.
Khalilzad claims that the U.S. and the Taliban have tentatively agreed on two aspects of an agreement: a timeline for U.S. withdrawal from the country and guarantees from the Taliban that foreign terrorists would not be welcome. Many are skeptical of the Taliban’s trustworthiness on following through on its assurances.
Gen. Austin Scott Miller, commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and U.S. Forces – Afghanistan, was nearly killed by the Taliban in an assassination attempt last October, but has been involved with the peace talks.
According to the New York Times, Gen. Miller told the Taliban that he respected them as fighters but that the war needed to end. He also evoked a mutual need to fight the terrorism of the Islamic State.”
“We could keep fighting, keep killing each other, or, together, we could kill ISIS,” Miller said.
Some longtime analysts of Afghanistan are skeptical of the Taliban’s ability and willingness to keep the Islamic State and al Qaeda in check.
Many inside Afghanistan are also skeptical that the Taliban can change. Haji Khalil Dare Sufi, described as an elder at Kabul’s Al Zahra mosque and a member of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority, said “The Taliban will always be the Taliban. They have been brutal to the Hazara people.”
“They can talk all they want in Doha, but there can be no good result,” Sufi said.