The Taliban have again offered to exchange a US soldier who was captured in 2009 for five Taliban commanders currently held at Guantanamo Bay who are closely tied to al Qaeda. The offer comes just two days after the Taliban officially opened a political office in Qatar which is being used to legitimize the group in the international community.
In a telephone conversation today from their Qatar office with the Associated Press, the Taliban said they would exchange Bowe Bergdahl, who went missing in eastern Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, for five notorious and dangerous Taliban leaders who are currently in custody at Guantanamo. Those five leaders have previously been identified by The Long War Journal as 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); Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa (the former Taliban governor of Herat province); and Mohammad Nabi (a commander with ties to numerous terror groups).
Relying on declassified and leaked Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) documents authored by US intelligence officials, The Long War Journal has previously profiled these five senior Taliban leaders. [See LWJ reports, Taliban seek freedom for dangerous Guantanamo detainees, Afghan peace council reportedly seeks talks with Taliban commanders held at Gitmo, and Afghan Taliban announces new ‘political office’ in Qatar.]
All five Taliban leaders have extensive ties to al Qaeda, according to intelligence reports cited by JTF-GTMO.
The US is willing to release the five prisoners without the condition that the Taliban denounce al Qaeda. The Taliban have refused to denounce al Qaeda or sever ties with the group since the US invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001.
The US has discussed making the same exchange in the past, but the Taliban suspended negotiations in March 2012 after claiming the US misrepresented the purpose of the political office established in Qatar. The Taliban had also claimed that the office was to be used for “preliminary talks with the occupying enemy over the exchange of prisoners” as well as to communicate the Taliban’s intent to fight NATO forces until they withdraw from Afghanistan.
But the Taliban have now somewhat altered their rhetoric on the nature of the office, intimating that it would be used to conduct negotiations with the US and “Afghans,” but not the Afghan government. The opening of the Taliban’s office in Qatar was announced in a statement on the group’s Voice of Jihad website on June 18.
First and foremost, the Taliban assert that the purpose of the office is to legitimize the group and communicate its messages to the international community. Although the Taliban have long maintained that the Qatar office was to be used primarily for advancing the group’s political interests, not for conducting negotiations [see LWJ report, Taliban suspend ‘dialogue’ with US], the point is now made explicit.
In the Taliban’s June 18 statement, the first reason given for the creation of the office is “to talk and improve relations with the international community through mutual understanding,” while the fifth reason is to “give political statements to the media on the ongoing political situation.” The fourth reason offered is to “establish contact with the United Nations, international and regional organizations and non-governmental institutions.”
Reasons two and three are vague references to negotiations. The second reason put forth for the creation of the office is to “back such a political and peaceful solution which ends the occupation of Afghanistan, establishes an independent Islamic government and brings true security.” The third is to “have meetings with Afghans in due appropriate time.” The Taliban do not say they are willing to negotiate with the Afghan government.
In the June 18 announcement, the group also claims that it “does not wish to harm other countries from its soil and neither will it allow others use Afghan soil to pose a threat to the security of other nations!” This statement is strongly contradicted by the reality on the ground in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Taliban continue to conduct operations with and host international terror groups, such as al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Turkistan Islamic Party. Additionally, the Haqqani Network, a Taliban subgroup that operates in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and whose top leaders sit on the Taliban’s executive councils, has facilitated international attacks. And classified documents found at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, purportedly show that bin Laden and Zawahiri were in direct communication with Taliban emir Mullah Omar and that the three leaders plotted strategy and tactics.
The Taliban’s announcement of the creation of the political office has incensed many senior Afghan politicians, including President Hamid Karzai. Yesterday, Karzai suspended talks with the US on an agreement to base US forces in Afghanistan after 2014.
Karzai accused the US of sidelining the Afghan government by conducting direct negotiations with the Taliban, and said that the office in Qatar is being used mainly for political purposes.
The Taliban’s press conference announcing the creation of the office was certainly intended as a propaganda stunt to bolster the group’s political profile. The Taliban displayed its white flag, and used the name “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” which the group used when it controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to the end of 2001. Additionally, Qatari officials appeared in the background while the Taliban spokesman thanked Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani for sponsoring the office.
The news of the office’s opening also overshadowed the nationwide transfer of security responsibility from the International Security Assistance Force to the Afghan National Security Forces. Reports of the official security transfer on June 18 were dwarfed by the Taliban’s announcement.
The US’s willingness to negotiate with the Taliban to exchange Bergdahl for the five Taliban leaders also highlights the group’s ongoing links to al Qaeda and its support for foreign fighters in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl is currently thought to be held by Mullah Sangeen Zadran, a Haqqani Network commander who serves as a senior lieutenant to Sirajuddin Haqqani and as the Taliban’s shadow governor for Paktika province in Afghanistan. Mullah Sangeen was added to the list of designated terrorists on Aug. 16, 2011.
US military officials have told The Long War Journal that Sangeen is considered to be one of the most dangerous operational commanders in eastern Afghanistan. Sangeen has organized numerous assaults on US and Afghan combat outposts in the region. Sangeen has professed his support for al Qaeda and recently called on Turkish and Kurdish jihadists to join the fight in Afghanistan and elsewhere.