Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner exchange 'won't help the peace process in any way' - Taliban spokesman
One of the Taliban's top spokesmen said that the recent prisoner exchange between the US and the Taliban will do nothing to further US hopes for reconciliation in Afghanistan as the Taliban "don't believe in the peace process."
The exchange of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who reportedly went absent without leave while on duty in Paktika province in 2009, for five senior al Qaeda-linked Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay took place over the weekend. The five Taliban leaders, who were deemed "high" risks to the US and its allies by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), include two accused of war crimes by the UN.
The five freed Taliban commanders have been identified as Abdul Haq Wasiq, an intelligence official; Mullah Norullah Noori, senior military commander; Mullah Mohammad Fazl, the Taliban's former deputy minister of defense; Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, the Taliban's former governor of Herat province; and Mohammad Nabi Omari, a senior leader. JTF-GTMO had previously recommended that all five remain in custody as they posed a threat to the US. [See LWJ reports, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl exchanged for top 5 Taliban commanders at Gitmo, and Taliban says 'five senior leaders' have been 'liberated' from Guantanamo.]
The prisoner exchange took place over the course of several months of negotiations between the US and the Taliban which were brokered by the government of Qatar. The five Taliban leaders have been sent to Qatar and are banned from travel for one year.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had told NBC's Meet the Press that the US is hopeful that the negotiations that led to the prisoner exchange can further reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
"So maybe this will be a new opening that can produce an agreement," between the Taliban and the Afghan government, Hagel said yesterday.
Within hours, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid shot down Hagel's optimism for reconciliation.
"It won't help the peace process in any way, because we don't believe in the peace process," Mujahid said.
Instead of portraying the exchange as the beginning of reconciliation, Taliban emir Mullah Mohammed Omar called the release of the five commanders a "great victory" and a "huge and vivid triumph." The Taliban also published photos of the five released commanders as they arrived in Qatar. [See LWJ report, Mullah Omar hails release of 5 top Taliban commanders as 'great victory'.]
"This huge accomplishment brings the glad tidings of liberation of the whole country and reassures us that our aspirations are on the verge of fulfillment," Omar said, according to a statement released yesterday at the Taliban website, Voice of Jihad.
Taliban have rejected peace talks in the past
This is the second time this year that US calls for reconciliation have been rejected by the Taliban. In January, the White House reiterated that it wanted to negotiate with the Taliban.
"We call again on the Taliban to put down their arms and begin peace talks, which is the surest way to end the conflict in a peaceful manner," the White House statement said.
The Taliban immediately rejected the White House's plea for peace talks.
"We strongly reject the American demand," Zabihullah Mujahid, an official Taliban spokesman, said in an email sent to The Long War Journal.
The US government has unsuccessfully pursued peace talks with the Taliban for the past five years. The administration has stated that a peace deal with the Taliban will end the fighting and prevent al Qaeda from operating in the country.
Previously, the US has demanded that the Taliban denounce al Qaeda and join the Afghan political process. The demand that the Taliban denounce al Qaeda was dropped last year as the Taliban were permitted to open an office in Qatar. Western officials wanted the Taliban to use the office to conduct peace talks, but the Taliban insisted it was to be used to raise the profile of the group in the international community and serve as a "political office." Additionally, the Taliban said they would use the office in Qatar to secure the release of the five al Qaeda-linked commanders who were finally freed this weekend. [See LWJ report, Taliban want release of 5 al Qaeda-linked commanders in exchange for captured US soldier; and Threat Matrix report, Taliban insist on using 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,' flying flag at Qatar 'political office.']
The Taliban signaled in early 2012, during another US push for peace talks, that they had no intentions of disowning al Qaeda, and refused to denounce international terrorism. A Taliban spokesman even said that al Qaeda is officially operating under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
"They [al Qaeda] are among the first groups and banners that pledged allegiance to the Emir of the Believers [Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban], and they operate in Afghanistan under the flag of the Islamic Emirate," a spokesman to jihadist forums known as Abdullah al Wazir said in February 2012.
"They are an example of discipline and accuracy in the execution of missions and operations entrusted to them by the Military Command of the Islamic Emirate," Wazir continued, calling al Qaeda "lions in war." [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda 'operates in Afghanistan under the flag of the Islamic Emirate': Taliban spokesman; and Threat Matrix report, Taliban expand list of demands, refuse to denounce 'international terrorism.']