Member of Taliban's elite Supreme Shura among 5 transferred to Qatar
Khairullah Said Wali Khairkhwa.
Two court decisions provide insights into the career of Khairullah Khairkhwa, who was recently transferred from Guantanamo to Qatar along with four other senior Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
On May 27, 2011, District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina published his opinion rejecting Khairkhwa's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. And, on Dec. 14, 2012, the DC Circuit Court issued its ruling affirming Judge Urbina's opinion.
The courts concluded that Khairkhwa was a member of the Taliban's Supreme Shura council, an elite group of 10 leaders who reported directly to Mullah Omar. The Shura oversaw the Taliban's military and intelligence operations, as well as other activities.
A recent piece published by the Los Angeles Times, "Most of 5 freed Taliban prisoners have less than hard-core pasts," argued that Khairkhwa was a "moderate" political figure within the Taliban and had no military responsibilities. The court decisions reveal, however, that this is not true. Khairkhwa held multiple positions within the Taliban's pre-9/11 regime, including governor of Herat province and interior minister. His responsibilities included a military role.
Khairkhwa remained one of Mullah Omar's closest confidantes until his capture in 2002. And intelligence in the US government's possession shows that he had direct ties to Osama bin Laden.
"Even after his appointment as Governor of Herat in 1999, [Khairkhwa] remained integrally involved in the Taliban's military forces, operating within the Taliban's formal command structure and facilitating the movement of Taliban troops both before and after the commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom," Judge Urbina's opinion reads. "Moreover, on the eve of Operation Enduring Freedom, [Khairkhwa] was dispatched to Iran by Taliban leaders in Kandahar to discuss Iran's offer to provide military assistance to the Taliban in anticipation of the imminent U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan."
The Long War Journal has previously documented Khairkhwa's role in the Iran-al Qaeda dealings, in which two former foes joined together against a common enemy. [See LWJ reports, Iran and the Taliban, allies against America and DC district court denies former Taliban governor's habeas petition.]
The Iranians promised the Taliban three things during this and other meetings: to provide the Taliban with weapons, open the borders for "Arabs" (meaning al Qaeda operatives) traveling to Afghanistan to fight, and to help negotiate a pact with the Northern Alliance. The third initiative was fruitless, as the Northern Alliance remained opposed to the Taliban. The other two have come to fruition. In the years that followed Khairkhwa's meeting with the Iranians, Iran supplied the Taliban with weapons. And, according to the Treasury and State Departments, al Qaeda operates a facilitation network inside Iran to this day that shuttles fighters to and from South Asia. In other words, the terms of assistance offered by Iran were very real.
Khairkhwa's military role went far beyond the meetings with the Iranians. According to Judge Urbina's ruling, Khairkhwa "has also exhibited a detailed knowledge about sensitive military-related matters, such as locations, personnel and resources of Taliban military installations, the relative capabilities of different weapons systems and the locations of weapons caches."
Judge Urbina continued:
Furthermore, the petitioner operated within the Taliban's formal command structure, providing material support to Taliban fighters both before and after the outset of hostilities with U.S. coalition forces. These facts are consistent with the Taliban's governance model, in which nearly all senior Taliban officials were tasked with both civilian and military responsibilities.
And, according to the Circuit Court's decision, Khairkhwa knew so much about the Taliban's arms that he "provided detailed information of the Taliban's assessments of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and of the Taliban's efforts to obtain and protect Stinger missiles."
Some have argued that Khaikhwa was attempting to either join or surrender to Hamid Karzai's government when he was captured.
This is not what happened, according to the DC District Court and the Circuit Court, both of which rejected Khaikhwa's claims. First, the District Court found that there is no evidence Khairkhwa attempted to turn himself into American forces (another story that was offered during Khairkhwa's habeas hearing). Nor is there any evidence that Khairkhwa was a "moderate" who was trying to distance himself from the Taliban.
District Court Judge Urbina found [citations omitted]:
Likewise, even if the petitioner contacted Hamid Karzai in mid-November 2001 to discuss the possibility of surrender, the petitioner did not turn himself in, but was instead captured in Chaman, Pakistan approximately three months later. The petitioner has provided no credible explanation for what he was doing or what steps he had taken to disassociate himself from the Taliban during the months after he allegedly contacted Hamid Karzai to discuss the possibility of surrender.
Judge Urbina went on to evaluate other aspects of Khairkhwa's story. Khairkhwa claimed that he went to Chaman, Pakistan (instead of turning himself in Afghanistan, which would have been the easier option) simply because he needed medical treatment for his stomach. Not so, according to the District Court [citations omitted]:
[Khairkhwa], however, was not captured at a medical office in Chaman. Rather, it is undisputed that the petitioner was captured at the Pakistani residence of senior Taliban official Abdul Manan Niazi. As previously discussed, Niazi was a former Taliban military commander and Governor of Kabul, who had personally overseen the massacre of thousands of Shiites in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1998 and was part of the Taliban delegation that traveled to Iran in October 2001 to discuss Iran's offer to provide military assistance to the Taliban. The fact that [Kharikhwa] was captured at the home of a hardline Taliban military commander greatly undermines the [Khairkhwa's] contention that he had disassociated himself from the Taliban prior to his apprehension by Pakistani authorities.
In sum, Judge Urbina found:
Throughout his tenure in the Taliban, [Khairkhwa] remained a prominent leader and a close ally of Mullah Omar. [Khairkhwa's] ties to Mullah Omar persisted even after a U.S. cruise missile struck Mullah Omar's vehicle in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, and Mullah Omar limited his contacts to his most trusted lieutenants, including [Khairkhwa].
Thus, Khairkhwa remained very much in the fight after the US-led invasion began. The Circuit Court found a complete "absence of anything showing that he dissociated himself from the Taliban." Contacting Karzai or other officials is not evidence that Khairkhwa had a change of heart. He was merely seeking possible alternative paths for survival during the initial American onslaught -- "hedging his bets," as the District Court found. But even then Khairkhwa stuck with the Taliban.
The book on Khairkhwa is even more disturbing. During Khairkhwa's habeas proceedings, according to Judge Urbina's decision, the US government "raised a host of additional allegations against [Khairkhwa], including allegations that the petitioner had ties to Usama bin Ladin, harbored al Qaida operatives in Herat during his tenure as Governor of Herat and commanded a Taliban garrison at Mazar-e-Sharif during Operation Enduring Freedom." The court did not address these allegations because other evidence was "sufficient to establish the lawfulness of [Khairkhwa's] detention."
As The Long War Journal has reported, the allegations of Khairkhwa's ties to bin Laden and al Qaeda are contained in the declassified and leaked files authored by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO). The fact that the government introduced these allegations into evidence during Khairkhwa's habeas proceedings demonstrates that it still believes this evidence to be true. That is, the US government still believes that Khairkhwa was tied to al Qaeda's most senior leader.
In any event, there is no material dispute over Khairkhwa's importance, regardless of the tales some are now arguing.
According to Judge Urbina's ruling, Kharikhwa "rose to the highest level of the Taliban and had close ties to Mullah Omar, who repeatedly appointed [Kharikwha] to sensitive, high-profile positions." Even "after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, [Khairkhwa] remained within Mullah Omar's inner circle, despite the fact that Mullah Omar had limited his contacts to only his most trusted commanders."
The Circuit Court found that the Taliban's Supreme Shura council, which Khairkhwa sat on, "supervised subordinate councils responsible for military operations" and was staffed with "military commanders." Khairkhwa was "no exception," as he, too, had commanded Taliban forces.
And now Khairkhwa has been released to Qatar. It is no wonder why Mullah Omar is so pleased.
Note: A version of this article was published at The Weekly Standard.