In written testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Mar. 15, General David Petraeus briefly outlined Afghanistan’s efforts to reconcile some Taliban forces.
The International Security Assistance Force has “provided assistance for new Afghan government-led initiatives in reintegration, supporting the recently established Afghan High Peace Council and Provincial Peace and Reintegration Councils,” General Petraeus wrote. ISAF has counted “some 700 former Taliban” who “have now officially reintegrated with Afghan authorities,” as well as “some 2,000 more [who] are in various stages of the reintegration process.”
Later in his testimony, General Petraeus explained that “hundreds of reconcilable mid-level leaders and fighters have been reintegrated into Afghan society.”
While significant, such efforts have, to date, convinced only a small percentage of the estimated 25,000 to 35,000 Taliban fighters who form the backbone of the Afghan insurgency to lay down their arms.
Moreover, the Afghan High Peace Council is reportedly seeking to include high-level Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo in peace talks even though there is no evidence that they are reconcilable.
In February, the council made it known that it was seeking the release of Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, who was formerly the Taliban’s governor of Herat province. Earlier this month, Dawn reported the names of three other Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo whom the peace council seeks to include in the reconciliation talks.
They are: Abdul Haq Wasiq (the former Taliban Deputy Minister of Intelligence); Mullah Norullah Noori (the Taliban’s former governor-general of Afghanistan’s northern zone); and Mullah Mohammad Fazl (the Taliban’s former army chief of staff).
All four of the Taliban leaders are long-time mujahedeen who began serving the Taliban in the early to mid-1990s and rose to high-ranking positions in Mullah Omar’s organization. At least three of the four (Noori, Fazl, and Khairkhwa) have been designated by the United Nations as members of the Taliban and as such have had their assets frozen.
All four, according to declassified files produced at Guantanamo, also have noteworthy ties to al Qaeda.
Abdul Haq Wasiq, Taliban Deputy Minister of Intelligence (internment serial number 4)
During his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) at Guantanamo, US military officials read the key allegation against Wasiq aloud: “The Detainee was the Taliban Deputy Minister of Intelligence.” Wasiq did not deny the charge. Instead, he replied:
Yes, I was this, and I will tell you why. Before the Taliban captured Kabul, I was in Quetta, Pakistan, studying. When I came home, the Taliban came and recruited people by force to Kabul. …I confessed this, and I will confess again. My job was against thieves and bribes; I was fighting against those kinds of people.
Wasiq, therefore, implied that he was conscripted into becoming a high-ranking Taliban intelligence official who merely fought crime (a “police job,” as he called it). This is a dubious claim to say the least. And one of the tribunal members challenged Wasiq’s excuse: “I would think it would be most difficult for a farmer and religious student to suddenly become Deputy Minister of Intelligence with no background and no training.”
Another allegation was read aloud at the hearing: “The Detainee used a radio to communicate with the Taliban Chief of Intelligence.” Wasiq again did not deny it, admitting that the head of the Taliban’s intelligence service was his boss, but claiming that they communicated by radio only “way before September 11th in America.” Wasiq explained:
He [the Taliban Chief of Intelligence] was in charge of the intelligence, and was the governor of the whole province. I did not call him; he called me on the radio because he was in charge of us. He gave us our jobs to do, and we couldn’t do anything without his order. You know if you have a boss you have to listen to him.
As deputy of the Taliban’s intelligence service, Wasiq surely had knowledge of al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan. When asked if he knew about six al Qaeda training facilities outside of Kabul, however, Wasiq feigned ignorance:
I don’t know. I swear to Allah that this is the first time from your mouth that there were six training camps outside of Kabul. I heard from you there were al Qaida training camps. I don’t know, I just now heard this from you now.
Wasiq also claimed that he “didn’t have a connection” to al Qaeda and knew nothing about al Qaeda members inside Afghanistan. US military and intelligence officials clearly did not buy his denial.
According to one source cited in the US government’s declassified files, Wasiq was both “an al Qaeda intelligence member and the Taliban Deputy Minister of Intelligence.” In a letter to his brother, Wasiq reportedly “included greetings to an al Qaeda member.” (During his CSRT, Wasiq denied authoring such a letter.)
Wasiq also allegedly “arranged for an Egyptian al Qaeda member to come to Kabul, Afghanistan, to teach personnel in the Taliban Intelligence Service about intelligence.”
Another unnamed “individual” cited in the government’s memos reported that Wasiq “requested he head up a directorate within the Taliban Intelligence to watch Arab Islamists not affiliated with al Qaeda” because the Taliban was worried “that the extremists intended to harm Osama bin Laden.”
Wasiq allegedly conspired with other members of the al Qaeda-Taliban jihadist network, too. Wasiq “interrogated a pair of ethnic Chechen[s],” and when he learned of their “connection with Chechen Fundamentalists” he delivered a “briefcase containing 100,000 United States Dollars” to them for “fighting the Russians.” In another instance, Wasiq appointed a high-ranking member of Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) to a Taliban intelligence position.
Wasiq was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001. At the time, US officials allege, he was “involved in the [Taliban’s] operation to re-establish the front lines of Kunduz, Afghanistan.” Wasiq denied this during his CSRT, saying that he was merely a “civilian” Taliban worker.
Mullah Norullah Noori, former governor-general of Afghanistan’s northern zone (ISN # 6)
A May 22, 2002 declassified State Department cable, available on George Washington University’s National Security Archive web site, describes Mullah Norullah Noori as “a strong military and civil figure in the northern zone.” He served as the former “governor of Balkh and Governor-General of Northern Zone,” which included several Afghan provinces, and was also the interim governor of Mazar-e-Sharif “in the absence of the Taliban governor of that province.”
Noori “fought alongside al Qaeda as a Taliban military general, against the Northern Alliance” in September 1995, according to declassified files prepared at Guantanamo.
Noori’s alleged al Qaeda ties did not end there. He “hosted al Qaeda commanders” and also “met a subordinate of Osama bin Laden to pass a message from the Taliban supreme leader” – that is, a message from Mullah Omar.
In addition, Noori allegedly “held a meeting with the head of the Islamic [M]ovement of Uzbekistan, who discussed jihad in Uzbekistan.” (This IMU head is likely Juma Namangani, who was killed in late 2001.)
During hearings at Guantanamo, Noori described himself as a simple farmer and tailor, who never took up arms even after he began working for the Taliban. “I was just like a servant and also like a security guard,” Noori claimed.
Of course, the Afghan High Peace Council’s reported interest in Noori belies his claim. The council reportedly believes that high-ranking Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo can assist in reconciliation efforts. And US officials do not think that Noori was a non-violent, low-level Taliban “servant” either.
Noori was “fighting on the front lines at Mazar e Sharif” when the Taliban fell to the Northern Alliance, according to declassified military documents. He then allegedly “moved with a majority of the remaining fighters to Kunduz, Afghanistan to reestablish the front lines,” before he helped negotiate the surrender of Taliban forces to General Dostum.
Noori was detained and transferred to Guantanamo in early 2002. The Gitmo files note that Taliban fighters loyal to him continued to fight into at least 2003.
Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Taliban army chief of staff (ISN #7)
Mullah Mohammad Fazl was one of the Taliban’s most experienced commanders prior to his capture in Nov. 2001. During his CSRT at Guantanamo, Fazl said he could not “remember the exact year and time” he started working for the Taliban, but it was “[b]efore they captured Kabul.” Declassified US military memos note that Fazl studied at a madrassa for several years until “he joined the Taliban at the request of the principal and director of the Madrasa.”
American officials recognized that Fazl was an important Taliban leader shortly after Mullah Omar’s forces captured Kabul. In a declassified Oct. 4, 1996 State Department cable, available on the George Washington University’s National Security Archive web site, Fazl is listed as a member of the Taliban’s Interim Shura council. Another declassified State Department cable, dated May 22, 2002, labels Fazl “a key Taliban commander,” who “[p]articipated in all significant operations.” Fazl also had “a long record of human rights abuses.”
The State Department’s assessment of Fazl is corroborated by sources cited in the declassified Gitmo files. One unnamed source said that “a former Taliban supreme leader” – that is, Mullah Omar – “considered [Fazl] his top soldier.” In addition, a declassified memo reads: “In the war against the Northern Alliance, the detainee was responsible for widespread atrocities against noncombatants.”
Along with thousands of Taliban fighters, Fazl surrendered to the Northern Alliance in late 2001. “After we went to Mazar e Sharif to talk with General Dostum and his commander, we came to this agreement to surrender all the weapons, and after that, we will let everyone go home,” Fazl explained during his CSRT. Fazl tried to downplay his Taliban role, however, saying he commanded a contingent of fighters that was much smaller than the US government concluded.
The declassified Gitmo files outline Fazl’s ties to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a terrorist organization closely allied with al Qaeda. In the memos, US officials allege that Fazl “was aware the Taliban was providing the [IMU] with financial, weapons, and logistic support in exchange for IMU providing the Taliban with soldiers.”
At some point during his time in custody, Fazl told authorities that “his direct commanders were the Taliban Defense Minister and a person who was responsible for foreign troop deployment.” That second person was allegedly IMU’s “military commander,” which is likely a reference to Juma Namangani. US officials concluded that “the bulk of funding for IMU comes directly from Osama bin Laden.”
An unnamed source cited in the declassified Gitmo files also told US officials “that at its peak, a specific Taliban army division was composed for 1,100 foreign fighters” and this division “received its orders from” Fazl as well as the Taliban’s Minister of Defense. The foreign fighter “division received all their funding and logistical support from the Taliban Ministry of Defense.”
Although the foreign fighter division is not named in the files pertaining to Fazl, it is likely the Arab 055 Brigade, which was led by top al Qaeda operative Abdul Hadi al Iraqi (who is also currently detained at Guantanamo) and tightly integrated with Taliban forces.
Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, former governor of Herat province and acting interior minister (ISN # 579)
The Long War Journal has profiled Khairullah Khairkhwa previously. [See LWJ reports, Iran and the Taliban, allies against America and Afghan peace council requests release of Gitmo detainee.]
A declassified Dec. 30, 1997 State Department cable describes Khairkhwa as the “acting minister of interior,” who “maintains responsibilities for the Taliban’s civilian intelligence organization.” Khairkhwa “also reports directly to [Mullah] Omar,” the cable reads.
Another declassified State Department cable, dated Apr. 7, 1998, reports that Khairkhwa is one of several Taliban leaders who are “known to be close to Mullah Omar.”
In 1999, Khairkhwa was appointed governor of Afghanistan’s Herat province, and he held that position until the Taliban fell in late 2001. US officials allege in memos prepared at Guantanamo that Khairkhwa became a major drug trafficker with ties to senior al Qaeda leaders.
Khairkhwa reportedly built three walled compounds that he used to manage his opium trade. And he allegedly oversaw one of Osama bin Laden’s training facilities in Herat as well. One US government memo notes that only Khairkhwa or bin Laden himself “could authorize entrance” to the facility, which was one of bin Laden’s “most important bases” and “conducted terrorist training two times per week.”
During hearings at Guantanamo, Khairkhwa denied these allegations. But it is clear that US intelligence officials did not believe Khairkhwa’s denials. The allegations were repeatedly included in memos prepared for Khairkhwa’s case.
Khairkhwa admittedly played another, more provocative role as well. According to the US government’s unclassified files, Khairkhwa was installed as the governor of Herat “to improve relations between Iran and the Taliban government” after hostilities between the two boiled over during the late 1990s.
In the hearings at Guantanamo, Khairkhwa admitted that he began meeting with the Iranians in early 2000. The US government’s unclassified documents cite at least two instances when Khairkhwa took part in meetings between senior Taliban and Iranian officials — once before and once after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Khairkhwa admitted that he set up security for the meetings.
At these meetings, according to the US government’s declassified files, the Iranians “pledged to assist the Taliban in their war with the United States.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.