The five Gitmo detainees released by President Obama in exchange for deserter Bowe Bergdahl have joined the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, according to a Taliban spokesperson. Some observers think this might be a sign the Taliban is returning to old ways while others see it as a positive development for a possible peace deal. From the Associated Press:
Five members of the Afghan Taliban who were freed from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for captured American army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl have joined the insurgent group’s political office in Qatar, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Tuesday.
They will now be among Taliban representatives negotiating for peace in Afghanistan, a sign some negotiators in Kabul say indicates the Taliban’s desire for a peace pact.
Others fear the five, all of whom were close to the insurgent group’s founder and hard-line leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, bring with them the same ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that characterized the group’s five-year rule that ended in 2001 with the U.S.-led invasion.
“The Taliban are bringing back their old generation, which means the Taliban have not changed their thinking or their leadership,” said Haroun Mir, political analyst in the Afghan capital.
So that’s one way to look at this, i.e. the Taliban is bringing back the old guard as the U.S. tries to pave the way for a peace deal with the Afghan government. But at least one former Taliban member who now works in the Afghan government thinks this could be a positive because these guys have credibility with rank-and-file fighters:
Hakim Mujahed, a former Taliban member who is now also a member of the Afghan government peace council, said the presence of the five former Guantanamo prisoners in the Taliban’s Qatar office is indicative of the Taliban’s resolve to find a peace deal. He said the stature of the five within the insurgent movement will make a peace deal palatable to the rank and file, many of whom have resisted talks believing a military victory was within their grasp.
“These people are respected among all the Taliban,” said Mujahed. “Their word carries weight with the Taliban leadership and the mujahedeen.”
I have no doubt these guys are respected among the mujahideen ranks, but that’s because they’re hardliners. The AP notes that one of these guys, Khairullah Khairkhwa, was buddies with Taliban leader Mullah Oman and with Osama bin Laden. So it seems like a bit too much to hope that they were reformed in Gitmo and now want nothing besides peace with the government that was established by the U.S. after we invaded and kicked the Taliban to the curb. The Wall Street Journal reports it’s unlikely these five guys were released from detention in Doha without the tacit or explicit approval of the U.S.
The entry of the “Taliban Five” into the process, which the group has long sought but had been opposed by the U.S., appears to be a significant concession from the White House.
There was no immediate comment from Washington or Qatar. But the men have been kept under guard in a compound in the Qatari capital, Doha, at the behest of the U.S. since their release from Guantanamo in 2014. Diplomats said Qatar wouldn’t have lifted the restrictions on them and allowed them to join the Taliban’s political office without the knowledge, if not the consent, from Washington…
Qatar has for years urged the U.S. to incorporate them into the political office, either officially or as observers, arguing that the presence of the “Taliban Five” on the de facto commission would help peace efforts.
The U.S., in particular the Trump administration, had refused the plea, apparently concerned about the political fallout of reviving attention on what was a controversial swap for Sgt. Bergdahl.
If the WSJ is correct then, presumably, the Trump administration tacitly accepted this move as a way to move the peace process forward.