Ex-prisoners exchanged for Bowe Bergdahl were key players in peace deal with Taliban, officials say

By MISSY RYAN AND HAQ NAWAZ KHAN | The Washington Post | Published: March 30, 2020

As American negotiators raced to clinch last month's landmark deal with the Taliban, several shadowy figures played a surprising but significant role: former Guantánamo Bay detainees whose release in a 2014 prisoner exchange sparked a partisan firestorm.

The so-called Taliban Five, a group of high-level militant inmates traded for an American during the Obama administration, worked behind the scenes to build support for the agreement, current and former U.S. and Taliban officials say.

Several of the men wielded their clout, as prominent figures from the Taliban's pre-9/11 government and longtime prisoners of the United States, to push months of fractious negotiations toward a deal. One of them, a fearsome former commander accused in the deaths of religious minorities in Afghanistan, traveled at least twice to Pakistan to generate buy-in among skeptical militant commanders, the officials said.

The Trump administration heralded the Feb. 29 agreement as a milestone toward ending nearly two decades of war, but expected talks among feuding Afghan parties have not materialized amid disagreements over initial steps and political disarray in Kabul.

In a bid to keep the process on track, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Afghan leaders in Kabul last week but also with the top Taliban negotiator in Doha, an illustration of an evolving political calculus that includes engaging a group responsible for thousands of American deaths.

The Obama administration's decision in 2014 to free the five militants in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier held captive by the Taliban for five years, was met with scathing criticism from Republicans including Pompeo, then a congressman and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Donald Trump.

After a dozen years at Guantánamo, the Taliban detainees were sent to Doha with their families, where they were barred from traveling for one year and placed under U.S. and Qatari surveillance.

In 2015, then-candidate Trump criticized the prisoner swap, calling Bergdahl a "no good, rotten traitor" and characterizing the released Taliban members as "five killers" who were now "back on the battlefield." Pompeo said he had seen no proof that the men were reformed and would not "return to trying to do harm to America." Graham called them "the hardest of the hard core."

"They have American blood on their hands and surely as night follows day they will return to the fight," Graham wrote in a 2014 letter to leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "In effect, we released the 'Taliban Dream Team.' "

The blowback to the trade, which included contentious congressional appearances and was reminiscent of the aftermath of the attacks on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya, effectively shut down attempts to reach a peace deal during the Obama administration.

The controversy "tamped down the possibility of doing the things that actually could have led to further progress," said Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official who worked on the transfer.

The defense secretary at the time, Chuck Hagel, who signed the Taliban Five's release order, said he and other senior officials weighed the risks of freeing the men against the chance to free Bergdahl, whose condition was believed to be deteriorating.

Bergdahl was captured after walking off his remote base in southeast Afghanistan in 2009 under murky circumstances. After being taken across the border to Pakistan, he was held by the Haqqani network, a hard-line Taliban faction. He was chained to a bed or locked in a cage for long stretches, and his mental and physical health suffered.

After his release, he pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before a military court and was dishonorably discharged.

Hagel, in an interview, said the men were not among the most radical at Guantánamo but acknowledged that officials were not able to guarantee they would not conduct or incite violence against the United States. "Knowing like you always do that there's never any certainty, we tried to get as many assurances as we could," he said.

After the exchange, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found the operation violated the law because the Obama administration had not notified Congress ahead of time.

In 2015, news reports suggested the former prisoners had attempted to "reengage" with militant activity by communicating with extremist networks, an assertion the Obama administration denied.

The same men, now members of the Taliban's negotiating committee, were present when Pompeo attended a signing ceremony in Qatar to herald the U.S.-Taliban deal, which included a temporary reduction in violence and a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops in exchange for a Taliban promise to embrace Afghan political talks.

The former prisoners, some of whom were captured in 2001 after attempting to surrender, include Khairullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, a multilingual former Taliban provincial governor and Mohammad Fazl, the former military commander accused of crimes against Afghanistan's Shiite Hazara minority.

Despite U.S. intelligence descriptions of the men as formidable threats, some Afghans earlier in the war saw them as potent potential intermediaries. In 2011, then-President Hamid Karzai requested that Khairkhwa be released; U.S. authorities declined.

Tahir Khan, a Pakistani journalist who tracks the Afghan Taliban, said the group's decision last year to incorporate the men into its political committee in Doha was "a timely and calculated step" as it scrambled to ensure compliance across a vast and sometimes fractious insurgent organization.

Not only did the Taliban Five have the credentials of former senior leaders, Khan said, they also "have the trust of the foot soldiers."

A senior Taliban official said the men had made "great sacrifices" for the movement and were "trusted friends" of its founder, Mohammad Omar.

A spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha did not respond to queries on the subject. But a second Taliban official said the movement's effort to resolve the conflict gained energy after Khairkhwa, Fazl and, most importantly, Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Doha.

Baradar, the official whom Pompeo met with in Qatar last week, was a Taliban co-founder in the 1990s. He was arrested in Pakistan and released in 2018.

Current and former officials described Khairkhwa and another ex-prisoner, a former Taliban government communications chief named Mohammed Nabi Omari, as active participants in months of negotiations with a team led by Trump's Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

"Some 'hard-liners' in our ranks were not ready to enter into direct talks with the invading forces and wanted to continue their fight until the last," the official said. "But when these top five leaders were released and joined the political office, those commanders also agreed to have a peace deal."

The group also includes Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former Taliban intelligence official, and Norullah Noori, a former governor.

Officials said Fazl made at least two recent trips to Pakistan, in October and December, the first known times any member of the group has traveled outside Qatar since their arrival.

In October, Fazl met with members of the Quetta Shura, a Taliban advisory council, according to a third Taliban official. At the time, the militants were scrambling to regroup after the death of a U.S. soldier in an attack prompted Trump to abruptly cancel a planned summit at Camp David to sign a deal they supported.

"That was a crucial time," the official said.

During his second visit to Pakistan, Fazl made the case to Taliban commanders for a proposed seven-day "reduction in violence" period, which U.S. negotiators demanded after the Camp David breakdown but some hard-line militants opposed.

When the two sides later announced the start to the week-long period, Fazl spoke with military commanders on the phone in an attempt to ensure compliance, officials said.

If the next phase of talks do begin, it is likely that the Taliban Five will be at the table attempting to negotiate a settlement that could bring the movement into Afghanistan's political process. It is unclear what impact the covid-19 crisis, now posing a serious challenge to the country's health infrastructure, will have on the planned negotiations.

On Saturday, a Taliban spokesman said the group would not begin talks with a 21-member negotiating team announced by the government because the militants did not believe it was sufficiently representative of the Afghan populace.

Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan. The Washington Post's John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.

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