Since the light-speed transition from elation over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to burgeoning political scandal, a meme has developed that says that the five prisoners released in the deal are the “hardest of the hardcore.” While none of the detainees who have been released are innocents, collectively they’re a far-cry from the game-changers that they’ve been depicted as.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) began the process when he appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday. “These are the highest high-risk people, and others that we have released have gone back into the fight,” he said. That framing picked up steam as the week began. “This is Mullah Omar’s board of directors, it’s his fab five team,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-MS), ranking member on the Senate’s intelligence committee, told Fox News. “Mullah Omar now has his cabinet restored,” McCain said on Tuesday, upping his own rhetoric. “These are the worst of the worst, the hardest of the hardest.”
But are they really the Taliban’s “Dream Team” as Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) has referred to them? Reading through their dossiers, included among Wikileaks’ release of thousands of documents related to Guantanamo in 2011, the evidence seems grim. All five are rated as “high risk” subjects according to their captors, “as he is likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.” But as the New York Times has reported, these files can be at times maddeningly vague and others misleading. When one delves into the background of some of these Taliban members, however, the perception of them shifts slightly, showing some willing to surrender to the Americans, others willing to provide information about their allies at the time of their arrest and detention.
Abdul Nabi Omar
Kate Clark, an author at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, compiled biographies of the five men when news of the possible exchange first broke in 2012. Of the men traded for Bergdahl’s release, the lowest ranking one is Abdul Nabi Omari, though his file refers to him as “a senior Taliban official who served in multiple leadership roles.”
Clark, in contrast, refers to Omari as a “junior figure” based in the Khost province, one whose placement on the list of possible detainees up for swapping is due to his connections to the Haqqani Network, which operates out of Pakistan and frequently launches attacks into Afghanistan. “Witnesses who know the Khost Taleban were mystified as to why the US authorities believe Omari is one of the major figures they have in custody,” Clark writes. Anand Gopal, an author and journalist who has written extensively on Afghanistan, noted on Twitter that “Omari is on the list because the Haqqanis wanted something” out of the deal.
Abdul Haq Wasiq
Another of these “hardest of the hard” is Abdul Haq Wasiq, who was deputy chief of the Taliban’s intelligence agency. Wasiq was captured in a sting operation when one of his subordinates told the Talib that he was attending a meeting with a contact who could “negotiate a security guarantee for safe passage to Kabul and reintegration.” Gopal described Wasiq’s capture as taking place “when trying to negotiate a surrender” of his cousin, the head of Taliban intelligence. According to Wasiq’s file, while he was unable to deliver Taliban leader Mullah Omar at this meeting, he “requested a global positioning system (GPS) and the necessary radio frequencies to pass information back to the Americans in order to help locate the Taliban leader.”
Former Minister of the Interior Khairullah Khairkhwa was the most senior of the five men released in the deal. One of the founding members of the Taliban, Clark writes that it is “mystifying to know where the Guantanamo Bay authorities got the idea that Khairkhwa was known, in their words, as a ‘hardliner in terms of Taleban philosophy.’” On the contrary, she says, during the Taliban’s rule Kahairkwha was considered one of the more moderate in leadership circles. According to his dossier, Khairkhwa was apprehended in Pakistan while trying to negotiate a deal with his friend and fellow tribesman Hamid Karzai’s brother to surrender and join the new government. Among the reasons given for keeping Khairkwa detained was his role as spokesman for the Taliban, travelling abroad and giving interviews in support of the Emirate.
Mullah Mohammad Fazl
Most concerning of the released detainees is Mullah Mohammad Fazl, a man who was highly ranked in the Taliban — but outside of the brief war to topple the Afghan government in 2001 didn’t attack Americans. In Oct. 2001, Fazl was deputy defense chief for the Taliban and a senior commander in its armed forces. According to Clark and the Afghanistan Justice Project, in 1999 Fazl was in command of a group of Taliban soldiers who “destroyed civilian infrastructure in Shomali on an industrial scale – burning houses, vineyards, orchards and destroying irrigation systems; they also summarily executed civilians and surrendered Northern Alliance fighters and forcibly displaced civilians, contributing to an exodus of 300,000 people.” Fazl surrendered to Northern Alliance commander General Abdul Dostrum in November 2001 and was in Guantanamo from then until his release into Qatar’s custody on Sunday.
Mullah Norullah Noori
Mullah Norullah Noori was the governor of the Balkh province in Afghanistan at the time the U.S. launched its assault on the Taliban. The details in his file are disturbing, but also full of phrasing that makes it hard to pin down just how much of a threat he will serve now that he’s been released. Like Fazl, Noori surrendered to the Northern Alliance in the fall of 2001. Gopal noted in his rundown of the released detainees that Noori committed human rights violations, described in his file as being “wanted by the UN for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiites.” Clarke points out that these charges are not detailed in any of the available reports on Noori, though he appears to acknowledge the crimes in his file.
Also, while his file says he will likely join his brother, Mullah Lutfullah, on the battlefield if released, it is unclear if Lutfullah is still active given the 2008 date of Noori’s file was drafted. Still, Gopal noted on Twitter that of the released Taliban, “only 2 have the potential to make an appreciable impact on the battlefield: Fazl & Noori.”
The fact that all five men took part in the Taliban’s regime of oppression and opposed the U.S. and their allies certainly speaks to their natures. Commentators have pointed to the Taliban’s statements of excitement over the men’s release as evidence that the Obama administration was hoodwinked in the deal. But according to the BBC, the original offer from the Haqqani Network in exchange for Bergdahl was millions of dollars and 21 detainees. And as CAP expert Ken Gude has pointed out on this blog, it’s entirely likely that these Taliban officials would have been released at the conclusion of the war in Afghanistan.