WASHINGTON – Two were senior Taliban commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. When asked about the alleged war crimes by an interrogator, they “did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state,” according to their interrogators.
There are also a former deputy director of Taliban intelligence, a former senior Taliban official said to have “strong operational ties” to various extremist militias, and a former Taliban minister accused of having sought help from Iran in attacking U.S. forces.
These five prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be the key to whether the negotiations the United States has long sought with the Taliban are a success, or even take place. A Taliban spokesman in Qatar said Thursday that exchanging them for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. prisoner of war who has been held by militants since 2009, would be a way to “build bridges of confidence” to start broader peace talks.
Less than a month ago, President Obama gave a speech reiterating his desire to close Guantanamo. But one official familiar with internal deliberations emphasized that any exchange involving the Afghan prisoners should not be seen as part of efforts the president has ordered to winnow the prison of low-level detainees.
The five Taliban members are considered to be among the most senior militants at Guantanamo and would otherwise be among the last in line to leave. The Taliban offer, made at the same time they were opening a long-delayed office in Doha, Qatar, breathed new life into a proposal floated in late 2011 that collapsed amid congressional skepticism and the strict security conditions the Obama administration sought as part of any exchange. They included the stipulation that the Taliban prisoners be sent to Qatar and forbidden to leave there.
Those conditions, created by the Obama administration to comply with legal restrictions imposed by Congress to prevent any detainees from returning to the battlefield in Afghanistan, led the Taliban to walk away from the negotiations. It is not clear whether the Taliban position on transfers to Qatar, as opposed to outright release and repatriation, has softened.
Any prisoner release, according to officials familiar with the deliberations, is not imminent. The transfer restrictions require 30 days’ notice to lawmakers before any detainee leaves, and the administration has not yet given any notification. The officials would not comment on the record because of the diplomatic and political delicacy of the issue.
More is known about the five former Taliban members than other Guantanamo prisoners, because the details of their alleged roles were described in government files given to WikiLeaks by Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is now being court-martialed and faces a possible life sentence if convicted. Because the five men have never been given a trial, the quality of the evidence and the credibility of the claims against them in the files have not been tested.
Mohammad Nabi Omari is described in the files as “one of the most significant former Taliban leaders detained” at Guantanamo. He is said to have strong operational ties to anti-coalition militia groups” including Al-Qaida, the Taliban and the Haqqani network. He is also accused of participating in a cell in Khost that was “involved in attacks against U.S. and coalition forces.”
A former Taliban provincial governor, Mullah Norullah Noori, is also “considered one of the most significant former Taliban officials” at the prison, according to the documents. A founding member of the organization, he was a senior military commander against U.S. forces and their allies in late 2001.
Both Noori and a third detainee being considered in an exchange, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban deputy defense minister, are accused of having commanded forces that killed thousands of Shiite Muslims, a minority in Afghanistan, before the Taliban were toppled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The fourth is Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former top Taliban intelligence official. The fifth, Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, a former minister of the interior and provincial governor, has contended that he had direct ties to Osama bin Laden and represented the Taliban in talks with Iranian officials seeking their support after Sept. 11, according to the documents.
The five Taliban leaders are just a subset of 18 Afghans remaining at Guantanamo — out of the 220 taken there by the Bush administration. But the other 13 are accused of far less serious actions, meaning that they are not important enough to be bargaining chips. With U.S. troops still on the ground in Afghanistan, both Obama administration and congressional officials say there is genuine concern about releasing high-level leaders if there is any prospect that they could return to rally new attacks.
But the prospect of winning freedom for Bergdahl, who is believed to be the only living U.S. prisoner of war, has complicated the calculation, and the politics, of releasing the five.