President Obama has released five senior Taliban commanders from the Guantanamo Bay prison in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. It’s a great moment for Bergdahl and his family, but unfortunately it puts American lives at risk.
This would be true regardless of who, exactly, had been released. Any exchange puts Americans in danger of being seized as bargaining chips to secure the future release of terrorists.
But Obama’s exchange presents a heightened risk, given the identify of those set free.
The Obama administration declined to identify the five terrorists in its statement about the deal. It also violated the legal requirement that the president notify Congress 30 days in advance of the transfer of any terrorist and that he explain how the threat posed by the terrorists has been substantially mitigated.
Obama’s reticence is understandable. He would have been hard-pressed to present Congress with a convincing explanation that the threat posed by these five prisoners has been mitigated at all. As Tom Joscelyn shows in profiles of the five set forth below, they are among the most dangerous commanders held at Gitmo.
Indeed, the Pentagon concluded in 2008 that all five present a high risk of launching attacks against the U.S. and our allies if released. What has changed since 2008? The main change is that the U.S. is winding down its military operations in Afghanistan.
This means that the Taliban, whose leadership ranks have been depleted, will almost surely get back five seasoned terrorist commanders just as momentum begins to shift in its favor. In addition, the Taliban will be in a better position, as it reacquires safe havens, to attack U.S. interests elsewhere, as it did prior to 9/11 with the help of some of the terrorists being released.
The five will be transferred to Qatar, but it’s difficult to believe they will remain there long. Reportedly, they are under a “travel ban,” but even if one takes this seriously, the ban is for only one year.
Obama praised the exchange as “a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield.” However, he also acknowledged a second motive, which I believe was primary.
Joscelyn reminds us that Obama has long sought formal negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban always demanded as a precondition that the five commanders be released.
Until recently, Congress had the power to block the release. But this year, it gave up the power, leaving only the advance notice requirement discussed above. (As noted, Obama simply disregarded that requirement here).
Freed from congressional restraint, Obama went forward with the exchange in the hope of improving relations with the Taliban. As the president put it, “it is our hope Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground.”
Unfortunately, the only confidence this exchange will build with the Taliban is confidence that, like Iran, Syria, and Russia, it can steal Obama’s pants. But then, the Taliban already knew this, having just witnessed Obama announce that the U.S. will abandon Afghanistan by a date certain.
Here are Joscelyn’s profiles of the five Taliban commanders Obama has so graciously set free:
Mullah Mohammad Fazl (Taliban army chief of staff): Fazl is wanted by the UN for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiites. Fazl was associated with terrorist groups currently opposing U.S. and Coalition forces including al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and an Anti-Coalition Militia group known as Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami. In addition to being one of the Taliban’s most experienced military commanders, Fazl worked closely with a top al Qaeda commander named Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who headed al Qaeda’s main fighting unit in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 and is currently detained at Guantanamo.
Mullah Norullah Noori (senior Taliban military commander): Like Fazl, Noori is wanted by the United Nations for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiite Muslims. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Noori fought alongside al Qaeda as a Taliban military general, against the Northern alliance. He continued to work closely with al Qaeda in the years that followed.
Abdul Haq Wasiq (Taliban deputy minister of intelligence): Wasiq arranged for al Qaeda members to provide crucial intelligence training prior to 9/11. The training was headed by Hamza Zubayr, an al Qaeda instructor who was killed during the same September 2002 raid that netted Ramzi Binalshibh, the point man for the 9/11 operation. Wasiq was central to the Taliban’s efforts to form alliances with other Islamic fundamentalist groups to fight alongside the Taliban against U.S. and Coalition forces after the 11 September 2001 attacks, according to a leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment.
Khairullah Khairkhwa (Taliban governor of the Herat province and former interior minister): Khairkhwa was the governor of Afghanistan’s westernmost province prior to 9/11. In that capacity, he executed sensitive missions for Mullah Omar, including helping to broker a secret deal with the Iranians. For much of the pre-9/11 period, Iran and the Taliban were bitter foes. But a Taliban delegation that included Kharikhwa helped secure Iran’s support for the Taliban’s efforts against the American-led coalition in late 2001. JTF-GTMO found that Khairkhwa was likely a major drug trafficker and deeply in bed with al Qaeda. He allegedly oversaw one of Osama bin Laden’s training facilities in Herat.
Mohammed Nabi (senior Taliban figure and security official): Nabi was a senior Taliban official who served in multiple leadership roles. Nabi had strong operational ties to Anti-Coalition Militia groups including al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, some of whom remain active in ACM activities. Intelligence cited in the JTF-GTMO files indicates that Nabi held weekly meetings with al Qaeda operatives to coordinate attacks against U.S.-led forces.