KABUL, Afghanistan —
The freeing of five senior Taliban figures in exchange for a U.S. soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, has offered both a rare insight into the insurgent group’s inner workings and a diplomatic first in the long Afghan war: a negotiated agreement between the highest levels of the U.S. government and the pinnacle of the Taliban command.
Representatives of both sides played down the idea that the exchange, long seen as a crucial prelude to any broader talks, might breathe new life into the effort to engage the Taliban in a peace effort. But the complex swap showed “each side that the other can deliver,” said one senior U.S. official close to the effort. And it gave both the Taliban leadership and the Obama administration important political symbols.
For the Taliban, the delivery of five of its most prominent figures to freedom in Qatar was the culmination of years of effort to secure the men’s release and to receive legitimacy on an international stage. And it seemingly answered questions about whether the group’s reclusive leader, Mullah Omar, was still in charge of its disparate factions, demonstrating “that there was a span in control that went through the representatives in Doha, to the Taliban command, and to the individuals who were holding him, presumably somewhere in Pakistan,” the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Bergdahl’s release.
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For the Obama administration, too, the exchange was an important achievement: the prospect of Bergdahl’s return to his family in Idaho after five years as a hostage of the Taliban struck a humanitarian and emotional note for an administration trying to wind down the war.
The five were all high-level Taliban members, in their mid- to late 40s, with prominent political or military careers dating back to before the American invasion. Counterterrorism experts described the men as effectively gray beards, and unlikely to go back to active fighting. But a concern held by some of those experts and many U.S. officials, including some senior military officers, is that the men will give a boost to the Taliban and provide the leadership with proof of its cohesiveness.
The most important figure is Khairullah Khairkhwa, 47, a founding member of the Taliban and a confidant of Mullah Omar. He was the governor of Herat province in western Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled, and he is viewed by many officials in the Afghan government as a reasonable figure and possible interlocutor for future talks.
Mohammad Fazl, also known as Mullah Fazel Mazloom, was the deputy defense minister and commander of all Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. A short, thickset man with a reputation for cruelty, he is accused by human-rights organizations and his opponents of presiding over the massacres of Shiite and Tajik Sunni Muslims across swaths of central and northern Afghanistan.
Trapped with thousands of his Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan under the U.S. bombing campaign in 2001, he surrendered to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, along with the Taliban governor of Balkh province, Mullah Norullah Noori, who was also released Saturday.
The other two detainees, Abdul Haq Wasiq, the Taliban’s former deputy minister of intelligence, and Mohammed Nabi, a former high-level Taliban security official, were both detained after reaching out to U.S. officials after the invasion in an offer to help the new power in their country, officials said.
Though the released men have played no role in the renewed Taliban insurgency during their incarceration, many in the Taliban put a high premium on getting the five men back. That included members of the Haqqani extremist network, who have claimed loyalty to Mullah Omar even though they carry out independent operations, and who were the people holding Bergdahl.
“The Haqqanis will get kudos for being seen to deliver something for the movement,” said Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert and former adviser to the European Union Mission in Kabul. “They can say, ‘We are Taliban, and we are integral to the movement.’ ”
On Sunday, Mullah Omar himself broke a long silence to hail the men’s return, saying it brought the insurgents “closer to the harbor of victory.”
The exchange was also proof the Taliban’s diplomatic outpost in Qatar, considered dormant since peace talks fell through last year, still had an active role to play. The deal was negotiated by Taliban representatives in Doha, and mediated by Qatari officials. On Sunday, news reports showed the five released men being embraced by their comrades in Doha.
But even as the exchange represented a diplomatic breakthrough that had been elusive since its initial proposal three years ago, officials with both the Taliban and the Obama administration signaled that broader talks would not necessarily be the result. The Taliban, for their part, had long said that the freedom of their prisoners was the only point they would negotiate for.
“This is a fairly narrow deal with a fairly precise and time limited set of quid pro quos,” the U.S. official said. The talks that led to the exchange focused exclusively on the prisoners because the “Taliban weren’t willing to talk to us about these issues.”
And, with the Afghan government playing no active role in the swap, “We ourselves weren’t prepared to talk about a peace agreement for Afghanistan because that is something the Afghans themselves have to work out,” the official said. “We’re prepared to facilitate to help advance that, but we’re not prepared to substitute for them.”
The deal also risked conferring the kind of legitimacy on the Taliban leadership that U.S. officials have sought to avoid, and that has prompted President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to repeatedly voice suspicion of the intentions of the Americans and the Taliban in talking.
“I have heard that the Taliban leaders are very happy today because they saw dealing with the American as a sign of legitimacy,” said Syed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander who now lives in Kabul.
“Many groups in the Taliban have opposed talking to the Americans,” Agha said. “But it has been proven that the leaders in Quetta and Qatar have control over all the guys and that is why they were able to do this.”
The idea of an exchange for Bergdahl took shape in 2011 as U.S. diplomats, aided by German intelligence, made their first contacts with the Taliban negotiators. The plan was for the swap to lead to a Taliban statement disassociating themselves from al-Qaida and renouncing any links to international terrorism, while agreeing to enter a dialogue with the Afghan people.
Senior U.S. officials said that a crucial part of the peace process would also be for the Taliban to acknowledge the elected Afghan government’s legitimacy and the importance of elections. But the idea ran into immediate objections inside the administration and on Capitol Hill. Many feared that the Taliban would be too dangerous, and that even if they were sitting in Qatar, they would have the ability to communicate and run operations from afar.