Critics of the Obama administration’s deal to swap five Taliban detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl have characterized the five as dangerous extremists whose release could endanger U.S. security.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the five, who are now in Qatar, “the hardest and toughest of all.”
A closer look at the former prisoners, however, indicates that not all were hard-core militants. Three held political positions in the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and were considered relative moderates. A fourth was a mid-level police official, according to experts.
Only one, Mohammed Fazl, appears to have a documented history as a military leader and dangerous extremist.
Alex Strick van Linschoten, who has written extensively on the Taliban, said the release of the five men would be “a boost in terms of morale” for the group, but said he doubted that they would contribute significantly to the conflict in Afghanistan.
“All these guys are pretty old now,” he said.
Here is a brief look at the five:
• Fazl was chief of staff of the Taliban army and is accused of commanding forces that massacred hundreds of civilians in the final years of Taliban rule, before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. He was arrested in November 2001 after surrendering peacefully to U.S.-allied warlords in northern Afghanistan. “Fazl is the only one of the five to face accusations of explicit war crimes and they are, indeed, extremely serious,” Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research group, wrote in a commentary published Wednesday.
• Khairullah Khairkhwa is a founding member of the Taliban who was governor of Herat, a western province. He commanded a contingent of Taliban fighters who seized the provincial capital in 1997 and is described in U.S. documents as “a hard-liner in his support of the Taliban philosophy.” Those who know him, however, say he was never a hard-liner and didn’t try to force his views on others. “If you looked at a lot of the Taliban leadership, he was different,” said Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, who has covered Afghanistan for three decades.
• Mullah Norullah Noori was listed in Guantanamo documents released by WikiLeaks as “a senior Taliban military commander” in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif who was “wanted by the United Nations for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiite Muslims.” But experts say Noori was a civilian official who never held a military post. His name does not appear in several extensive war crimes reports conducted by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and the independent Afghanistan Justice Project.
• Mohammed Haq Wasiq was a student of Islam in his mid-20s who went to Kabul when the Taliban came to power to work for a relative who had been appointed the head of the intelligence service. When the deputy intelligence chief fell ill, Wasiq took over the post, according to his prison file. After the U.S.-led invasion, Wasiq offered his help in locating the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, but was arrested by U.S. forces.
• Mohammed Nabi Omari was labeled by the U.S. as “a senior Taliban official who served in multiple leadership roles.” He was a police chief in the southern province of Zabol but never served in the Taliban leadership, according to research by Clark and the Afghanistan Analysts Network. Experts believe that Omari was added to the prisoner swap because he is an associate of the Haqqani network, the Taliban offshoot that was holding Bergdahl. The U.S. description of Omari, Clark wrote, is “nonsense.”
Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report