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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

‘Taliban five’ released from Guantanamo join group's Qatar political office

The men were released from the notorious US prison in exchange for Sgt Bowe Bergdahl

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohammad Fazl.
Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohammad Fazl.

Five senior Taliban leaders freed from Guantanamo Bay in return for a captured American soldier have joined the militants' Qatar office responsible for peace talks.

The five men who spent more than a decade in the US military prison will now be in the Taliban's delegation during upcoming attempts to find a political settlement to the country's conflict.

America has significantly escalated its push to start tentative negotiations, with senior US officials already meeting Taliban envoys twice in recent months.

The militants' appointment of the so-called Taliban Five also came just days after the release from Pakistani jail of another senior Taliban figure, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was also linked to potential talks.

Senior Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is seen in a still from undated video footage. 
Senior Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is seen in a still from undated video footage. 

Pakistan's Kabul embassy told local media that the release of the Taliban's former number two after eight years in jail had been to help start a peace process.

Abdul Hakim Mujahid, who was envoy to the United Nations during the Taliban regime, said all five Taliban leaders now joining the Qatar office were well respected by the rank-and-file.

"These people are respected among all the Taliban," he said. "Their word carries weight with the Taliban leadership and the mujahideen."

Each had been a significant figure in the Taliban regime before it was ousted in 2001 and their Guantanamo intelligence files described them as a “high risk” to the US and its allies.

Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former interior minister and governor of Herat province, was close to both Taliban founder Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Human Rights Watch accused Mohammed Fazl, the former Taliban army chief of staff of overseeing the deaths of thousands of minority Shiites in 2000.

The others include Abdul Haq Wasiq, once deputy intelligence minister; Mullah Norullah Nori a former provincial governor; and Mohammad Nabi,

The five were released in 2014 in return for Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who became America's only prisoner of war in the Afghan conflict after he walked off his base and was captured in 2009. The prisoner swap was criticised by senior Republicans at the time for freeing “the hardest of the hardcore” Taliban.

The five are believed to have lived in Qatar since their release, but until now have been under severe restrictions and unable to join the diplomatic office.

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"Taliban are bringing back their old generation, which means the Taliban have not changed their thinking or their leadership," said Haroun Mir, a political analyst in the Afghan capital.

Kabul is so far not involved in the preliminary talks, because the Taliban have long refused to meet with what they claim is a puppet administration.

Mr Mir said the Ashraf Ghani's government was so divided, it was unclear who could represent it if talks progressed.

Mullah Baradar has also in the past been touted as a potential negotiator and he was reportedly held by Pakistan in 2010 because Islamabad was angry at his unauthorised overtures to Kabul.

But it is not yet clear how much influence he retains after eight years in prison, or where he will live.