Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 June 2019

Prisoner exchange ‘strengthens hand of Taliban in Doha’

Since arriving to a heroes welcome by members of the Doha-based Taliban, international media have scrambled to locate the men to no avail.
Taliban prisoners released in exchange for US Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl: (From top left) Khairullah Khairkhwa, Mullah Norullah Noori, Abdul Haq Wasiq; (Bottom left) Mohammed Nabi, Mohammad Fazl. Photos courtesy Department of Defence
Taliban prisoners released in exchange for US Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl: (From top left) Khairullah Khairkhwa, Mullah Norullah Noori, Abdul Haq Wasiq; (Bottom left) Mohammed Nabi, Mohammad Fazl. Photos courtesy Department of Defence

DOHA // The transfer of five Taliban prisoners to Doha in a prisoner exchange with the US has raised questions over Qatar’s future role in any Afghan peace talks.

Qatar has made stringent efforts to keep the men secure and hidden away after concerns that it would not be able to watch over their activities.

The five ex-Guantanamo Bay prisoners, arrested soon after the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, were handed over this month in return for the last US captive held in Afghanistan.

Their arrival in Qatar came a year after a failed to attempt to open a Taliban office in Doha. The headquarters, which was meant to help carry out peace talks with the Afghan government, was closed after the Taliban raised the flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, drawing the ire of outgoing Afghan president Hamid Karzai who said the de facto embassy gave the Taliban undue legitimacy.

It has remained empty ever since, although guards remain stationed at the walled premises when The National visited.

Qatar’s role now will not expand beyond providing a safe haven for the men, said Michael Stephens, deputy director of the security think tank, the Royal United Services Institute Qatar.

“I don’t see Qatar being the facilitator in the way that it once was. The waters are too murky and they’re likely to misread it again as they did in 2013,” he said, referring to the closure of the Taliban office.

“The best thing they [Qatar] can do is to focus on their role as a middle man that provides a safe haven for people to talk, nothing more.”

Details of the security terms and conditions of the prisoner exchange brokered by Qatar have been kept secret, but it is understood that the men are banned from leaving the country for one year.

The five include Mohammed “Mullah” Fazl, the former chief of staff of the Taliban army and Khairullah Khairkwa, one of the founders of the movement. Abdul Haq Wasiq was the Taliban’s deputy minister of intelligence. Norullah Noori is a former senior Taliban military commander in northern Afghanistan, while Mohammed Nabi Omari was involved in several attacks.

They were released in exchange for US Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in a move that prompted a storm of controversy in the US between the Obama administration and its Republican foes.

Qatar, which is already under fire for its support and hosting of other Islamist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, is under international pressure to keep a watch on the five men.

Mr Obama has acknowledged there is a chance the five may return to fight.

On Wednesday, Ambassador James Dobbins, the US State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan told a US Senate hearing that Qatar had been closely keeping track of the five.

“Qatar is a state that can control its borders, said Kate Clark, a senior Kabul-based researcher with the Afghan Analysts Network. “You’ve seen how difficult it is to meet these guys, or even talk to them.

“Doha really is a safehaven for them for now.”

Since arriving to a heroes welcome by members of the Doha-based Taliban, international media have scrambled to locate the men to no avail.

Sources close to Qatari officials said they are being treated as guests of the Emirate, housed in residential compounds on the outskirts of Doha, and that they have been reunited with their families.

They have undergone medical and psychological treatment but it is not known whether they have left the compounds at all, although other Taliban members do move freely in the Qatari capital.

After a year in Qatar, options for returning to Afghanistan and regaining a role in the insurgency are complicated following the time in US custody and the changing political conditions in Afghanistan.

“The truth is that nobody in Doha really knows anything about these guys. Only about three people in the Qatari government are handling the file,” said Mr Stephens.

“But this isn’t about just talking to the Taliban, it’s about Karzai’s legacy as a president, problems with the long term stability of Afghanistan, things the Qataris just aren’t invested in.

“It’s not their fight.”

One observer in Doha with contacts with the Taliban there suggested that after their time in Guantanamo Bay, the men may be greeted with suspicion.

“It is still too early to assess how — and how well — they will be integrated back into the Taliban. But their time in Guantanamo Bay gives them important credentials within the movement because they survived over a decade with their American adversaries,” said Seth Jones, the acting director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, and a former adviser to US special forces in Afghanistan.

The idea for the exchange of Guantanamo inmates for Sgt Bergdahl was floated as early as 2009, when he went missing. It was revived again in 2013 when the Taliban opened its office in Doha, with the suggestion that an exchange in a neutral state could act as a confidence building measure to find a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

If anything, Ms Clark said, the deal has strengthened the hand of the Taliban in Doha, headed by Tayyeb Agha.

Now, with Afghanistan preparing to welcome a new president in August, after the final round of a presidential vote last Saturday, movement on new talks is yet to emerge.

“Tayyeb Agha has pulled off a real coup,” said Ms Clark.

“Early on the swap could have been a bigger part in the negotiations but the war has moved on,” she said, referring to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: June 22, 2014 04:00 AM

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