Four of the five Taliban members released from Guantanamo Bay by the Obama administration in 2014 in exchange for admitted US Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl are part of the Islamic fundamentalist group’s new hardline government in Afghanistan, according to local media reports.
The four members of the so-called “Taliban Five” who have joined the new government are Acting Director of Intelligence Abdul Haq Wasiq, Acting Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs Norullah Noori, Deputy Defense Minister Mohammad Fazl, and Acting Minister of Information and Culture Khairullah Khairkhah. The fifth member of the Taliban Five, Mohammad Nabi Omari, was appointed governor of eastern Khost province last month.
Afghan outlet TOLOnews published a list Tuesday of members of the new “caretaker” government, which features several familiar faces who helped run the war-torn country between 1996 and 2001 — when the Taliban were forced from power by US-led NATO forces following the 9/11 attacks.
Wasiq, Fazl and Khairkhah all held positions in the former Taliban government — Wasiq as a deputy intelligence chief, Fazl as army chief of staff and Khairkhah as interior minister.
According to assessments written in 2008 by leadership at Guantanamo Bay and later made public by WikiLeaks, Wasiq “utilized his office to support [al Qaeda] and to assist Taliban personnel elude capture” and “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” in the early days of the Afghanistan war.
Fazl and Noori, who was governor of two northern Afghan provinces during the earlier Taliban regime, are also accused of ordering the massacres of ethnic Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek communities in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998.
Khairkhah, who helped found the Taliban in 1994, allegedly took part in “meetings with Iranian officials seeking to support hostilities against U.S. and Coalition Forces” following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, according to the 2008 assessments. He also was the governor of western Herat province between 1999 and 2001 and was known as “one of the major opium drug lords in western Afghanistan,” US military leadership found.
Despite the assessments recommending “continued detention” for the five, President Barack Obama signed off on an agreement that sprang the men from Gitmo in exchange for the release of Bergdahl, who had been taken captive by the Taliban after walking away from an observation post in Paktika province in June 2009.
“The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind,” Obama said at a Rose Garden ceremony announcing Bergdahl’s release on May 31, 2014.
As Bergdhal returned to the United States, the Taliban Five were flown to Qatar, where much of the Taliban’s political leadership resided at the time. Among those aghast at the price paid for Bergdahl’s return was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the Taliban Five were “the hardest of the hard-core” and “the highest high-risk people.”
In 2015, Bergdahl was charged by the military with desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty and one count of misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of his fellow soldiers. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to both charges and was sentenced to a dishonorable discharge, a reduction in rank and a fine. Bergdahl has since appealed to a federal court in a bid to get his conviction overturned.
The new Taliban government also features Acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is on the FBI’s most-wanted list with a $5 million bounty on his head and is believed to still be holding at least one American hostage. He headed the feared Haqqani network that is blamed for many deadly attacks and kidnappings.
In a statement Tuesday, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) described Haqqani as a “bloodthirsty terrorist” and accused President Biden of harboring “an insane fantasy that the Taliban is kinder and gentler.”
“He’s armed, dangerous, and running a country we just abandoned,” Sasse said of Haqqani. “Americans are still trapped behind Taliban lines, the Biden Administration is still refusing to disclose how many of our people they left behind, and the State Department keeps talking about how they really hope the Taliban ‘will live up to their commitments.’ Pathetic.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid emphasized that the appointments were temporary, but did not say how long the men would serve and what would be the catalyst for a change.