'Hard core' label doesn't fit all Taliban prisoners

Bergdahl exchange included moderates

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- Arriving in the western Afghanistan city of Herat in the late 1990s during Taliban rule, Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai expected a locked-down, cowering population.

Instead, he heard residents openly criticize the militant Islamic movement. At the provincial government offices, he saw a parade of local clerics come to meet the governor, Taliban founding member Khairullah Khairkhwa, who greeted them in the local Persian, a language most of his comrades didn't speak.

"He knew these people didn't really support the Taliban, so he made an extra effort," said Mr. Yusufzai, who has covered Afghanistan for three decades. "He was a friendly man and did not try to force his views on you."

Mr. Khairkhwa, who was arrested by Pakistani forces in 2002 and transferred to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was among the five Taliban detainees released by the Obama administration last week in exchange for captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Obama critics have said the swap could endanger American lives, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., calling the five Taliban members "the hardest and toughest of all."

But a closer look at the former prisoners 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. Experts say a fourth was a midlevel police official.

The fifth, however, has a darker past. Mohammed 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 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.

The backgrounds of the prisoners, who are confined to the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar for one year under the terms of the exchange, indicate that they would have little utility on the battlefield after more than a decade in prison. They range in age from 43 to 47.

In their absences, the Taliban movement they served has evolved into a complex and extremely violent insurgency that routinely kills civilians and has been decimated -- although far from defeated -- by years of U.S. counterterrorism operations. Their primary value, analysts say, is as a symbol of the Taliban's ability to negotiate on equal footing with the United States.

"It's a boost in terms of morale, but I doubt whether this would make any kind of practical impact, at least in the short term, to the conflict inside Afghanistan," said Alex Strick van Linschoten, who has co-written three books on the Taliban. "All these guys are pretty old now."

Administration officials dispute allegations that the five were the "worst of the worst" of the Taliban, saying they were not a threat to the United States, and that 30 detainees considered a danger will still face trial.

U.S. officials, who had sought for several years to swap the Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bergdahl, had described the men as violent extremists in prison documents the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks obtained.

One of the five, Mullah Norullah Noori, is listed as "a senior Taliban military commander in [the northern city of] Mazar-i-Sharif during hostilities against U.S. and coalition forces in late 2001," who was "wanted by the United Nations for possible war crimes, including the murder of thousands of Shiite Muslims."

But experts say Mr. Noori was a civilian official, an aide to the Taliban governor of Balkh province, who later assumed the job himself and never held a military post. In Mr. Noori's account to U.S. officials, included in his prison file, he said his job "was to ensure the government operated as usual and to resolve tribal complaints."

In several extensive war crimes reports by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and the independent Afghanistan Justice Project, Mr. Noori's name never appears as a suspect.

Mr. Khairkhwa, Herat's governor, 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."

The description is sharply at odds with that of journalists and analysts who met him in the late 1990s. Mr. Yusufzai, the Pakistani journalist, said Mr. Khairkhwa assiduously reached out to local clerics, including minority Shiite Muslims, to address their opposition to the Taliban. "If you looked at a lot of the Taliban leadership, he was different," said Mr. Yusufzai, with the Pakistani newspaper News International.

Another of the freed men, Abdul Haq Wasiq, was a student of Islam in his mid-20s who went to Kabul when the Taliban came to power. He worked for a relative who had been appointed as head of the intelligence service, and when the deputy intelligence chief fell ill, Mr. Wasiq took the post, according to his prison file. After the U.S.-led invasion, Mr. Wasiq offered his help to U.S. forces in locating Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, but he was arrested instead.

The last of the men released, Mohammed Nabi Omari, whom the United States labeled "a senior Taliban official who served in multiple leadership roles," was a police chief in the southern province of Zabol but never served in the Taliban leadership, according to research by Ms. Clark.


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