On May 31, 2014, the Obama administration announced that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had been freed from the Taliban’s custody in exchange for five senior Taliban commanders. The Taliban Five, as they came to be called, had been held at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Donald Trump, then just another private citizen, blasted the deal on Twitter.
“President Obama created a VERY BAD precedent by handing over five Taliban prisoners in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Another U.S. loss!” he wrote. A few days later he followed up: “Bowe Bergdahl walked off the base after he was told not to. Solders died looking for him. U.S. should NEVER have made the deal! PUNISHMENT?”
As a presidential candidate, Trump wouldn’t let it go. At a campaign event in July 2015, he touted his own negotiating prowess, claiming that he would never have agreed to such weak terms. “We get a traitor, a no-good, rotten traitor like Bergdahl,” Trump complained. “And they get five killers that they most wanted in the whole world, who are right now back on the battlefield, trying to kill everybody, including us. Okay? What kind of a deal is this?”
Trump was right that the deal was lopsided. The Obama team exchanged five of the most influential Taliban figures in U.S. custody for a deserter. He was also right that the Taliban Five are “killers”—their dossiers are filled with murderous episodes. Two of them are suspected of overseeing the slaughter of civilians in Afghanistan in early 2001.
Trump was wrong about one thing, though. The Taliban Five were not “back on the battlefield.” They were under a form of state supervision in Qatar, which has long provided extremists with a comfortable fundraising environment.
It is likely that Trump knows just where the Taliban Five are today. They are across the table from U.S. diplomats in Qatar’s capital, Doha, trying to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. The Trump administration, like its predecessor, is desperate to get American troops out of Afghanistan without appearing to have lost. The unavoidable truth is that Trump’s representatives are seeking the same type of weak-kneed agreement Trump once criticized his predecessor for negotiating.
Over the course of three days in mid-November, a U.S. delegation met with the Taliban’s “political office” in Doha. According to multiple press reports before and after the sit-down, the Taliban Five are now members of that very same office. The Associated Press’s Kathy Gannon noted an additional twist: Two of the five took part in the mid-November talks.
One of the two, Khairullah Khairkhwa, was a close confidant of Taliban founder Mullah Omar. Khairkhwa served the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—the Taliban’s pre-9/11 authoritarian government—in a variety of roles. A leaked threat assessment prepared by Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the detention facility, cites intelligence linking Khairkhwa to al Qaeda, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq), the drug trade, and other illicit endeavors. When Khairkhwa was governor of Afghanistan’s western Herat Province, which borders Iran, he conducted one of the Taliban’s most sensitive missions: negotiating an anti-American pact with Tehran. “Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks,” the leaked JTF-GTMO file reads, Khairkhwa “represented the Taliban during meetings with Iranian officials seeking to support hostilities against U.S and Coalition Forces.” The Iranians supplied anti-aircraft missiles and safe passage through Iran for the Taliban’s fighters.
This may seem like ancient history. It’s not. Khairkhwa’s diplomacy with the Iranians in late 2001 was the first step in an ongoing relationship. On October 23, 2018, the United States and several allied nations announced that they were designating nine men terrorists. The move was intended to disrupt the Iran-Taliban nexus. Six of the nine are senior Taliban leaders, two are officials in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the last is a drug trafficker. The designations make it clear that Iran continues to support the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. The Iranians fund and equip its fighters inside Afghanistan, and the IRGC hosts training facilities for them in eastern Iran.
The designations in October were part of the Trump administration’s campaign to exert pressure on the Iranian regime by sanctioning people involved in unsavory activities. But now the administration is engaging in diplomatic talks with Khairkhwa—the same Taliban leader who paved the way for this unholy partnership.
The second former Guantánamo detainee attending the Doha talks, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, was a senior Taliban commander prior to his capture in November 2001. The United Nations suspects that Fazl committed “war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiites,” according to the JTF-GTMO threat assessment. The suspicion that Fazl is responsible for murdering Afghan civilians, including Hazaras, who belong to Afghanistan’s Shiite minority, is widely shared by human rights activists. Human Rights Watch has called for Fazl to be prosecuted, arguing that the evidence against him “is strong.”
When Fazl wasn’t busy overseeing the massacre of innocents, he was colluding with al Qaeda. JTF-GTMO’s threat analysis cites intelligence showing that Fazl had “operational associations with significant al Qaeda and other extremist personnel.” His al Qaeda comrades included Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted paramilitary commanders.
Al-Iraqi oversaw al Qaeda’s Arab 055 Brigade, which fought alongside the Taliban’s men against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. The head of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was killed by al Qaeda assassins on September 9, 2001, an attack intended to remove a potential American ally from the battlefield just before the 9/11 hijackings. After Massoud’s death, Fazl and al-Iraqi launched a military offensive against the Northern Alliance, hoping to capitalize on the group’s disorientation following the death of their commander. (Al-Iraqi is still detained at Guantánamo.) When Trump administration officials sat down with the Taliban in mid-November, they were meeting with a key al Qaeda ally, one whose efforts aided the terror group’s preparation for the 9/11 attacks.
A Taliban delegation also recently visited Moscow. Parts of the Taliban grew out of anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s. And the Soviet defeat
in Afghanistan contributed to the dissolution of the “Evil Empire”—a loss that Vladimir Putin still mourns. Yet 30 years later, his regime welcomed the Taliban delegation.
Russia may be providing the jihadists with arms. At a minimum, the Russians have rhetorically backed the Taliban, claiming speciously that it is a necessary bulwark against the Islamic State’s upstart branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban is ideologically similar to the Islamic State. It was infamous for its gory executions and other extremist acts two decades before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate” reveled in the same shocking deeds. The United Nations has documented that the Taliban is responsible for more Afghan civilian deaths and injuries than any other party in the conflict. And the Taliban, which remains closely allied with al Qaeda, is a much bigger threat to the Afghan government than Baghdadi’s operatives. What hasn’t escaped Putin’s attention is that a Taliban victory is a defeat for the United States and NATO, Russia’s greatest adversaries.
The Moscow conference provided the Taliban with an ideal platform to portray itself as the rightful ruler of Afghanistan. Its men referred to themselves as representatives of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” dozens of times and made it clear that the resurrection of their totalitarian regime is the goal. The delegation railed against the United States, blaming it for toppling the “Islamic system” (meaning the Taliban). The jihadists stressed that there can be “peace” only when the “foreigners” leave.
The Taliban’s diplomats set forth their preconditions for meeting with the United States. Even before “the beginning of the peace talks,” they said, the Americans need to take “some preliminary steps” “essential for peace.” They want to be removed from the U.N. terrorist sanctions lists; they want the release of an unspecified number of Taliban members held in Afghan prisons and elsewhere; they want formal recognition of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s political office; and they want an end to the “poisonous propaganda” spread by the United States and others “against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
In Moscow, the Taliban referred to these demands as “confidence-building measures,” the very same diplospeak employed by the State Department at the outset of the talks several years ago. It was in the name of “confidence-building measures” that the Obama administration granted various concessions to the Taliban—without getting anything in return.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped America’s preconditions for talking with the Taliban in early 2011. Prior to that time, the United States had demanded that the Taliban renounce al Qaeda, lay down its arms, and recognize the legitimacy of the Afghan government while agreeing to protect the rights of women and minorities. None of that came to pass. So Clinton converted these preconditions into “necessary outcomes” of the talks—a damaging concession. Over the course of the next few years, the Taliban extracted additional capitulations, ranging from the removal of some of its senior figures from the U.N. terrorist lists to the opening of its political office in Doha without giving up anything of value in return. This culminated in the May 2014 exchange of Bergdahl for the Taliban Five.
The Taliban’s demands are eerily similar this time around. The group is again seeking to undermine the international sanctions regime that impedes the jihadists from traveling abroad and inhibits fundraising, and again wants some of its men freed. But for those tracking the history of talks with the Taliban, one demand in particular seems intended to humiliate the Americans. When the Obama administration agreed to allow the Taliban to open its political office in June 2013, it did so with the understanding that the organization wouldn’t refer to itself as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” That name means the Taliban’s emirate—and not the elected government in Kabul—is the legitimate representative of the Afghan people. The Taliban immediately called itself the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in Doha in 2013, thereby defying the Obama administration’s main condition. This act enraged the Afghan government.
Now, more than five years later, the Taliban wants the Trump administration to formally recognize it as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and thereby to confer even more legitimacy on the jihadists.
Trump was right in 2014 when he decried the Obama administration’s decision to exchange the Taliban Five for a traitor. Yet now his administration is negotiating with these very same killers. These talks undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government—America’s chief ally in the war against the Taliban—and bolster our enemies. Whatever “peace” we eventually declare will be nothing but a Taliban victory.