KARACHI, Pakistan — It’s party time for the Afghan Taliban. After the release of five senior figures from Guantanamo in exchange for wayward U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, Afghan insurgent leader Mullah Omar sent an optimistic but cautious statement from the shadows where he’s hiding. The Taliban are now “closer to the harbor of victory,” he proclaimed in measured rhetoric. But his fighters on the front line plainly are ecstatic.
Mullah Salem Khan, a Taliban commander in embattled Helmand province, tells The Daily Beast over the telephone that when he heard the news, he pointed his Kalashnikov in the air and emptied 15 rounds toward the skies. “Allah Akbar!” he cried. “God is Great!”
One of those freed, in particular, Mullah Mohammad Fazil, is looked to as a great field commander at a time when those have been in short supply. He is a former deputy defense minister and was in charge of all Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan when the United States launched its invasion in late 2001. He also had a reputation for cruelty in a particularly cruel conflict. But Fazil’s release is “the best news I have heard in at least 12 years,” says Khan. “His return is like pouring 10,000 Taliban fighters into the battle on the side of jihad. Now the Taliban have the right lion to lead them in the final moment before victory in Afghanistan.”
Khan told The Daily Beast that even when Mullah Fazil (sometimes written Fazl) was in Guantanamo his colleagues and fighters use his old letterhead and official stamp to inspire groups of Taliban in Helmand, Kandahar and Urozghan: “While Mullah Fazil was in the Guantanamo cages we kept his name living, and under the banner of ‘Mazloom Mahaz’”—one of Fazil’s noms de guerre—“more than 20 fronts were and are active in jihad in three provinces.”
“Mullah Fazil was a military tycoon and very close to Mullah Omar,” says Khan. “His freedom will definitely inspire the whole Taliban moment.”
The Obama administration arranged, as part of the prisoner swap, for the five released to remain in Qatar for at least a year, rather than being returned to Afghanistan.
Khan says that’s not a problem for the Taliban, who have an informal diplomatic mission in Doha, Qatar, where the deal for the prisoner release was arranged.
Fazil “is a free man,” says Khan. “He can contact any one in the front line, in a council meeting, wherever.”
“Knowing Mullah Fazil as well as I do, I can tell you he is a man for fighting, not a man sitting under an air conditioner in Qatar,” says Khan. “He will definitely get in touch with the Taliban.”
An Afghan Taliban commander in Kandahar, Mullah Yasan Akhond, says that Fazil and fellow detainee Mullah Norullah Noori, the former Taliban governor of Balkh province, were top military man who had thousands of Taliban under their command. He expects they will take on significant responsibility in the future planning of the Taliban jihad, even from Qatar.
“Now the Taliban have the right lion to lead them.”
“Regardless of where they are, the liberation of Mullah Fazil and Mullah Norullah will give new spine to the Taliban so they can make war more aggressively,” says Akhond.
The New York Times has identified Taliban founding member Khirullah Said Wali Kharikhwa as “the most important figure” among those released, and adds hopefully that he is seen by some in the Karzai government in Kabul as a “possible interlocutor for future talks.” But another Taliban official interviewed by The Daily Beast says that of the five released, only Norullah and Fazil have real power and influence.
Their liberation is especially welcome by the fighters on the battlefield at this moment because morale was suffering from a lack of major military leaders. Fazil is seen by several Taliban officials as a kind of troubleshooter. “The Taliban suffered a lot and had internal issues,” said one, “but the return of these top men will help them to resolve all existing problems.”
An ex-Taliban minister who does not want to be named says the Taliban have been searching for a strong figure, and at this crucial time Mullah Fazil could be the right man: “He was a respected name in the past, and his long stay in Guantanamo made him more mature and respectful with other Taliban.”
The ex-minister says Taliban leaders were under pressure from combat forces to explain why they were sitting with the United States in Qatar “while on the ground we are fighting against United States.”
“This is like shooting two birds with a single arrow,” he said. “It is a political and military win for the Taliban.”
A major split emerged in recent months between Mullah Abdul Qayam Zakir, the reputed Taliban number two, and the collective leadership. “Mullah Zakir was under Mullah Fazil [in the past] and with the return of Fazil his issues are almost resolved,” says Mullah Salem Khan.
As for the supposed guarantee that the five Guantanamo inmates will not rejoin the Taliban, that’s taken as a joke. “As soon as they arrived in Qatar they rejoined the Taliban,” says Khan. “We don’t care about U.S. conditions and obstacles.”
“There are dozens of ways to lead the Taliban, even from overseas,” says a former official in Taliban intelligence. “In fact, after 9/11, some 95 percent of the leadership are not actually on the ground in Afghanistan.” The official said, “Skype, phones, the Internet, although made by the West, can easily bridge the communication gap,” allowing the reorganization of Taliban military momentum: “Officially their bodies would be in Qatar, but thoughts and wisdom of jihad would be with us.”
American and other Western officials see some benefit in the process that led to the exchange, since the negotiations pulled together some disparate factions among the forces fighting the Kabul government and may eventually open the way for further peace talks.
According to the same ex-minister, the Haqqani Network, which operates separately but answers to Mullah Omar, was holding Bergdahl. The Americans tried reaching out to it directly through some tribesman, but were referred back to the overall shura leadership in Quetta, Pakistan, and the envoys in Doha, Qatar.
Efforts by Washington to foster relatively wide-ranging discussions with the Taliban delegates in Qatar fell apart last year, but the Bergdahl negotiations continued. According to Taliban sources, the recent negotiations hinged on the question of how long the five released prisoners would have to stay in Qatar. Originally the Americans demanded they remain there forever. That time frame was whittled down to one year.
“Strengthening the Qatar office is good news for the political process and talks with Taliban,” said a western diplomat in Islamabad. “Let’s be positive at this stage.” He suggested the return of the “five guys to Qatar” is “like moving the whole Quetta shura to Qatar.”
The chief of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, Mullah Naik Muhammad, told the Taliban website nuns.asia that Qatar can play a positive role in the Afghan conflict: “We don’t have any areas of truce between the Taliban and the United States, but an area in the Ali Sher district of Khost province was declared a safe area for a day so the U.S. helicopter could land and pick up the U.S. soldier from the house of a local tribal elder,” Naik Muhammad told nuns.asia.
As much as Washington would like to put a positive spin on the prisoner swap—while moving ahead with the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan—an Afghan army colonel, who asked not to be named, said the deal was a slap on the face of Afghan government. It is “like freeing hungry wolves and will bite hundreds of Afghans.”
While it is true that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has freed Taliban prisoners in the past, none have been as senior as these. “If we released all the rest of the Taliban who are in Afghan jails it would not have as much weight for the Taliban as these five who were released by the United Staes,” said the colonel.