A top intelligence official told lawmakers in a classified Senate briefing last week that he expected four out of the five Taliban leaders released by the Obama administration to eventually return to the battlefield.
According to a pair of U.S. officials, the briefing from Robert Cardillo, a deputy director of national intelligence, represented the latest community-wide U.S. intelligence assessment on these Taliban Five, completed in 2013.
It also means that President Obama was faced with a particularly excruciating choice as he weighed whether or not to swap these five for American hostage Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The government of Qatar, which agreed to look after the five Taliban leaders as part of the deal for Bergdahl, warned that factions within the Taliban were growing impatient, and campaigning to kill Bergdahl instead of trading him.
“Time is not on your side,” they told U.S. negotiators, according to two senior defense officials. They described a growing split within Taliban and Haqqani Network (which held Bergdahl) over how to best use the soldier—a split confirmed by multiple Taliban and Afghan sources in the region.
Making matters more desperate for Bergdahl was the fact that in September a CIA drone killed Mullah Sangeen Zadran, the Haqqani Network commander who first captured Bergdahl, a move that could have scuttled any chance at all for a prisoner swap.
It all added up to a painful dilemma for the White House: free Taliban leaders who might return to the fight—or risk losing America’s last service member held abroad. Obama ultimately chose to make the deal, despite his intelligence services’ estimate that four of the five Taliban detainees would ultimately resume their struggle against American allies.
The Associated Press also reported last week that Rob Williams, the national intelligence officer for South Asia, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he assessed four out of the five would return to combat.
The Daily Beast has learned that these Taliban figures are Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Mohammed Nabi Omari.
Cardillo did not say he expected Abdul Haq Wasiq—the fifth detainee traded for Bergdahl—would return to the battlefield. Wasiq, who was the Taliban’s deputy intelligence minister when he was captured in 2001, cooperated at first with the CIA and offered to arrange for the arrest of the Taliban intelligence minister Qari Ahmadullah. He was captured at a Nov. 24, 2001 meeting to which he promised to bring Ahmadullah, but was arrested himself instead.
While his Pentagon dossier (PDF) says he was considered a senior Taliban official, according to records seized in 2003, and was involved in coordinating al Qaeda and Taliban training, he was also seen as a low risk for hostile activities toward Taliban guards by the time the report was written in 2008. “His overall behavior has been mostly compliant and non-hostile toward the guard force and staff,” it says.
While Obama himself has acknowledged there is a risk the Taliban Five could return to the Afghan fight, others in his administration have publicly dismissed that this is a serious concern. Secretary of State John Kerry over the weekend in an interview with CNN suggested the Taliban Five would be placing themselves at risk if they re-entered the battlefield. “I am not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved,” he said. “But they also have an ability to get killed if they do that.”
The administration is also sharing with lawmakers some of the initial reports from Bergdahl about how he was treated. “We were told his conditions were horrific and inhumane,” one Congressional aid told The Daily Beast. “They did not get into any more specifics because they wanted to give the family a chance to learn about this first.”
One U.S. official told The Daily Beast that Bergdahl told U.S. officials debriefing him at Landstuhl medical center in Germany that he was kept in a metal cage not much bigger than his body, often hooded except when eating or drinking for two years.
Afghan and Taliban sources say he was kept in a variety of locations, sometimes cages and sometimes basements, kept on the move partly to protect him from CIA drone strikes and partly to protect him from the rival factions of the Taliban that wanted to execute him.
U.S. officials told House intelligence committee members Monday that the Taliban Five would be reunited with their families and free to meet anyone they choose, but they will be monitored by both U.S. and Qatari intelligence.
The Daily Beast reported last week that many top U.S. intelligence officials worried that Qatar would not keep its word; these American officials were concerned that any monitoring the U.S. would be able to do in Qatar would need to be approved by the country’s security service—which might mean very little monitoring at all. It’s one of many reasons U.S. officials worried about the Taliban leaders ultimately returning to fight.
—Daily Beast reporter Sami Yousafzai contributed from Pakistan.