There has been a spate of stories about the end of the travel ban on the five Taleban detainees released from Guantanamo Bay a year ago and exchanged for the United States soldier Bowe Bergdahl. US politicians and media have been speculating on what impact the five might have on the insurgency if they came to Afghanistan; last-minute negotiations between Qatar and the US to extend a travel ban appear to have succeeded. However, as AAN’s Kate Clark reports, the four senior Taleban among the five were already under United Nations sanctions and banned from travel.Excerpt of a Department of Defense report on Abdul Haq Wasiq, one of the Taliban Five - who are still under UN travel ban. Photo: screenshot from Wikileaks. Photo: screenshot from Wikileaks
Four Taleban leaders were released from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility a year ago: former governors of Herat and Balkh, Khairullah Khairi and Nurullah Nuri, former deputy intelligence chief Abdul Haq Wasiq, and former Chief of the Army staff Fazl Mazlum. They were joined by a minor Taleb, Muhammad Nabi Omari, whose release had been demanded, it seems, because of his ties to the Haqqani family who were holding the captured US soldier Bowe Berghdal. After the exchange, the five were taken to Qatar which agreed to ban them from travel for a year.
Some people in America have been getting frightened as the year’s deadline approached, as CNN among others has reported:
A pair of top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee – Mac Thornberry of Texas and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri – said in a statement Friday that the swap for Bergdahl endangered U.S. troops. “On Sunday, the (Obama) Administration’s flimsy restrictions on these terrorists will expire. This will endanger our troops abroad and our families at home. Understanding why and how this came about is the responsibility of the Congress, one we intend to carry out,” they said.
According to Voice of America, Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, denounced what he said were “flimsy” security assurances in the memorandum of understanding that formalised the prisoner swap. After Sunday, the Republican congressman said, “These assurances disappear and the Taliban leaders will be free to return to the battlefield, putting U.S. security interests and Americans at risk.” AP reported him saying “It’s impossible for me to see how they don’t re-join the fight in short order.”
Nothing is said about exactly what the five might do or how exactly they might augment the insurgency or, indeed, threaten American lives whether (the few) in Afghanistan or the United States.
The concerns about the Taleban Five now being able to travel are rather undermined by the fact that the four significant ones were already all under UN Security Council Sanctions which ban travel and freeze assets (see latest resolution here and listing here). Several newspapers have cited the Sanction’s Committee’s report from last year which said “some listed individuals have become increasingly adept at circumventing the sanctions measures, the travel ban in particular.” Neither the reporters or the UN give examples or mention who this phase might apply to. The original report also talks about measures the UN is taking to prevent such travel; responsibility for enforcing the sanctions lies with member states, in this case Qatar. AAN understands the five have been able to receive guests, at first only civilians or those in the Taleban with ‘civilian’ responsibilities, but more recently also commanders. However, there was never a ‘contact ban’. Today (1 June), it was reported that Qatar had extended its travel ban and monitoring of the five.
Poor reporting muddies the waters
When talk of the swap was first mooted, AAN published biographies of all five because of weird reporting coming from US media. Many newspapers and news agencies repeated assertions made in US government files on the detainees without checking information. The problem is that, in gathering information about the detainees, the US military and intelligence used hearsay, rumour and the accusations of other detainees, some of it detained under torture or duress. The files are littered with misunderstandings, mistranslations and basic historical inaccuracies. Not everything in the files is wrong, but facts are so mixed in with errors, one has to double check any allegation or assertion. The other problem, of course, is that the accusations have never been put to the test of being made in a court of law (for detailed analysis of the files, see here).
Once again, now, we see press stories repeating the same strange allegations, for example, that the UN (!) – no other details given – had accused former Balkh Governor Nurullah Nuri of “ordering the massacre of thousands of Shiites.” This matches neither the historical record nor UN statements. Or see this New York Times piece:
The five include a one-time Taliban spokesman, Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa [his name is Khairullah Khairkhwa, not sure where ‘Said Wali’ came from], who was also a minister of internal affairs in the Taliban government, and was implicated in the massacre of Shiite civilians [not true]. Mullah Mohammad Fazl, a former deputy army chief of staff for the Taliban, was accused of carrying out massacres of Hazara civilians [why differentiate between Shias and Hazaras here? Fazl did have command and control responsibility for a number of massacres of Hazaras and Sayyeds; a stronger allegation, however, was that he was directly implicated as one of the field commanders in the killings of civilians and surrendered Northern Alliance fighters (largely Tajik), the forcible displacement of civilians and the mass destruction of civilian infrastructure – burning houses, vineyards, orchards and destroying irrigation systems, in Shomali in 1999], and was also described as one of the founders of the Taliban, along with Mullah Omar [not true, he joined later].
An American military interrogator said Mullah Fazl justified the killings as a wartime necessity, and also dismissed the killings of Iranian diplomats in Herat [the diplomats were killed in Mazar, and Fazl was not implicated] on the grounds that they were foreigners and supported the enemy. Mullah Norullah [sic] Noori was a former provincial governor accused of responsibility in the killing of thousands of Shiites during the Taliban rule (again, killing Shias – again not true). Abdul Haq Wasiq was the former deputy intelligence director under Mullah Omar (yes true, although as every Taleban official was ‘under Mullah Omar’, this is a strange detail to include).
This repeated claim of Taleban “killing Shias” is particularly strange. The Taleban used collective punishment against civilians where armed groups of the same ethnicity as the civilians had re-taken territory: they carried out a number of massacres of civilians and ‘scorched’ earth to make areas uninhabitable. The main victims of this tactic were Hazaras and Seyyeds – who are Shia – but other ethnic groups who are Sunni were also targeted, including Uzbeks (in Khwaja Gah, in Takhar) and Tajiks (in Shomali). Only the Taleban’s 1998 massacre in Mazar-e Sharif was explicitly sectarian (for detailed reporting, see the UN ‘mapping report’). (It was also noticeable that rebellion by Pashtuns was always treated differently. In the case of tribes in Khost, for example, who were unhappy in 1999 at taxes and what they thought was a broken promise to bring King Zaher Shah back, the leadership sent a senior Taleb, the Information and Culture Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi, to talk to tribal elders and distribute money).
To cast the Taleban’s massacres of civilians as sectarian, rather than ethnic, is simply not accurate. Moreover, from an Afghanistan perspective, it sounds like reporters and politicians have spent too much time in Iraq where Sunni-Shia violence is fundamental to the conflict. As to those implicated in these massacres, among these five, only Mullah Fazl had direct and command responsibility. Indeed, he is the only one of the five to face specific accusations of war crimes.
One of the problems early on with America’s detention policy was that the US was never interested in accountability for war crimes against Afghans (but only against Americans). Fazl could have been put on trial – there is plenty of court-worthy evidence gathered on him and, indeed, there were calls as early as November 2011 for such detainees to face justice. However, a problem would have arisen for the US; if it had put Taleban on trial, what questions would have been raised about some of its post-2001 allies (many of whom had earlier been Cold War-era allies) who have similar cases to answer and, indeed, the US itself, given that it had ‘thrown away’ the Geneva Conventions? (1)
It was frustrating then that men such as Fazl who were in detention were not required to face justice. It is equally disturbing that accusations (and false accusations) against the five former Taleban detainees are dragged up now and exploited for what look, again, to be domestic US political reasons – because, it seems, various politicians are still angry about President Obama swapping the five for Bergdahl a year ago.
(1) George Bush decided that the Geneva Conventions did not legally apply to ‘War on Terror’ detainees held in Guantanamo and elsewhere, although the conventions would be respected as a matter of policy. This included even Common Article 3 which prohibits the most basic abuses in wartime, including summary executions, torture and hostage taking, and applies to all conflicts, including civil wars. Bush was forced to reverse this policy in 2006 after the Supreme Court held that special military commissions he had set up for the detainees at Guantanamo violated US law and the Geneva Conventions.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020