▶ Freed from no­to­ri­ous prison in ex­change for a US de­serter, the men’s pro­mo­tion shows the group bring­ing back its ‘old gen­er­a­tion,’ says an­a­lyst

The National - News - - NEWS - BEN FARMER Is­lam­abad

Five se­nior Tal­iban lead­ers freed from Guan­tanamo Bay in re­turn for a cap­tured Amer­i­can sol­dier have joined the militants’ Qatari of­fice re­spon­si­ble for Afghanistan peace talks.

The five men, who spent more than a decade in the US mil­i­tary prison, will now be part of the Tal­iban del­e­ga­tion dur­ing at­tempts to find a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment to the coun­try’s con­flict.

Amer­ica has in­ten­si­fied its push to start ten­ta­tive ne­go­ti­a­tions, with se­nior US of­fi­cials hav­ing met Tal­iban en­voys twice in re­cent months.

The militants’ ap­point­ment of the so-called Tal­iban Five came just days af­ter the re­lease from Pak­istani jail of an­other se­nior Tal­iban fig­ure, Mul­lah Ab­dul Ghani Baradar, was linked to po­ten­tial talks.

Pak­istan’s Kabul em­bassy told lo­cal me­dia that the re­lease of the Tal­iban’s for­mer No 2 af­ter eight years in prison had been to help start a peace process.

Ab­dul Hakim Mu­jahid, who was en­voy to the UN dur­ing the Tal­iban regime, said all five Tal­iban lead­ers now join­ing the Qatar of­fice were well re­spected by the move­ment’s rank and file.

“Their word car­ries weight with the Tal­iban lead­er­ship and the mu­jahideen,” he said.

Each man had been a sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure in the Tal­iban regime be­fore it was ousted in 2001 and their Guan­tanamo in­tel­li­gence files de­scribed them as be­ing “high risk” to the US and its al­lies.

Khair­ul­lah Khairkhwa, a for­mer Tal­iban in­te­rior min­is­ter and gover­nor of Herat prov­ince, was close to Tal­iban founder Mul­lah Omar and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Hu­man Rights Watch ac­cused Mo­hammed Fazl, the for­mer Tal­iban army chief of staff, of over­see­ing the deaths of thou­sands of mi­nor­ity Shi­ites in 2000.

The oth­ers are: Ab­dul Haq Wasiq, once deputy in­tel­li­gence min­is­ter; Mul­lah Norul­lah Nori, a for­mer provin­cial gover­nor; and Mo­ham­mad Nabi Omari.

The five were re­leased in 2014 in re­turn for Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who be­came Amer­ica’s only pris­oner of war in the Afghan con­flict af­ter he walked off his base and was cap­tured in 2009.

The pris­oner swap was crit­i­cised by se­nior Repub­li­cans at the time for free­ing “the hard­est of the hard­core” Tal­iban.

The five are be­lieved to have lived in Qatar since their re­lease, but un­til now have been un­der se­vere re­stric­tions and un­able to join the diplo­matic of­fice.

“Tal­iban are bring­ing back their old gen­er­a­tion, which means the Tal­iban have not changed their think­ing or their lead­er­ship,” said Haroun Mir, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst in Kabul.

The Afghan govern­ment is so far not in­volved in the pre­lim­i­nary talks, be­cause the Tal­iban refuse to meet what they claim is a pup­pet ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Mr Mir said Ashraf Ghani’s govern­ment was so di­vided, it was uncertain who could rep­re­sent it if talks pro­gressed.

Baradar has been touted as a po­ten­tial ne­go­tia­tor. He was re­port­edly held by Pak­istan in 2010 be­cause Is­lam­abad was an­gry at his unau­tho­rised over­tures to Kabul.

But it is not yet clear how much in­flu­ence he re­tains af­ter eight years in prison, or where he will live.

The pris­oner swap was crit­i­cised by se­nior Repub­li­cans at the time for free­ing ‘the hard­est of the hard­core’ Tal­iban

For­mer Guan­tanamo Bay de­tainee Mo­ham­mad Fazl

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