Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund returned to Afghanistan after nearly two decades on Tuesday, a reversal of fortune that saw him go from Taliban co-founder to prisoner in Pakistan to negotiator in Qatar to a now-central figure in Kabul.
Baradar, currently the head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, was freed from Pakistan in 2018 and is the most prominent of thousands of Taliban prisoners freed at the United States’s request in its efforts to promote failed peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The February 2020 peace deal signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban pushed the Afghan government to release up to 5,000 prisoners, some of whom played key roles in the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country.
Members of the “Taliban Five” — a group of high-value leaders held at Guantanamo Bay until they were swapped by President Barack Obama in exchange for the return of deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2014 — also appeared across the negotiating table from the U.S. in Qatar after their release.
The February 2020 agreement in Doha was signed by the U.S. and Baradar. In the agreement, the U.S. said it was “committed to start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence building measure with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides.” That included the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and up to 1,000 prisoners held by the Taliban.
The so-called peace agreement also said the U.S. “committed to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces” within 14 months, while the Taliban said they would take "steps to prevent any group or individual, including al Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
Baradar is a co-founder of the Taliban, along with one-eyed, now-deceased Mullah Mohammed Omar in 1994. Baradar, a Pashtun, had been friends with Omar since they were teenagers, fighting in the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1990s and creating a madrassa with Omar in Kandahar Province. Baradar led the Taliban’s forces in northern Afghanistan after 9/11, where he battled with the Northern Alliance. He was arrested in Karachi by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the CIA in late January or early February 2010 but was released in October 2018 at the request of the U.S. as it sought to bolster “peace talks.”
Pompeo tweeted a photo of himself with Baradar on Sept. 12, 2020, saying: “Met with Taliban Political Deputy Mullah Beradar (sic) to welcome the launch of Afghan peace negotiations. The Taliban must seize this opportunity to forge a political settlement & reach a comprehensive & permanent ceasefire to end 40 years of war.”
Pompeo again met with Baradar and other Taliban leaders in Qatar in November.
The five Taliban leaders whom Obama freed from Guantanamo Bay in 2014 in exchange for Bergdahl became part of the Taliban’s peace talks in Qatar with the U.S. government by late 2018 or early 2019. Their appearance at the negotiating table was seen as a slap in the face to the U.S.
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump said at a 2015 campaign rally, “Take Sgt. Bergdahl. Does anybody remember that name? So this is the way we think. So we get a traitor named Bergdahl — a dirty, rotten traitor… So we get Bergdahl, a traitor, and they get five of the people that they most wanted anywhere in the world, five killers that are right now back on the battlefield doing the job. That’s the kind of deals we make.”
A few years later, those killers were sitting across from Trump administration diplomats at the negotiating table.
The former detainees — Norullah Noori, Mohammad Fazl, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Khairullah Khairkhwa, and Mohammad Nabi Omari — had been high-ranking members of the Taliban government before its overthrow and were released by the Obama administration, arriving in Qatar on June 1, 2014.
Khairkhwa was arrested in Pakistan in February 2002, was sent to Guantanamo Bay three months later, and was considered the highest-value detainee there. Then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai sought his release as part of peace talk efforts. Khairkhwa is said to have been the Taliban’s former interior minister and the former governor of Herat Province in the 1990s.
A memo from the Joint Terrorism Taskforce said Khairkhwa was “directly associated” with bin Laden and “represented the Taliban during meetings with Iranian officials seeking to support hostilities against U.S. and Coalition forces” after the 9/11 attacks, with the JTF also saying he met with Hamas and now-deceased al Qaeda Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Mawlawi Talib, the former alleged shadow deputy governor for the Taliban in Helmand, was reportedly arrested at a checkpoint in 2020 and imprisoned in Kabul. He was freed within months, likely due to the U.S. deal with the Taliban. He burst into the news in early August when he oversaw the attack on the Afghan city of Lashkargah, the provincial capital of Helmand, where part of his assault on the city included an attempted jailbreak to recruit prisoners as fighters.
When the Taliban took over Kabul a couple of weeks later, they freed thousands of prisoners from the prison near Bagram airfield, including high-value Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. The U.S. abandoned the airfield in July. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Sunday, “The most important prison at Bagram Airfield was also captured. The latest info shows that all the prisoners have been transferred to a safe place.”
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Original Author: Jerry Dunleavy