A member of the Taliban Political Office in Qatar kisses the hand of a Guantanamo Bay-returned official.
By Salman Siddiqui/Staff Reporter
Five senior Taliban members landed in Doha yesterday afternoon after they were released from Guantanamo Bay in a landmark prisoner swap deal between the US and the Afghanistan-based militant force.
Qatar played a crucial role as a mediator in the deal that also witnessed the release of a Taliban-held US soldier in Afghanistan’s Khost province along the Pak-Afghan border.
According to a senior Afghan Taliban source, there were emotional scenes when five senior members of their movement, including Mullah Mohamed Fazal Akhund, Mullah Noorulla Noori, Mullah Khairulla Khairkhwa, Mullah Abdul Haq Waseeq and Moulavi Mohamed Nabi landed in Qatar, ending their 13-year ordeal at the infamous Guantanamo prison.
Members of the “Political Bureau of the Afghan Taliban” in Qatar and the “Lead Council of the Islamic Emirate” hugged and kissed the hands of their released comrades. They also said a prayer.
A senior Taliban source told Gulf Times that the five prisoners were handed over on Saturday, May 31, at 7pm (Afghanistan standard time) to a delegation from Qatar, who had been waiting in Guantanamo Bay for the previous three days.
The delegation and the five released Taliban prisoners left Guantanamo at 10pm and arrived in Qatar yesterday afternoon.
American soldier Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban since June 2009, was handed over to a US Special Forces team in the suburbs of Khost province exactly at the same time when the five Taliban leaders were handed over to the delegation from Qatar in Guantanamo on Saturday at 7pm (Afghanistan standard time).
The Taliban said their five members were released as a result of ‘indirect negotiations’ between the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ and the United States, which was mediated by Qatari government. “The released Taliban members will remain with their families in Qatar and will lead a normal life,” the source said.
The supreme leader of the Taliban movement Mullah Omar acknowledged the contribution of Qatar and HH the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in the successful prisoner exchange, in a special message.
“I want to express my gratitude to the government of Qatar and its Emir (HH) Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who made sincere efforts for the release of our leaders and hosted them in their country. I pray to Allah that they are rewarded for their good deeds in this world and the hereafter,” Mullah Omar said in a statement from an unknown location.
Also, Mullah Omar termed the prisoner exchange that saw the release of his five comrades in exchange for one low-ranking US soldier as a “great victory” for the Afghan people, and the Afghan mujahideen. The released Taliban prisoners were influential figures during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. One of them had served as a former interior ministry official, former deputy defence minister and ex-governor of an Afghan province.
The Taliban in their official statements have not mentioned any restrictions on the movements of their released leaders, even though senior US officials have said that they would face an international travel ban for at least a year aside from restricted movement within Qatar.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister HE Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah was quoted by AFP as saying that Doha mediated the swap out of “humanitarian” concerns.
“When it comes to humanitarian matters, the Emir does not hesitate…this is what happened in the case of a US sergeant and the five Taliban detainees,” HE al-Attiyah said. Pages 15, 27
Deal was long time in the making
Sources told Gulf Times that the prisoner exchange deal between the US and the Taliban has been in the works for many months. Both sides were close to reaching a deal several times in the past, but according to the Taliban, each time the Karzai-led Afghan administration would throw a spanner in the works.
In 2012, President Karzai had recalled his ambassador from Doha when the Taliban began peace talks with the Americans. In June 2013, when the Taliban had opened its “Political Office” in Doha, Karzai complained about the flag and nameplate of the Taliban office, which resulted in its “temporary closure”.
Taliban officials had termed Karzai as a “saboteur” and blamed him for the breakdown of talks between them and the US.
The successful conclusion of talks for the prisoner exchange gained momentum only a month ago after the first round of Afghanistan presidential elections took place on April 5, 2014.
The Afghan elections would pave the way for Karzai’s exit, when he would step down from his office after the second round of elections on June 14, 2014 and his successor takes over.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister HE Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah had met US Secretary of State John Kerry on April 11, 2014. In remarks before the meeting, Kerry had said : “Foreign Minister Attiya has signalled that the Emir and Qatar want to be particularly helpful to us in our counterterrorism efforts. They have taken the initiative with respect to efforts to try to see if there is a way forward in terms of peace dialogue with the Taliban. We’re very grateful to them for their efforts to be an intermediary, to try to help put that proposition to the test.”