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Analysts Unclear on Impact of Taliban Prisoner Release

  • Ayaz Gul

Five senior members of Afghanistan’s Taliban who were recently freed by the United States in a controversial exchange for an American soldier are said to have rejoined their families in Qatar after 13 years in custody.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the released men are recuperating in Qatar with their families. Speaking to VOA by phone, Mujahid did not comment on whether the Taliban leaders will join the group’s diplomatic representation in the Qatari capital, Doha.

The Taliban spokesman said "they are frail, weak and sick, and need proper rest,” adding “let their health come back to normal and it will then be decided what their future role will be.”

The prisoner swap took place on May 31 when the United States released the Taliban detainees from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to secure the release of American Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The militant group handed Bergdahl over to American troops in an eastern Afghan province.

Both sides have acknowledged the deal was brokered by the Qatari government with an understanding the freed Taliban leaders will live under restrictions, including a one-year ban on their travel.

On Wednesday, the Taliban released a video showing its fighters handing over Bergdahl to the U.S. military. The video also contained scenes in which the five Taliban detainees are shown joyously embracing their colleagues after arriving in the Qatari capital.

WATCH: Taliban video of Bergdahl release

The Taliban members include former Herat provincial governor and founding member of the Taliban, Khairullah Khairkhwa, former chief of the army staff Mullah Mohammad Fazl, former civilian head of the northern zone Norullah Nuri, and former deputy head of intelligence Abdul Haq Wasiq.

The fifth man, Mohammad Nabi Omari, is being described as a relatively minor figure associated with the Haqqani network that was holding the American soldier.

Kate Clark, a long-time observer of Afghan affairs and a senior member of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, is skeptical about the effectiveness of the Taliban men freed from Guantanamo.

“If they were extremely important people in 2001, we do not know what they are now, what sort of men they are now. They have been in detention for 13 years. They have been away from a movement that has changed erratically. The Taliban now is very, very different from how it was in 2001,” said Clark.

President Barack Obama is under fire from lawmakers at home who say they were not informed about the prisoner swap and accuse him of breaking the law. Some lawmakers have expressed concerns the freed Taliban leaders will rejoin the insurgency in Afghanistan to damage gains the country has made with the help of the United States.

Clark, however, says these concerns are misplaced in view of the ground realities in Afghanistan.

“It is difficult to see how they will add to the insurgency, and on the other side of course you have got Afghan security forces who have proven themselves as much more able than a lot of people predicted. So, I think from that point of view the American critics of the release are really blowing these people up into something that they are not,” said Clark.

Taliban spokesman Mujahid says that the prisoner exchange was negotiated as a one-off deal and there were no conditions attached, and no stipulations the insurgent group would open peace talks with the Afghan government.

U.S. diplomats in Kabul have also made it clear that talks with the Taliban were limited to only securing the release of Bergdahl and there were no discussions about the Afghan peace and reconciliation process.

Mujahid tells VOA that shortly after the Taliban posted the video of the handover of the American soldier on its website, the page hosting it went down for few hours because it was flooded with visitors from across the globe.

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