President Obama is reportedly considering releasing several senior Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay as an enticement to get the Taliban to the peace table. If he does so, he will do tremendous harm to American national security — and to his prospects for reelection this fall.
To understand why, consider the individuals White House is considering setting free. Last year WikiLeaks released a trove of documents it dubbed the “Gitmo Files” with assessments of hundreds of Guantanamo detainees — including the five Taliban leaders reportedly under consideration for release. Here is the U.S. military’s assessment of them:
Mullah Mohammed Fazl, deputy defense minister. Fazl is “wanted by the UN for possible war crimes while serving as a Taliban Army Chief of Staff and … was implicated in the murder of thousands of Shiites in northern Afghanistan during the Taliban reign.” He has “operational associations with significant al-Qaida and other extremist personnel,” was “involved in Taliban narcotics trafficking,” and is so senior in the Taliban hierarchy that he once threatened the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar. Military officials assess that Fazl wields “considerable influence throughout the northern region of Afghanistan and his influence continued even after his capture” adding, “If released, [Fazl] would likely rejoin the Taliban and establish ties with anti-Coalition militias (ACM) participating in hostilities against US and Coalition forces in Afghanistan.”
Abdul Haq Wasiq, deputy minister of intelligence. Wasiq “was central to the Taliban’s efforts to form alliances with other Islamic fundamentalist groups to fight alongside the Taliban against US and Coalition forces.” He “utilized his office to support al-Qaida and to assist Taliban personnel elude capture…. arranged for al-Qaida personnel to train Taliban intelligence staff in intelligence methods” and “assigned al-Qaida members to the Taliban Ministry of Intelligence.” If released “he is likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.”
Mullah Norullah Noori, governor-general of Afghanistan's northern zone. Noori “is considered one of the most significant former Taliban officials detained at JTF-GTMO” who “led troops against US and Coalition forces” and “was directly subordinate to Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Omar.” He “is wanted by the UN for possible war crimes,” is “associated with members of al-Qaida,” and is assessed “to be a hardliner in his support of the Taliban philosophy.” He “continues to be a significant figure encouraging acts of aggression and his brother is currently a Taliban commander conducting operations against US and Coalition forces…. (Analyst note: Detainee would likely join his brother if released.”)
Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, Herat governor and acting interior minister. Khairkhwa is “directly associated to Usama Bin Laden (UBL) and Taliban Supreme Commander Mullah Muhammad Omar” and was “trusted and respected by both.” After 9/11 he “represented the Taliban during meetings with Iranian officials seeking to support hostilities against US and Coalition forces” and “attended a meeting at the direction of UBL, reportedly accompanied by members of HAMAS.” He is “one of the premier opium drug lords in Western Afghanistan” and was likely “associated with a militant training camp in Herat operated by deceased al-Qaida commander (in Iraq) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”
Mohammad Nabi, multiple leadership roles. Nabi is “a senior Taliban official” who was “a member of a joint al-Qaida/Taliban ACM cell in Khowst and was involved in attacks against US and Coalition forces.” He “held weekly meetings” with “three al-Qaida affiliated individuals” to discuss anti-coalition plans, “maintained weapons caches,” and “facilitated two al-Qaida operatives smuggling an unknown number of missiles along the highway between Jalalabad and Peshawar,” which intelligence officials believe contributed to the deaths of two Americans.
All have close ties to al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. All been assessed by our military as posing a “high risk” of returning to the fight if released. And we know from painful experience what happens when hardliners like these are released from Gitmo. In 2007, the Bush administration released a Taliban leader named Mullah Zakir to Afghan custody. Unlike these five, he was assessed by our military as only “medium risk” of returning to the fight. They were wrong. Today, Zakir is leading Taliban forces fighting U.S. Marines in Helmand province, and according to former intelligence officials I spoke with, he has provided the Taliban with an exponential increase in combat prowess.
Releasing more like him would be disastrous for national security. And it would also be politically disastrous for Obama. His likely opponent, Mitt Romney, has already blasted the administration for even considering such releases, declaring “We do not negotiate with terrorists. The Taliban are terrorists, they are our enemy, and I do not believe in a prisoner release exchange.”
If Obama goes through with these releases, expect Romney to make a major issue of it in the fall campaign. Every time the president has picked a fight over terrorist detention at Guantanamo during the past three years, he has lost. He will lose again if he raises it in 2012. The last thing Obama should want is to have Americans discussing his decision to release dangerous terrorists in November. If Obama won’t keep these brutal men locked up for the national interest, perhaps he will for his political self-interest.
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