Taliban Spokesman: 5 Men Freed From Gitmo in Exchange for Bergdahl Join Insurgents in Qatar

Robert Bowdrie 'Bowe' Bergdahl escorted into Ft. Bragg military courthouse for sentencing hearing, Oct. 30, 2017 / Getty

The five members of the Afghan Taliban who were released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for captured American Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2014 have joined the Taliban's political office in Qatar, according the insurgent group's spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.

The five men will be among Taliban representatives negotiating for peace in Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Some negotiators in Kabul say their presence is a sign that the Taliban desires a peace pact.

Others, however, believe that the the five men—who have close ties to the Taliban's late founder and leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar—share the same fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that defined the group's five-year rule that ended with the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

"The 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. "What we are more worried about is if tomorrow the Taliban say ‘we are ready to negotiate,' who will represent Kabul? That is the big challenge because the government is so divided, not just ideologically but on ethnic lines."

The AP reports:

Efforts to find a peaceful end to Afghanistan's protracted war have accelerated since Washington appointed Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad as envoy to find a peaceful end to America's longest war, which has already cost the U.S. more than $900 billion.

But Mohammed Ismail Qasimyar, a member of a government peace council, warned Washington against negotiating peace terms with the Taliban, saying Khalilzad's only job is to set the stage for direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, something the insurgents have so far refused, calling the government a U.S. puppet.

Taliban officials reported meeting with Khalilzad in Qatar earlier this month, calling the exchange preliminary but pivotal. Washington neither confirmed nor denied the meeting, but Khalilzad was in Qatar at the time.

A Taliban official familiar with the discussions told The Associated Press that talks ended with an agreement to meet again. Key among the Taliban's requests was recognition of their Qatar office, said the official, who spoke on condition he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Treasury Department announced last week that it is taking steps in cooperation with the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) to "expose and disrupt Taliban actors and their Iranian sponsors that seek to undermine the security of the Afghan Government." The department announced sanctions against nine individuals who were identified as Taliban actors by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the TFTC.

"The TFTC has again demonstrated its tremendous value to international security by disrupting and exposing key Taliban members who are involved in suicide attacks, and other lethal activities," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin wrote in a statement. "We are also targeting key Iranian sponsors providing financial and material support to the Taliban."

President Barack Obama received backlash in 2014 when his administration orchestrated the prisoner swap for Bergdahl, prompting him to defend his decision.

"We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Bergdahl," Obama said at the time. "We saw an opportunity, and we were concerned about Bergdahl's health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange, and we seized that opportunity."

Obama added that "the process was truncated because we wanted to make sure we would not miss that window."

Bergdahl, who walked off his base in Afghanistan in 2009, was captured by the Taliban and imprisoned for five years until the Obama administration traded the five Taliban members for his release. In October 2017, Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.