3 senior Haqqani Network leaders to be freed in prisoner exchange

Anas Haqqani and Qari Abdul Rasheed Omari (a.k.a. Hafiz Rasheed), at the time of their capture in 2014. NDS photos via Khaama Press.

The Afghan government plans to free three senior Haqqani Network leaders, including a brother and an uncle of deputy Taliban emir Sirajuddin Haqqani, in exchange for an American and an Australian professor who were kidnapped in 2016. The release of the three senior Haqqani leaders will provide a boost to the Taliban’s leadership, but likely will do little to further derail the moribund negotiations between the US and the Taliban.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani said that it has to “pay this bitter price” to secure the release of American University of Afghanistan professors Kevin King and Timothy Weeks, who were kidnapped by the Haqqani Network in Kabul in Aug. 2016, TOLONews reported. Both King and Weeks are believed to be in poor health.

In exchange, the Afghan government will free Haji Malik Khan, Siraj’s uncle and a top leader in the network; Anas Haqqani, Siraj’s brother and a propagandist and ambassador; and Qari Abdul Rasheed Omari, the group’s military commander for southeastern Afghanistan.

The US is likely pressuring Afghanistan to complete the swap in the hopes of a positive development in the negotiations, if history is any guide, it won’t have a positive effect. The Taliban has been clear in that past that prisoner exchanges are conducted merely to release their jailed comrades, and that it does not link such exchanges to peace talks.

Like the previous high-profile prisoner swap, the Taliban is likely to portray this exchange as a key victory. In addition to the propaganda win, the three leaders will also provide a boost to the Taliban’s leadership.

Before their capture, all three played key rolls within the group:

Haji Malik Khan

Khan, perhaps the most dangerous of the three, was described by the now defunct International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as “one of the highest ranking members of the Haqqani Network and a revered elder of the Haqqani clan” after he was captured by US forces in a raid in Paktika province in Sept. 2011. He was a brother of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the respected leader of the Haqqani Network and a member of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura before he died in 2018.

Khan “worked directly under Siraj Haqqani,” and was “consistently placed … in positions of high importance,” ISAF noted after his capture. He served as “an emissary” between the Taliban and the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, “managed bases and had oversight of operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan,” and facilitated the movement of fighters across the border.

Qari Abdul Rasheed Omari

Rasheed, who is also known as Hafiz Rasheed, was captured along with Anas Haqqani in Oct. 2014 while traveling in the Persian Gulf. At the time of his capture, Rasheed served as the Haqqani Network’s, and therefore also the Taliban’s, military commander for southeastern Afghanistan.

The Afghan National Directorate of Security said that Rasheed “was responsible of choosing targets and providing equipment to the suicide bombers” and had been living in Pakistan.

The Taliban claimed that Rasheed and Anas had visited Mohammad Nabi Omari, Rasheed’s brother. Omari is a senior Taliban official who was held at Guantanamo from late 2002 until May 2014, when he, along with four other Taliban commanders held in US custody, were exchanged for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl as part of the Taliban 5. Omari would have been living in Qatar at the time of Rasheed and Anas’ visit.

Anas Haqqani

Anas, who was captured along with Rasheed, was a brother of Siraj and served him in various roles. He is considered a key propagandist, strategist, fundraiser, and ambassador for the Haqqani Network and the Taliban. However, the Taliban has denied this and claimed he was merely a student when he was captured.

But in Sept. 2016, the Taliban tipped its hand about the importance of Anas when it threatened that “blood will be spilled” if Anas was executed by the Afghan government.

“If the higher courts also uphold the death sentence to Anas Haqqani, it will have very disastrous and dangerous consequences for the current regime,” the Taliban said in a statement released on its official website, Voice of Jihad. “The war and its intensity will increase in all parts of the country. A lot of blood will be spilled and the government will be responsible for all of it.”

Just a few weeks ago, Afghanistan refused to include Anas as part of this proposed exchange.

Exchange unlikely to aid negotiations

When the Taliban freed Bow Berghdal in May 2014 for the al Qaeda-linked “Taliban 5” who were held at Guantanamo Bay, the group was explicit that ‘peace’ negotiations and prisoners exchanges were unrelated.

“It won’t help the peace process in any way,” Zabihullah Mujahid stated at the time.

In a statement attributed to Mullah Omar, who was actually dead at the time it was released, the Taliban instead characterized the lopsided Berghdal-for-Taliban 5 exchange as “a great victory” for the group.

To rub it in the face of the US, the Taliban later included the Taliban 5 on its negotiating team for the latest round of talks designed to get the US to withdraw from Afghanistan.