Key in Trump’s deal with the Taliban: Ex-prisoners whose release in 2014 unleashed Republican furor

As U.S. negotiators raced to clinch last month’s landmark deal with the Taliban, several shadowy figures played a surprising but significant role: former Guantanamo Bay detainees whose release in a 2014 prisoner exchange sparked a partisan firestorm.

The so-called Taliban Five, a group of high-level militant inmates traded for an American during the Obama administration, worked behind the scenes to build support for the agreement, current and former U.S. and Taliban officials say.

Several of the men wielded their clout, as prominent figures from the Taliban’s pre-9/11 government and longtime prisoners of the United States, to push months of fractious negotiations toward a deal. One of them, a fearsome former commander accused in the deaths of religious minorities in Afghanistan, traveled at least twice to Pakistan to generate buy-in among skeptical militant commanders, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the negotiations.

The Trump administration heralded the Feb. 29 agreement as a milestone toward ending nearly two decades of war, but expected talks among feuding Afghan parties have not materialized amid disagreements over initial steps and political disarray in Kabul.

In a bid to keep the process on track, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Afghan leaders in Kabul last week but also with the top Taliban negotiator in Doha, an illustration of an evolving political calculation that includes engaging a group responsible for thousands of American deaths.

The Obama administration’s decision in 2014 to free the five militants in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier held captive by the Taliban for five years, was met with scathing criticism from Republicans including Pompeo, then a congressman and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Donald Trump.

After a dozen years at Guantanamo, the Taliban detainees were sent to Doha with their families, where they were barred from traveling for one year and placed under U.S. and Qatari surveillance.

In 2015, then-candidate Trump criticized the prisoner swap, calling Bergdahl a “no good, rotten traitor” and characterizing the released Taliban members as “five killers” who were now “back on the battlefield.” Pompeo said he had seen no proof that the men were reformed and would not “return to trying to do harm to America.” Graham called them “the hardest of the hardcore.”

“They have American blood on their hands and surely as night follows day they will return to the fight,” Graham wrote in a 2014 letter to leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “In effect, we released the ‘Taliban Dream Team.’ ”

The negotiators
The consequences of the trade, which included contentious congressional appearances and were reminiscent of the aftermath of the attacks on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya, effectively shut down attempts to reach a peace deal during the Obama administration.

The controversy “tamped down the possibility of doing the things that actually could have led to further progress,” said Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official who worked on the transfer.

The defense secretary at the time, Chuck Hagel, who signed the Taliban Five’s release order, said he and other senior officials weighed the risks of freeing the men against the chance to free Bergdahl, whose condition was believed to be deteriorating.

Bergdahl was captured after walking off his remote base in southeast Afghanistan in 2009 under murky circumstances. After being taken across the border to Pakistan, he was held by the Haqqani network, a hard-line Taliban faction. He was chained to a bed or locked in a cage for long stretches, and his mental and physical health suffered.