DOHA, Qatar — The five hardened Taliban militants were quickly whisked in a fleet of cars to the shoulder of a highway on the outskirts of the capital just as they arrived. There, out of the public eye and under the watchful gaze of Qatari security, they exchanged warm hugs with a welcome delegation and then once more were whisked off into hiding.
If Qatar holds to its word, these men freed from Guantánamo Bay in exchange for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will not return to the battlefield or be drafted as a powerful propaganda tool by the Taliban, at least for the next year.
There is much at stake for President Obama, who has come under withering criticism by many who say he agreed to pay too high a price for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. In the past, some prisoners discharged from Guantánamo have ended up back on the battlefield despite assurances from American allies that they would be restrained.
In this case, Qatar also has much on the line, having wagered its already flagging reputation on keeping these men out of sight and under control.
“We have some confidence that the Qataris both have the capacity to implement those requirements and also that they have the will to do so,” a senior Obama administration official said.
Even before they arrived Sunday, Qatar promised that the freed Taliban would not make speeches, give news conferences or interviews, or even make public appearances (though they will be allowed to shop in the emirate’s many tony malls). If they call home to Afghanistan, the Qataris promised, it will be to their families, not to their comrades in arms. No fund-raising, propagandizing or agitating is allowed, and they are confined to this tiny Persian Gulf nation for the next year.
American officials have not publicly discussed the restrictions that the five men will be under in Qatar. Asked whether they could meet friends and receive visitors, the senior American official did not rule it out.
“The restrictions have more to do with things that we fear might threaten us, and less to do with kind of the activities of daily life,” he said.
This ultrarich desert emirate, which has long aspired to be a global diplomatic heavyweight, has recently seen its regional influence undermined as its allies in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya have lost power and momentum.
It was embarrassed a year ago when an effort to open a Taliban office did not yield peace talks with the United States, as Qatar had hoped. The Taliban officials in Qatar hoisted a flag and started acting like an embassy in exile. President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan was furious and publicly torpedoed any hopes for the office to function as a place to begin peace talks. And the Americans had to back down on their plans to swap the Guantánamo prisoners for Sergeant Bergdahl.
The Qataris are determined to make sure nothing goes wrong this time.
Or, as Michael Stephens, director of the Qatari branch of the Royal United Services Institute, a British research center, put it, “The Qataris know the Americans are very concerned that a bunch of Taliban are not going to be able to run around, and they wouldn’t screw that up.”
Even the Taliban, in fact, quickly and publicly pledged that the freed prisoners would play by the new rules. “We reassure all sides that we are still holding to the covenant which was agreed upon between the Islamic Emirate and the State of Qatar regarding our release,” the prisoners said, in a statement attributed to them that was posted on the insurgents’ website, and monitored by the SITE Intelligence Group.
When the former prisoners arrived in Qatar on Sunday, their brief reunion on the side of the road was apparently captured on a cellphone video taken by one of the Taliban already living in Qatar. It was uploaded on an Afghan, Pashto-language website called Nunn.asia.
The video’s soundtrack consisted of a song whose lyrics, apparently written for the occasion, congratulated the five on their release. “This is dedicated to those prisoners who have been in a ruthless foreign prison for a long period of time,” the Pashto lyrics went. “Many hearts were thirsty to see them back, and many eyes were full of expectant tears, for you detainees of Guantánamo.”
There were no bellicose vows, however, in the song’s otherwise overheated rhetoric, and there was nothing said by the men themselves.
“If you want to know what they think now,” said Hashmat Muslih, an Afghan political analyst based here, “come back in a year.”
One obstacle for Qatar, Western diplomats here said at the time, was its overstretched foreign service, given the number of crises it has tried to involve itself in, from Sudan to the Philippines. “They just didn’t think through how to manage the Talibs,” one analyst here said.
Two months ago, the Taliban completely stopped using the building the Qataris had given them on the corner of al Shabi Street and Ibn Manzour Street in the capital’s West Bay diplomatic quarter, according to a police officer stationed there Thursday — the only person on the premises.
Around the same time, journalists here said, all of the known Taliban officials here began disconnecting or changing their telephone numbers. Only Suheil Shaheen, the office’s official spokesman, apparently kept his number — but he has not answered it in weeks.
“This time around it’s much more quiet, and the fact that even their spokesman is not answering his phone, it’s clear the Americans do not want to risk too much publicity,” Mr. Muslih said. “It would be disastrous for Qatar if these people tried to leave without consent.”
The current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, came to power last June after the surprise abdication of his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, immediately after the brouhaha over the Taliban office.
Since then he has tried to steer the country’s foreign policy toward a greater emphasis on mediation, and less on direct intervention. Qatar took a battering from many of its neighbors for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. Qatar controls Al Jazeera, and many of its neighbors have been angered by the Arabic news channel’s critical coverage.
Then Qatar’s policy of supplying arms to the opposition in Syria, as it had done earlier to Libyan rebels, proved worrisome as that war appeared at a stalemate, and extremist jihadi factions rose to prominence among the Syrian rebels.
In March, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, three fellow members of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, took the unusual step of recalling their ambassadors from Qatar to protest its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose activists had been welcomed in Qatar when they fled Egypt.
The dispute is still not resolved. Qatar might have been expected to withdraw its ambassadors in the usual diplomatic tit for tat, but it has not.
“They’re trying to go back to the Qatar of 2007, being Mr. Nice Guy, being everybody’s friend,” Mr. Stephens said. “At the moment Qatar is just trying to get where it can in a way that’s inoffensive.”
Said Mike Holtzman, president of BLJ Worldwide, a consulting firm that acts as a strategic adviser to the emirate: “This isn’t necessarily a ‘return’ to form for Qatar. This type of deft and nimble foreign policy has long been a hallmark of Qatar, even if it has irked some of their neighbors from time to time.”
Mr. Holtzman said he had no doubt the Qataris would successfully keep their new Taliban guests under control. “The Obama administration clearly thought long and hard about this deal and obviously was assured by Qatar’s ability to keep the five in line with the deal.”
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(via NY Times)