With Taliban prisoners free, much is at stake

The deal for Bergdahl is a big risk for Obama and a new test for Qatar.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJune 7, 2014 

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 and into hiding.

If Qatar holds to its word, these men freed from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the release of Army 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 could be major consequences for President Barack Obama, who has come under withering criticism by those who say he agreed to pay too high a price for the release of Bergdahl. In the past, some prisoners discharged from Guantanamo have ended up back on the battlefield despite assurances from U.S. 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 (although 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 fundraising, propagandizing or agitating is allowed, and they're confined to this tiny Persian Gulf nation for the next year.

U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

PRESSURE ON QATAR

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 Gitmo prisoners for 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, that 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 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 Guantanamo."

There were no bellicose vows, however, in the song's otherwise overheated rhetoric, and there was nothing said by the men themselves.

'MR. NICE GUY'

The current emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, came to power last June after the surprise abdication of his father, Sheik 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 earlier done 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.

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," 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."

Holtzman said the Qataris will keep their new Taliban guests under control. "The Obama administration clearly thought long and hard about this deal," he said.

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