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Here’s what we know about the Taliban fighters Obama just released from Gitmo

US Department of Defense/Daily Beast
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Whether the five members of the Taliban freed from Guantanamo in exchange for US Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release from Taliban captivity pose a real danger is one of the most important points of controversy in the issue. The administration insists they won't threaten the United States, while critics, including Congressional Republicans, see their release as a serious problem.

We know two things for sure about the men released in exchange for Bergdahl's freedom. First, not all of them are equally important, but two in particular could really matter to the Taliban.  Second, the fact of the matter is that there may just not be enough evidence to say for sure what they've done individually and, more to the point, what impact their eventual return to Afghanistan, after a year in Qatar, will be for the Taliban.

Let's get acquainted with each of them first. Here's a short set of bios — you can find a very detailed history from Kate Clark at the Afghanistan Analysts Network here.

  • Mullah Mohammad Fazl: A famous Taliban leader and former chief of armed forces for the group. There's evidence that he's directly responsible for mass murder of unarmed Afghan civilians in both 1999 and 2001 Taliban offensives.
  • Mullah Norullah Noori: A fairly high-level Taliban operative, he led the organization's Northern governance zone and was the governor of Balkh province.
  • Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa: Former Taliban Minister of the Interior. The most senior Taliban member on this list, but, according to Clark, was known as a relative moderate inside the militant group. Allegedly linked to the opium trade.
  • Abdul Haq Wasiq: Former deputy chief of the Taliban's intelligence apparatus.
  • Mohammed Nabi Omari: A comparatively minor Taliban official from Khost province, but he's actually more important to the Haqqani Network — a militant group affiliated with the Taliban that has its own command structure.

Internal Pentagon reports label all of them "high risks" to the United States. These Guanatanamo dossiers, helpfully reviewed by Daily Beast reporters Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, suggest that some of them have links to al-Qaeda and Iranian plots against American troops in Afghanistan.

Independent experts are somewhat skeptical of these claims. Clark, for one, calls the documents on the five inmates "peculiar, opaquely sourced and peppered with factual errors." The "claims made in the Guantanamo Bay tribunals and in press reports sourced to un-named US officials," she says, "frequently do not stand up to close inspection."

But even if we throw the US intelligence reports completely out the window, this prisoner swap should still be troubling. Even Clark concedes there's good reason to believe Fazl committed war crimes.

Anand Gopal, an expert on the Taliban at the New America Foundation, thinks some of them could pose a real threat. "Of the five released Taliban," he writes, "only 2 have the potential to make an appreciable impact on the battlefield: Fazl & Noori...Khairkhwa isn't a military commander, and the other two are mid-level."

The key question about Fazl and Noori going forward, then, is how they'll integrate with the modern Taliban. Both of them were detained in 2001, so they haven't had an organizational role in the Taliban in well over a decade. Will they be mesh well with the way the organization is structured today?

It's hard to say. The Taliban is a loose, shifting network of militant groups, and a lot has changed since Fazl and Noori's detention. No one has seen the nominal Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, in years. Just this February, there was a power struggle between two of Omar's top lieutenants, second-in-command Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansur and Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir (Mansur came out ahead). In May, an important faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan broke off from the main pack.

How Fazl and Noori play into all of this internal politicking remains to be seen. But given their command experience, they've got the potential to make the Taliban a stronger force after their US-mandated year in Qatar.