Questions mount over ‘ransom’ for Bergdahl

By F. Michael Maloof

BEIRUT, Lebanon –While the Afghan Taliban, which negotiated with the U.S. for the release of US. Army Sgt. Bowe Berdahl, is not on the U.S. terrorist list, it is a member of the Haqqani network, which has been designated by the State Department as a terrorist entity.

The Haqqani network is a notoriously violent Islamic movement out of Pakistan that for years has slipped into Afghanistan and attacked U.S. troops.

Kidnappings have been a means of raising money for its activities, which has raised concern that the U.S. may have paid a ransom to a designated terrorist entity, contrary to U.S. policy.

Informed sources say that the Haqqani network passed Bergdahl to its close ally, the Afghan Taliban. The soldier then was brought to eastern Afghanistan’s Khost province to be handed over to U.S. Special Forces in exchange for five top Taliban commanders incarcerated at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A senior member of the Afghan Taliban told NBC News the exchange was a “historic moment for us.”

“Today, our enemy for the first time officially recognized our status,” he said. “I can’t explain how our people are happy and excited over this unbelievable achievement. Today, we reached our destination.”

The five Afghan Taliban commanders released after 12 years at Guantanamo are Mulla Fazal Akhund, Noorullah Noori, Abdul Haq Waseeq, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Mohammad Nabi.

Among them are a Taliban army chief of staff, a deputy minister of intelligence and a former Taliban interior minister.

Some lawmakers believe the exchange  violated U.S. law by not giving Congress 30 days’ notice. They further charge that American lives are at greater risk with a price put on their heads. Some critics also say the president violated a law against providing material support to terrorists.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said that while Bergdahl will be going back home to be with his family, the five Taliban members “are going back to the battlefield.”

The five Taliban commanders by agreement will be held in Qatar for a year but will be allowed to go anywhere inside the country. The Qatari government flew in the family of the commanders to remain with them in housing it also provided.

In Qatar, the five Taliban commanders easily could continue assisting in planning operations.

‘We didn’t negotiate with terrorists’

The Haqqani network, which raises operating funds through kidnappings and ransom payments, that may have received a ransom of more than $5 million for Bergdahl’s release, sources report.

According to sources, Bergdahl was held most likely in Pakistan’s northern province of North Waziristan

Because the Afghan Taliban has never made it on to the U.S. terrorist list, as has the Haqqani network, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel already has begun to nuance the release.

Hagel said Bergdahl’s release was considered a “prisoner of war exchange,” since the Taliban five were from a sovereign country.

“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” Hagel insists.

However, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that Bergdahl was held by the Haqqani network.

“He was not a prisoner of war; he was with the Haqqani network, which is a terrorist organization,” Rogers maintained.

The Michigan congressman underscored the growing concern that the Obama administration violated a stated U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, the Haqqani network is part of a larger Taliban umbrella organization led by Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura Taliban. Nevertheless, the Haqqani network maintains its own independent command structure and operations.

The White House asserts that the negotiations for Bergdahl’s release were directly with the Afghan Taliban and not with the Haqqani network. However, the Qataris worked directly with the Haqqanis.

A question remains of who put up the money for Bergdahl’s release – the Obama administration or the Qataris. Or did the administration provide the ransom through the Qataris?

Regardless, it could put the Obama administration in the position of directly funding a terrorist organization which has killed American soldiers.

According to U.S. military sources, the Haqqani network is the “most resilient enemy network” and is considered to be one of the major threats to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

It also is considered to be the most lethal.

Said to number close to 15,000 fighters, the Haqqanis, a creation of the Central Intelligence Agency to oust the then-Soviet Union during in the early 1980s, has longstanding support of the locals, given their establishment of courts, law enforcement, medical care and governance.

In turn, this kind of support also gives the Haqqani network familiarity with the terrain and knowledge of the mountain passes for access in and out of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Even the Pakistani government regards the Haqqani as an important force in protecting its interests in Afghanistan, especially once the U.S. and its allies withdraw their military forces by the end of 2016.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the Haqqani network serves the Pakistani government well by asserting its interests in the face of what will be mounting competition in Afghanistan from such other neighboring countries as India, Russia and Iran, once U.S. troops are gone.

Pakistan regards Afghanistan as being in its sphere of influence, which led the country to create not only the Afghan Taliban but support the Haqqani network.

According to U.S. intelligence sources, the Haqqanis are known to have close ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence organization, or ISI, which may help explain the ability of the Haqqani network to move back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Not only has the government’s relationship with the Haqqanis placed a strain on U.S.-Pakistani relations, the Obama administration — and particularly the president himself —  has declined to endorse previous statements by former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that the Haqqani network “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency.”

“The intelligence is not as clear as we might like in terms of what exactly that relationship is,” Obama said.

Left unsaid is whether the Haqqani network ties to the ISI suggest that the Pakistani government also may have known of Bergdahl’s whereabouts in Pakistan, similar to knowing about the location of Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaida leader was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2012 at a compound less than a mile from Pakistan’s version of West Point.

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