WASHINGTON – A one-year travel ban is expiring for five senior Taliban leaders held in U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until they were released last year in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, raising the possibility that the five can move freely around the world as early as Monday.
Under terms of the exchange in May 2014, the five detainees were sent to Qatar where officials there agreed to monitor their activities and prevent them from traveling out of the country. In return, Bergdahl was released to the U.S. military after being held captive by the Taliban for nearly five years after he walked away from his Army post in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have discussed with the Qataris the possibility of extending the travel ban after it expires on June 1. But so far, the White House has not publicly announced any new agreement with Qatar, meaning the five could leave the tiny nation on the Arabian Peninsula at the end of the month.
"In Congress, we spent a lot of time debating whether the Qataris were going to adequately keep an eye on them in the course of the 12 months," said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence committee. "My point all along was that I'm more worried about month No. 13 than the first 12."
Schiff has been privy to the details of the still-secret memorandum of understanding the U.S. reached with Qatar that put the five under a 12-month watch following their release.
"The Qataris did pretty good — I wouldn't say perfect," he said about the year-long monitoring. "But the big question is what comes next."
At least one of the five allegedly contacted militants during the past year while in Qatar. No details have been disclosed about that contact, but the White House confirmed that one was put under enhanced surveillance. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week: "I know that at least one has had communication with the Taliban."
One or more of the detainees had some members of the al-Qaida-affiliated Haqqani militant group travel to Qatar to meet with them earlier in the year, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. That was an indication that the group was reaching out to communicate with so-called Taliban Five, said Graham, who predicts all five will rejoin the fight.
Four of the five former detainees remain on the United Nations' blacklist, which freezes their assets and has them under a separate travel ban. But the U.N. itself has acknowledged that its travel ban has been violated. In a report late last year, the U.N. sanctions committee stated: "Regrettably, the monitoring team continues to receive a steady — albeit officially unconfirmed — flow of media reports indicating that some listed individuals have become increasingly adept at circumventing the sanctions measures, the travel ban in particular."
The State Department insists that U.S. officials work to mitigate the risk of former Guantanamo detainees returning to the fight, threatening Americans or jeopardizing U.S. national security. U.S. officials have noted in the past that the five Taliban leaders are middle-aged or older, were former officials in the Taliban government and probably wouldn't be seen again on any battlefield, although they could continue to be active members of the Taliban.
Members of Congress have repeatedly expressed concern about what will happen after the travel ban expires. They have asked the Obama administration to try to persuade Qatar to extend the monitoring.
"It's impossible for me to see how they don't rejoin the fight in short order," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., wrote Defense Secretary Ash Carter in March, asking him to take any step necessary to make sure the five do not return to the battlefield in Afghanistan. And earlier this month, the 13 Republican members of the House Intelligence committee wrote President Barack Obama asking him to urge Qatar to extend travel restrictions on the former detainees indefinitely.
"If, as scheduled, Qatar permits these five former detainees to possess passports and travel to Afghanistan or Pakistan when the memorandum of understanding expires on June 1, they will be at liberty to play an even more direct role in attacks against the men and women of our military," they wrote.
Many lawmakers from both parties were irate when the five Guantanamo detainees were swapped for Bergdahl, who recently was charged with desertion. They complained that the White House did not give Congress a 30-day notification of the transfer, which is required by law. The White House said it couldn't wait 30 days because Bergdahl's life was endangered.
After the transfer, the House Armed Services Committee demanded the Pentagon release internal documents about the swap. The committee received hundreds, but lawmakers complain that they are heavily redacted. The committee inserted language in the fiscal 2016 defense policy bill that threatens to cut Pentagon spending by about $500 million if the Defense Department doesn't provide additional information about the exchange.
Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, a spokesman for the Defense Department, said the Pentagon has provided the committee with more than 3,600 pages of documents and redactions have been minimal.