A travel ban on five senior Afghan Taliban officials freed by the United States in a prisoner exchange last year will expire Sunday.
The five Taliban officials have been in Qatar since last year, when they were released in exchange for the return of an American soldier held by insurgents in Afghanistan for nearly five years.
The approaching end of the travel ban has concerned American lawmakers and Afghan peace negotiators who worry that the former Taliban fighters will return to the battlefield in strife-torn Afghanistan.
U.S. government officials said they remain in close contact with authorities in Afghanistan and Qatar, but there has been no public discussion of a possible extension of the travel ban.
Asked about his five colleagues’ travel plans, a Taliban spokesman told VOA late Saturday: “At this moment, we have no details to share with you on this issue.”
The ex-prisoners had been senior officials in the Taliban group that controlled Afghanistan and played host to the al-Qaida terror network from 1996 until the final weeks of 2001. U.S. and other allied forces ousted and dispersed the Taliban following al-Qaida’s attack on the United States on September 11, 2001.
Traded for US soldier
The five Taliban leaders were traded for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in May 2014, under an agreement between the United States and Afghanistan’s Islamist insurgency that was mediated by Qatar. The accord called for the Arab state to admit the Taliban members and monitor their activities to prevent them from leaving Qatar before the end of May 2015.
“This release was a complete overreach by the White House, ignoring U.S. law,” U.S. Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Friday.
Royce denounced what he said were “flimsy” security assurances in the memorandum of understanding that formalized the prisoner swap.
After Sunday, the Republican congressman said, “These assurances disappear and the Taliban leaders will be free to return to the battlefield, putting U.S. security interests and Americans at risk.”
A member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, Ismail Qasimyar, has insisted that the five Taliban either should remain in Qatar indefinitely or be handed over to the Afghan government.
“Any move that supports war against the people of Afghanistan, we consider a hostile move,” the Tolo television station quoted Qasimyar as saying.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz was asked at a recent briefing whether the Obama administration was concerned about the Taliban officials’ movements in the future.
“We do remain in close contact with our partners to mitigate the threat that might be posed by former detainees,” Schultz told reporters. “I don’t have specific conversations to read out to you in regards to the folks that you are referencing, but I can tell you that it’s fair to say that we and our partners remain vigilant [and] in close contact.”
Bergdahl, who was the only American soldier held captive by the Taliban, had been held since he walked away from his outpost in Afghanistan in 2009.
After an investigation that followed his return to the U.S., Bergdahl was charged with desertion more than two months ago; trial has not yet begun, but the charge is punishable by up to life in prison.
The five Taliban members freed from U.S. custody are Mullah Khairullah Khairkhaw, Mullah Noorullah Noori, Mullah Abdul Haq Wasiq, Mullah Fazil Mazloom and Mohammad Nabi Omari.