After Taliban prisoner swap, concerns surface in U.S. over Qatar's role

WASHINGTON Tue Jun 3, 2014 5:11am IST

A sign of support of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is seen in Hailey, Idaho June 1, 2014. REUTERS/Patrick Sweeney

A sign of support of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is seen in Hailey, Idaho June 1, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Patrick Sweeney

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After playing a critical role in the prisoner swap that freed the last American soldier held captive in Afghanistan, Qatar faces new scrutiny by the United States over whether it will enforce restrictions on five released Taliban fighters.

Concerns have been expressed by U.S. intelligence officials and Congressional advisers over the role of the Gulf emirate as a bridge between Washington and the world of radical Islam. But the White House says it received "very specific" assurances from Qatar on the terms under which it agreed to accept and keep tabs on the five Afghans.

"I have little confidence in the security assurances regarding the movement and activities of the now released Taliban leaders and I have even less confidence in this administration's willingness to ensure they are enforced," said Mike Rogers, a Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was released on Saturday after being held for five years by the Taliban, in exchange for five detainees held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The men included former Taliban deputy defense minister Mohammad Fazl.

They face a year-long travel ban in Qatar, according to U.S. and Qatari officials.

Two U.S. officials said the State Department and U.S. intelligence agencies had expressed skepticism in the past about Qatar's commitment to supervise militants released into their custody.

"Since we found out about these transfers, members of Congress have had serious concerns based on intelligence assessments and past performance by Qatar," said a Congressional investigator who was not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.

The State Department's concerns about Qatar's supervision of released militants were detailed in a diplomatic cable dated February 2009 by the U.S. embassy in Doha, Qatar's capital, citing the case of Jarallah al-Marri, a former Guantanamo detainee released to Qatar in July 2008.

In the cable, the U.S. embassy criticized Qatar for failing to follow through on promises to bar al Marri from leaving Qatar, noting he made two trips to Britain since his release from Guantanamo, and that during his second visit, in early 2009, British authorities arrested him.

"NOT A SECURITY THREAT"

The Qatari embassy in Washington declined to respond to a request to detail the specific assurances it gave Washington that the five released Taliban would face restrictions.

The White House has defended its decision to release the Taliban detainees to Qatar.

"We believe this is not a security threat to the United States and that there's sufficient mitigation to be comfortable with the transfer of those detainees to Qatar," White House spokesman Jay Carney told NBC's Today Show on Monday.

U.S. government policy forbids direct negotiations with terrorists. To avoid accusations of doing so, President Barack Obama mediated through Qatar, a gas-rich nation of 1.7 million people with a history of holding talks between Washington and the Taliban.

Taliban leaders flew to Qatar in 2010 for secret negotiations with the U.S. government on a possible peace deal to end NATO’s decade-long presence in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

When those talks faltered, some Taliban leaders stayed behind in Qatar, growing accustomed to its affluent lifestyle.

They have been seen in shopping malls, pushing hypermarket trolleys, and playing with their children in an air-conditioned gymnasium. Sources close to the group say they live in gated compounds paid for by the government just outside Doha.

As part of the deal for hosting them, Qatar placed conditions on the Taliban not to be involved in political activities or to speak to the media.

That has done little to pacify concerns in the U.S. intelligence community over how closely Qatar would monitor Taliban or other militants, according to two U.S. officials with knowledge of U.S. involvement in Qatar.

A task force appointed by the White House reviewed the case files of Guantanamo Bay detainees in 2009. Intelligence assessments raised questions about Qatar's suitability as a destination for freed militants and its ability to impose conditions or restrictions on their movements and activities, the U.S. officials said.

(Additional reporting by Amena Bakr in Doha; Editing by Jason Szep and Grant McCool)

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