Center for Strategic Communication

A senior Taliban leader whose father was closely tied to Osama bin Laden, and who supposedly has been in Pakistani custody since 2009, was among several Taliban leaders said to have been recently “freed” by the Pakistani government. The Taliban leader, Anwar ul Haq Mujahid, was spotted in early 2011 giving a eulogy in Afghanistan for a Guantanamo Bay detainee who had died of natural causes.

Mujahid’s family confirmed that he was released from Pakistani custody two days ago, according to AFP.

Mujahid clearly has not been in a strict form of custody or held in a prison in Pakistan, however. In February 2011, Mujahid spoke at the Afghan funeral of Awal Gul, who was detained by US forces in 2002 and died at Guantanamo Bay on Feb. 1, 2011. Gul was a Taliban commander in Nangarhar province who had allegedly been entrusted by Osama bin Laden with $100,000 to aid al Qaeda operatives fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan in late 2001 [see LWJ report, Former Taliban commander dies at Gitmo].

Gul’s funeral was held in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan [see LWJ report, Tora Bora Military Front commander speaks at funeral of former Gitmo detainee]. Thousands of people were said to be in attendance, “many chanting anti-American slogans and vowing revenge for what they said was his murder,” The New York Times reported. The Taliban released an official statement noting Gul’s death, and said he was “a courageous martyr and that the retribution for the martyrdom of Mulaim Awal Gul must be sought.”

Mujahid is one of several Taliban commanders and fighters supposedly freed by Pakistan. Others include “former Taliban justice minister Mullah Nooruddin Toorabi, Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s former secretary Mullah Jahangirwal, former deputy minister of communications Allahdat Tayab, former governor of Baghlan Abdul Salaam, former Kunduz governor Maulawi Mohammad, and two former government officials Haji Kotob and Maulawi Matiullah,” according to TOLONews.

The Express Tribune reported that the Taliban leaders can travel wherever they like and have not been transferred to the Afghan government.

“Sources privy to the reconciliation process said that the freed militants will not be handed over to the Afghan government in accordance to the agreement between the Pakistani and Afghan peace mediators,” according to the The Express Tribune. “Both countries have agreed in principle that there will be no restrictions on the freed Taliban leaders and they can rejoin families either in Pakistan or go to Afghanistan or any other country under the ‘safe passage’ mechanism.”

US military and intelligence officials who follow the Taliban and Pakistan and who were contacted by The Long War Journal do not think the Taliban commanders ever were in restrictive custody, but believe instead they were in a form of “protective custody.”

“The idea that the Pakistanis have arrested top Taliban leaders is a farce,” one official said. “The ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate] places leaders into protective custody when they are in danger of being targeted, or when they take positions that may conflict with what the ISI wants to happen, such as flirtations with negotiations. Sometimes they are ‘detained’ when they need medical treatment.”

“This agreement allows the Taliban to get key commanders back on the battlefield without fear of being targeted,” another US official told The Long War Journal. “ISAF will be in a quandary with the Afghan government if it kills or captures Mujahid or Toorabi after they’ve been granted safe passage.”

Background on Mujahid

Mujahid is the commander of the Tora Bora Military Front, a Taliban subgroup based in Nangarhar province that has been behind numerous attacks on Afghan and Coalition forces, as well as civilians [see LWJ report, Tora Bora Front leader captured in Peshawar, from 2009].

He is the son of Maulvi Mohammed Yunis Khalis, a senior mujahideen leader based in the eastern province of Nangarhar who was famous for battling the Soviet Union during the occupation from 1979-1989. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the leader of the deadly Haqqani Network, served as a commander under Khalis.

Yunis Khalis was also instrumental in welcoming Osama bin Laden into Afghanistan after he was ejected from the Sudan in 1996. Haji Abdul Qadir, one of Khalis’ top three military commanders, was closely involved in facilitating bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan. Several years later, Khalis helped bin Laden again, laying the groundwork for his escape from Afghanistan through the Tora Bora Mountains in the battle of December 2001.

After rejoining the Taliban to battle the US, Khalis went into hiding. He died in July 2006 and was succeeded by his son, Mujahid, who also took control of the Hizb-i-Islami Khalis, a faction of the fractious Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan political party. Coalition special operations forces targeted Hizb-i-Islami Khalis leaders in Nangarhar at least two times in 2011.

Mujahid established the Tora Bora Military Front, which he later publicized in February 2007 after his spokesman made an announcement. The group, which operates primarily in Nangarhar province, is responsible for several deadly attacks, including the April 2008 suicide strike and ambush against a drug eradication team operating in the district of Khogiani.

In that attack, 19 Afghans, including 12 anti-drug policemen and seven civilians, were killed and 41 more were wounded after a suicide bomber detonated his vest and a Taliban assault team opened fire in the aftermath of the explosion.

The Tora Bora Military Front was also behind the complex ambush in March 2007 that targeted a US Marine Special Forces unit outside Jalalabad. A suicide bomber targeted the convoy, and then the Marines returned fire. The Marines reportedly killed several civilians in the ensuing fire. The incident prompted the US command to withdraw the Marine unit from the theater.

Nangarhar is a strategic province for both the Taliban and the Coalition. The province borders the Pakistani tribal agency of Khyber, where the Lashkar-e-Islam and the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan are active. The majority of NATO’s supplies pass through Khyber and Nangarhar before reaching Kabul and points beyond.