Travel Ban Lifts Soon on Taliban Leaders Swapped for Bowe Bergdahl

by Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube /  / Updated 

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Ahead of the expiration of a one-year travel ban for the five senior Taliban leaders exchanged for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release, U.S. government officials are working with Qatar to keep the members of the terrorist group under some form of government control, monitoring or travel ban.

Unless an agreement is struck with Qatar, where that government has been monitoring the Taliban leaders’ activities and preventing them from traveling out of the country, the five high ranking members of the terrorist organization could leave the tiny nation on the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of next month.

According to the officials, under one option the five detainees would remain in Qatar where their travel ban would be extended and they remain under government monitoring. Another option is having them returned to Afghanistan where the Afghan government would have the option to imprison them, or enforce their own travel ban and monitoring or release them.

A third option, which US officials consider the most unlikely, would be the five members of the terrorist group would be entirely set free to travel when their one-year travel ban and monitoring expires June 1st.

U.S. officials appear confident that will not happen.

“They will not be traveling to New York anytime soon,” one military official tells NBC News.

Still, members of Congress privy to the details of a secret memorandum of understanding the U.S. reached with Qatar that put the five under a 12-month watch following their release are worried.

"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," Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence committee told the Associated Press. "My point all along was that I'm more worried about month No. 13 than the first 12."

The five Taliban leaders had previously been held in U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until they were released in exchange for Bergdahl. While the five detainees were sent to Qatar, 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.

NBC News first reported in January that Bergdahl was likely to be charged with desertion. The Army also had the option of filing the lesser charge of going absent without leave, or AWOL.

The five prisoners released include former Taliban deputy minister of defense and Taliban Army chief Mohammad Fazl, senior commander Mullah Norullah Noori, senior Taliban official Mohammed Nabi, military commander Khairullah Khairkhwa and the Taliban's deputy intelligence chief Abdul Haq Wasiq.

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, according to the Associated Press: "I know that at least one has had communication with the Taliban."

And 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 told the Associated Press that he 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.

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 and have asked the Obama administration to try to persuade Qatar to extend the monitoring.

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.

— The Associated Press contributed.

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