As Taliban member Hafizdullah navigated the narrow, ancient streets of the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif last week – driving my photographer Jake Simkin and I to a foreign consulate to maneuver our way out of the fallen country – one of his first comments was a nonchalant reference to the time he spent as a prisoner at the notorious Bagram Air Base.
“Nine years there,” he said breezily as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
Former prisoners like Hafizdullah have become a more common presence in the country, aiding a robust and emboldened Taliban and contributing to the group’s dizzyingly fast takeover of Afghanistan.
The reentry of thousands of Taliban prisoners has intensified since US forces abandoned the eponymous base in July and handed it back to the government, which then fled the Taliban onslaught with few shots fired.
Disgruntled Afghans point to a prisoner release deal inked between the US and the Taliban in February 2020 as a key contributor in the group’s rise to victory. The agreement mandated that the Afghan government – which was not directly party to the “peace” talks – free up to 5,000 Taliban fighters in government prisons before March 10 of last year.
The US side vowed that it was “committed to start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners.” The olive branch was heralded as a “confidence-building measure” of which the Taliban was expected to let 1000 Afghans out of the jails that it controlled at the time.
Before being let loose, the Taliban prisoners are said to have signed pledges not to participate in combat against the government, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) spokesperson said at the time.
Yet, such pieces of paper did little to stop the flood back to the battlefield.
According to one high-ranking National Directorate of Security (NDS) official I met within Kabul’s Presidential Palace four days before the capital crumbled earlier this month, more than eighty percent of the freed Taliban commenced either combat or planning operations with the group.
Two days before the Kabul fall, another well-placed Afghan military leader told me that the figure was even higher – closer to almost all, except those too old to fight. Yet, they are believed to have taken on other jobs within the structure.
“This had a really bad impact on us. We lost our brothers and friends to arrest them, only to be told that the government had to release them,” he noted. “So many came back to fight us again, and in a number of the ones we killed, we found their jail papers on them with the identification.”
Moreover, one of the most prolific Taliban fighters and leaders – Mawlawi Talib – was freed as part of the infamous 2020 prison exodus. Talib, previously Helmand’s “shadow governor,” was arrested by Afghan security forces at a checkpoint in 2020 but allowed back on the streets within months, an NDS official said. In August, he masterminded a horrific attack on Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand province.
Another prominent Afghan political and media figure who was in hiding while awaiting the opportunity to cut through the frenzied crowd and make it inside Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) told me Tuesday that one of the first points of protocol whenever it captures a city or town is to free its members.
“But they are only releasing Taliban prisoners and people who belonged to allied groups,” the source explained, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “But groups that are against the Taliban, like ISIS, are not being freed.”
Indeed, the role of inmates has played a central role in the Taliban of 2021. For one, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar – who led the Doha negotiations with Washington and is poised to take the Islamic Emirate’s top job – was also behind bars in neighboring Pakistan. However, Baradar was let go in October 2018, reportedly at the request of the US as something of an olive branch in the first installment of flagging peace talks.
The political leader commanded the Taliban in Afghanistan’s north in the aftermath of September 11, escaping when the region was overtaken by US-affiliated Northern Alliance fighters and the Taliban government collapsed. He was then arrested in early 2010 by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Karachi, spending more than eight years in confinement.
Furthermore, the high-ranking “Taliban Five” – the Guantanamo Bay inmates controversially exchanged by President Obama in 2014 for US Army absconder Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl ultimately ended up back inside the top Taliban echelon, leading the Doha talks.
On Aug. 15, the same day just over a week ago that President Ashraf Ghani fled the beleaguered capital and the Taliban swept through the city to declare its control, the group also seized Bagram airfield, which is poised on Kabul’s periphery.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid abruptly announced on Twitter that the outfit had also captured “the most important prison at Bagram,” releasing thousands of the most hardline and vehement fighters, which is poised to bolster the already fast-strengthening Taliban.
The maximum security-held Bagram convicts, held in Pul-e-Charkhi, were known to be some of the most brutal – and seasoned – fighters of all. Estimates indicate that upwards of 7,000 such Taliban members are now back in their foray to freedom.
“That’s a lot of their best fighters back,” another soldier, also in hiding and already a marked target by Taliban operatives, added with a sigh. “It’s going to have a big impact on the Afghan people left behind.”