- - Monday, August 4, 2014

In a pointed assessment, an Army colonel advising the National Security Council says one of the Taliban prisoners released in the Obama administration’s deal to free Army Sgt. Bowe Berghdal is a “psychopath” who poses a “danger to fellow Afghans.”

Army Col. Mark Mitchell, director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, is a Green Beret who helped capture Mullah Mohammad Fazl in the early days of the war in Afghanistan.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Col. Mitchell offered a frank description of Fazl, calling him “a petty tyrant who justified his psychopathic behavior using a veneer of religion” who lost his stature and influence after his 2001 capture.

“Stripped of his power and authority, he was pathetic and contemptible. I have no doubt that he remains a psychopath, and he’s probably a danger to fellow Afghans,” he said.

But Col. Mitchell downplayed the likely impact of Fazl and the other Taliban leaders returning to Afghanistan, noting that they “have been off the battlefield for 12 years. In that time, Afghanistan has changed, the Taliban has changed and other leaders have risen through the ranks while he’s been enjoying a comfortable, if highly structured, life at Guantanamo Bay.

“So, it won’t be as simple as simply walking back through the door and picking up where he left off,” the colonel said. “There’s lots of Afghans, probably even a few Talibs, that have no desire to see him back in Afghanistan, much less in any kind of position of authority.”


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The Obama administration released Fazl and four other Taliban commanders May 31 from the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl, who had been a Taliban prisoner since 2009. The Taliban leaders were taken to the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, where they are to remain under supervision for one year.

Among the seven special operations troops who captured Fazl in 2001 and were interviewed for this report, Col. Mitchell was alone in expressing confidence that the released Taliban leaders would not return to the battlefield before their supervision ends. They also noted Fazl’s history of double-crossing and breaking deals with his enemies.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Max Bowers called Fazl “one of the hardest-looking people I had ever seen in my life.” Col. Bowers was the ground commander of the three special operations teams who secretly rode on horseback in northern Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to root out the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Said Paul Beck, a retired Special Forces communications specialist: “He was a war minister for the northern area of Afghanistan. He was in the top 10 bad guys over there. At the time, I thought, ‘He’s a very knowledgeable man, and we’d better watch out.’”

Mr. Beck and others noted a pivotal moment in 2001 during what was supposed to be Fazl’s surrender negotiations with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord in Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, which opposed the Taliban and was being advised by U.S. Special Forces. (Gen. Dostum is now a vice presidential candidate in Afghanistan.)

Fazl was to become the general’s “guest” in the city of Kunduz on the strict terms that he would physically lay down his arms to Gen. Dostum that night.

Two days earlier, hundreds of Fazl’s militants abruptly surrendered after skirmishing with U.S. and Northern Alliance forces.

“Six hundred Taliban troops coming up from Kunduz. We were on that hilltop, and we didn’t know what they were really going to do. Surrender?” said Air Force Capt. Mike Sciortino, then a special operations combat controller. “I was on the radios with two B-52s doing halo circles overhead as a show of force, fully loaded and ready to expend some ordnance if anything turned bad with Fazl’s Taliban coming up the hill.”

Fazl’s healthy fighters had been taken to a nearby fortress called Qala-Jangi for questioning by U.S. intelligence agents, including CIA agent Mike Spann.

“There was a bit of hubris on the part of Dostum and the Afghan tradition of parole and countersign. It was a bit loosely run,” Col. Bowers said of Fazl’s surrender negotiations.

“Fazl had given his word with that handshake to Gen. Dostum. It was a ruse,” said former Green Beret sniper/medic Joe Jung. “Fazl’s intended purpose for these negotiations was not to give up, but to find out our location on and around this hill site. He was going to try to overrun us.”

When Fazl did not surrender to Gen. Dostum, the battle for the Taliban stronghold of Kunduz ensued. At the same time, Fazl’s fighters, who had surrendered, rose up and took the Qala-Jangi fortress.

“I believe that the uprising which transpired at Qala-Jangi was all part of a broader, very rudimentary but effective strategy,” Col. Bowers said.

Chris Spence, a former Special Forces communications specialist, said Fazl “had orchestrated the uprising.”

“He had sent some fighters forward to surrender. In this ruse, while being detained at Qala-Jangi, the Taliban fighters attacked and killed CIA member Michael Spann,” Mr. Spence said.

Spann was the first American killed in action in Afghanistan.

After quelling the uprising, the Special Forces teams persuaded Gen. Dostum to turn over Fazl.

“I told my son, ‘I helped capture that guy,’” Mr. Spence said. “Now that I know Muhammad Fazl is free to return to his previous life as a terrorist, I think about all the Americans and Afghan soldiers who either died or were wounded putting these terrorists where they belong.”

Col. Mitchell of the National Security Council dismissed concerns of Fazl and the others returning to Afghanistan soon.

“I don’t think there’s going to be much likelihood that they’re going to get back into Afghanistan anytime before that year’s up,” he said. “I think the Qataris are more than capable of keeping an eye on these guys and upholding their end of the bargain.”

A senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the administration “wouldn’t have done the exchange without sufficient risk mitigation, as required under the law.

“Our discussions with and the assurances of the emir gave sufficient risk mitigation, that the government of Qatar will be able to monitor the detainees for the next year,” the official said.

Asked what happens after the one-year supervision ends, the official said: “A year from now, Afghanistan will be a very different place, with a very different security apparatus in place.”

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