Taliban release of Colin Rutherford could be linked to peace talks

The Taliban says it released Canadian Colin Rutherford because of their "sublime Islamic ethics," but Middle East experts suggest Rutherford is being used by the hardline group to curry favour with Western powers.

Toronto man set free the same day Afghan peace talks began in Islamabad

Colin Rutherford, left, a Toronto-born student who travelled to Afghanistan as a tourist, has been released by the Taliban after five years in captivity. Mideast experts say the timing of his release might be tied to Afghan peace talks. (YouTube/Reuters)

Colin Rutherford is walking free after more than five harrowing years in Taliban captivity, but the circumstances around his release are cloaked in secrecy.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion — and officials at Global Affairs Canada — will only say Rutherford has been released to authorities in Afghanistan, and that the small Gulf state of Qatar had a role in the mediation.

But why would the Taliban, which Canadian soldiers fought against in bloody battles, now release the Toronto-born history student it once labelled a spy?

The Taliban themselves have chalked it up to their "humanitarian sympathy" and "sublime Islamic ethics."

An English statement from the group, released to reporters on Tuesday, said the move came at the behest of and "in accordance with the instructions of the leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, [Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour]."

But Middle East experts say it's likely not the Taliban's sympathy or ethics that led to Rutherford's release.

Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs says Rutherford, seen in this undated photo posted on his Facebook page, was travelling through Afghanistan as a tourist when he was captured by the Taliban in 2010. (Facebook)

Some countries pay hefty sums in exchange for the release of their citizens. Others like Canada and the U.S. refuse to exchange money for prisoners, but rely on intermediaries like Qatar, which has relations with elements operating in the region, to work through back channels.

Timing of release is 'suspect'

One expert said the timing of Rutherford's release on Monday, the same day that Afghan peace talks began in Islamabad, is likely more than a coincidence.

"It seems a little suspect, in terms of the timing, to put it charitably," Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College and Queen's University in Kingston, said in an interview with CBC News. "When they've held someone for five years, why release them now?

"It comes at a time when the Qataris are trying to get the Afghan peace process back on the road, and this could be an olive branch."

The Taliban have so far been excluded from nascent peace talks. The four participants — Afghanistan, the U.S., Pakistan and China — are hoping to bring a "permanent peace" to the country after more than 14 years of bloodshed. But without one of the main aggressors at the table, the talks are stuck in neutral.

The Taliban's release of Rutherford, and other hostages such U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl (who faces a court martial in the United States for desertion and is the subject of an investigation by the Serial podcast), could be seen as an attempt to curry favour with Western powers and secure a seat at talks to decide the fate of the country they've long tried to control, Leuprecht said.

Qatar, a small Gulf state of just two million people, was involved in negotiating the release of U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, pictured above. (U.S. Army/Associated Press)

"[The release of Rutherford] is a tacit way for the Afghan Taliban to signal that 'We're not just the bad guys anymore. We might have taken him hostage, but we didn't execute him, we didn't mistreat him.' It's a way of signalling to the world community that, look, 'Maybe you should be talking to us.'"

The Taliban's reference to "Islamic ethics" and the fact they acted differently from ISIS or al-Qaeda in sparing Rutherford's life could be an attempt to distinguish themselves from other Islamist groups. 

"It's their way of saying, 'We are not the Islamic State, we are not Daesh. We are not cruel killers and we are not scum bags.' And they might be concerned that all these groups — ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban — are all being thrown into the same lot," Leuprecht said.

Qatar a powerbroker

Rutherford's release from captivity likely depended in large part on the prowess of Qatar, a country of just two million people on the Arabian Peninsula, and its ability to negotiate with radical groups in the region, Leuprecht said.

It has also carved out a niche for itself as a key player in the Afghan peace talks. 

The country, a regional economic powerhouse awash with natural gas, has a vested interest in securing relative peace and stability in Afghanistan, a country not far from its own border.

And its efforts to help secure Rutherford's release are a way of telling the West that it can't be ignored as a key player in the region.

"It's their way of saying, 'We can work with the Afghan Taliban,' and 'We're a power broker,'" Leuprecht said.

Qatar has been instrumental in bringing together Afghan and Taliban officials in the past for meetings in Doha, the country's capital.

Qatar's Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, centre, has tried to position his country as a key player in the Mideast by maintaining relations with groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and some elements of the Islamic State. (Naseem Zeitoon/Reuters)

The two sides have been loath to call them peace talks, branding them as "research conferences" or "scientific discussions." And yet the Taliban have gone so far as to open an office, a consulate of sorts, in Qatar, to serve as a launch pad for these discussions.

"Qatar has always taken the approach that somebody somewhere has to talk to [the Taliban] and it allows them to mediate prisoner releases like this one," said Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and a former Middle East analyst for the Canadian Forces.

"It talks to everyone. It talks to Hamas, to Iran, to the Taliban. It has relationships with a whole bunch of actors.… this has annoyed Qatar's main partners, namely Saudi Arabia and the U.S., but often they find it annoyingly convenient," Juneau said.

Qatar's involvement in securing Rutherford's release could also be interpreted as a sign that the country wants to bolster its relations with Canada.

"I think it's the Qataris reaching out," Leuprecht said. "The Qataris want to be a regional player and they want to be a global power, and they know, for instance, that Canada inherently plays an important role when it comes to these military coalitions."


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.