WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is considering a new gambit to restart peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan that would send several Taliban detainees from the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to a prison in Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan officials told The Associated Press.
Under the proposal, some Taliban fighters or affiliates captured in the early days of the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and later sent to Guantánamo under the label of enemy combatants would be transferred out of full U.S. control but not released. It’s a leap of faith on the U.S. side that the men will not become threats to U.S. forces once back on Afghan soil. But it is meant to show more moderate elements of the Taliban insurgency that the U.S. is still interested in cutting a deal for peace.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others have said that while negotiations with the Taliban are distasteful, they are the best way to settle the prolonged war.
The new compromise is intended to boost the credibility of the U.S.-backed Afghan government. President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials are trying to draw the Taliban back to negotiations toward a peace deal between the national Afghan government and the Pashtun-based insurgency that would end a war U.S. commanders have said cannot be won with military power alone.
The Taliban have always been indifferent at best to negotiations with the Karzai government, saying the U.S. holds effective control in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has set a 2014 deadline to withdraw forces, and is trying to frame talks among the Afghans beforehand.
Under the new proposal, Guantánamo prisoners would go to a detention facility adjacent to Bagram air field, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, officials of both governments said. The prison is inside the security perimeter established by the U.S. military, and is effectively under U.S. control for now. It is scheduled for transfer to full Afghan control in September.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would have to sign off on the transfer and certify that the men did not pose a danger. He would not confirm details of the new proposal at a news conference Friday, but said discussions continue to try to promote a peace deal.
“Any prisoner exchanges I have to certify are going to abide by the law,” Panetta said.
Any such transfer is unlikely to include the five most senior Taliban figures held at Guantánamo, the subjects of separate negotiations with the Taliban that have stalled, a senior U.S. official said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the transfer is still under discussion and no offer has been made.
Afghan officials and other diplomats said it is not yet clear whether the new proposal could include those five, but said it has not been ruled out. Republicans in Congress bitterly opposed the plan to send those men to house arrest in Qatar, a Gulf nation that has emerged as a key broker with the Muslim Taliban. The opponents feared the men would be set free and endanger the U.S.
The latest proposal was a topic of recent discussions in Washington with members of Karzai’s peace committee, a group of elders charged with reaching out to the Taliban on the government’s behalf.
“The possibility is strong,” for a transfer to Afghanistan that includes the five top figures, said Ismail Qasemyar, international relations adviser for the Afghan High Peace Council.