Five top Taliban leaders held by the U.S. in the Guantánamo Bay military prison told a visiting Afghan delegation they agree to a proposed transfer to the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, opening the door for a possible move aimed at bringing the Taliban into peace talks, Afghan officials said Saturday.
The U.S. is considering transferring the five from the prison in Cuba to a presumably less restrictive custody in Qatar as an incentive for the Taliban to enter negotiations - though Washington has not yet outright agreed to the step, and some in Congress oppose it.
Talks with the Taliban are seen as key to bringing some level of calm to Afghanistan, allowing American troops to come home without the country descending into further chaos. But months of efforts to cobble together talks have failed.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai initially opposed sending the prisoners to Qatar instead of home to Afghanistan. But his government sent a delegation to Guantánamo Bay this past week to visit the prisoners, a possible sign of Karzai's consent to the arrangement.
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The five prisoners agreed to the transfer as long as they would be reunited with their families in Qatar, said two senior Afghan officials.
A former U.S. official familiar with the negotiations over the prisoners confirmed the Afghan delegation's visit.
All three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The delegation could not have visited the prison without U.S. approval, but a spokeswoman for the White House national security council declined to comment.
The prisoners proposed for transfer include some of the detainees brought to Guantánamo during the initial days and weeks of the U.S. invasion that toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001. At least one has been accused in the massacre of thousands of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan, according to U.S. and other assessments, but none are accused of directly killing Americans.
The Obama administration does not want to send the prisoners to Afghanistan, in part for fear they might be released. The men are considered "enemy combatants" who were, at least until recently, considered too dangerous to release.
They would likely be held in Qatar under conditions that are less secure and less restrictive than at Guantánamo.
Afghan officials said previously that they discussed with the U.S. a plan to give Afghanistan a form of legal custody over the men if they are released as a way to satisfy their earlier objection to sending the prisoners to a third country. It's unclear whether that plan came under discussion during the recent visit or if anything was finalized.
Several members of Congress oppose any release, and lawmakers have erected several legal hurdles that military and other officials acknowledge would slow and complicate the process.
Several GOP lawmakers who object to the transfer have pushed the White House to keep the detainees in Guantánamo "until the end of hostilities," a U.S. official with knowledge of the negotiations said earlier this year. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss conversations with the White House.
Of particular concern is Mullah Norullah Nori, described in U.S. military documents as one of the most significant former Taliban officials held at Guantanamo. He was a senior Taliban commander in Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban fought U.S. forces in late 2001. He previously was a Taliban governor in two provinces Northern Afghanistan, where he has been accused of ordering the massacre of thousands of Shiite Muslims.
The U.S. is increasingly focused on jump-starting peace negotiations with the Taliban, especially because the country is scheduled to bring most of its combat troops home from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The Taliban have agreed to set up a political office in Qatar to facilitate negotiations. But the peace process has been shrouded in rumor and uncertainty, and it's unclear how much urgency the militants feel to strike a deal given that foreign troops are on their way out.