The US has agreed in principle to release high-ranking Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay in return for the Afghan insurgents’ agreement to open a political office for peace negotiations in Qatar, the Guardian has learned.
According to sources familiar with the talks in the US and in Afghanistan, the handful of Taliban figures will include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, and Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan.
More controversially, the Taliban are demanding the release of the former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund. Washington is reported to be considering formally handing him over to the custody of another country, possibly Qatar.
The releases would be to reciprocate for Tuesday’s announcement from the Taliban that they are prepared to open a political office in Qatar to conduct peace negotiations “with the international community.”
The Taliban are holding just one American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, a 25-year-old sergeant captured in June 2009, but it is not clear whether he would be freed as part of the deal.
“To take this step, the (Obama) administration have to have sufficient confidence that the Taliban are going to reciprocate,” said Vali Nasr, who was an Obama administration adviser on the Afghan peace process until last year. “It is going to be really risky. Guantánamo is a very sensitive issue politically.”
Negotiations over the opening of a Taliban political office and the release of prisoners have been underway for more than a year in secret contacts in Germany and in the Gulf between US and Taliban officials, but have been continually held up by political obstacles on all sides.
The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, had preferred Saudi Arabia or Turkey to host the Taliban political bureau, but dropped his opposition to Qatar under heavy US pressure.
Tuesday’s announcement was made by email by a Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid.
- The Guardian