Washington: U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged Tuesday that the United States may release several Afghan Taliban prisoners from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as an incentive to bring the Taliban to peace talks.
Meanwhile, Afghan officials told The Associated Press that a plan to give Afghanistan a form of legal custody over the men if they are released satisfied their earlier objection to sending the prisoners to a third country.
Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper told Congress Tuesday that no decision had been made on whether to trade the five Taliban prisoners, now held at Guantanamo Bay as part of nascent peace talks with the Taliban. He and CIA Director David Petraeus did not dispute that the Obama administration is considering transferring the five to a third country.
U.S. officials and others had previously spoken only vaguely, and usually anonymously, about the proposal to send the prisoners to Qatar, a Persian Gulf country that has asserted a central role in framing talks that might end the 10-year war in Afghanistan. The lead U.S. negotiator trying to coax the Taliban into talks had also publicly acknowledged the possibility of a release, but said there was no final decision.
The prisoners proposed for transfer include some of the detainees brought to Guantanamo 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.
"I don`t think anybody harbors any illusions about it, but I think the position is to at least explore the potential for negotiating with them as a part of this overall resolution of the situation in Afghanistan," Clapper said during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
The Obama administration has recently embraced the possibility of negotiation with the Taliban much more openly, saying that although they remain cautious they are also encouraged that the militants may be ready to bargain. Peace talks, if they come to pass, would include the elected Afghan government and, at least at the outset, representatives of the U.S. government. With nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and a war and development budget in the billions of dollars, the U.S. remains the largest power broker in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai supports a prisoner release as a means to build confidence among the Taliban militants that talks are worthwhile, but he had balked at the U.S.-backed plan to send them to Qatar instead of home to Afghanistan. That plan appeared to undercut his authority and offend Afghan sovereignty, Afghan officials said. Karzai yanked his ambassador from Qatar, saying Qatar had not kept him properly informed.
But recent discussions between Karzai and U.S. negotiators found a way around the Afghan objections, a senior Afghan diplomat and another official said. Speaking on condition of anonymity because the arrangement is still under discussion, the officials said Afghanistan could assume a sort of legal custody over the prisoners and then, with the prisoners` own consent, agree to consign them to house arrest in Qatar.