Obama administration considers turning Taliban detainees over to Afghanistan

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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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo 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 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, Guantanamo 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 Pentagon news conference Friday, but he said discussions  continue to try to promote a peace deal.

“There are no specific commitments that have been made with regard to  prisoner exchanges at this point,” he said. “One thing I will assure you is that  any prisoner exchanges that I have to certify are going to abide by the law and  require that those individuals do not return back into the battle.”

Any such transfer is unlikely to include the five most senior Taliban figures  held at Guantanamo, 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 Persian 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.

Afghans involved in the discussions were still angling to get all 17  prisoners, including the five most senior men, released or transferred. The  Taliban has demanded release of all the Guantanamo detainees as a condition for  talks.

The Taliban abandoned direct talks in March, accusing the U.S. of reneging on  several promises. The United States considers the talks suspended, not dead. The  U.S. and the Afghan government are pursuing several new avenues to restart  talks, including the use of proxy emissaries to the Taliban, diplomats said.

Karzai has long sought the return of all 17 Afghans imprisoned at Guantanamo,  men he sometimes calls brothers, as a point of national pride. He has argued  that their imprisonment at the detested Guantanamo prison undermines his  credibility as a national leader, and that Afghanistan’s own institutions should  deal with captured insurgents.

The U.S. has said publicly that, in regards to the five senior Taliban, they  would be transferred to another country’s control, not released. But terms for  the proposed transfer to Qatar were fairly loose. Officials briefed on the  discussions said the men would have to agree not to return to fighting, forswear  any ties to al-Qaida, and submit to a ban on their travel. Beyond that it was  not clear how closely they would be controlled by the Qatar government.

The Taliban would have been asked to release Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only  U.S. prisoner of war from the Afghan conflict.

Qatar recently sent a letter to U.S. officials with proposals to rekindle  talks, a U.S. official said, but it was not clear whether the new proposal for  transfer to Afghanistan was among them.

The latest Bagram proposal would appeal to the Taliban, Qasemyar said.

“The High Peace Council could use that opportunity as a goodwill gesture,” he  said in an interview.

Qasemyar said that the proposal may have benefits for the U.S. beyond  boosting his organization’s bargaining power with the Taliban.

“What I gathered from what I heard in Washington is the U.S. government was  afraid that if they released a prisoner and he went back to fighting,” the Obama  administration “would lose faith before the Congress or before the people of the  United States,” he said.

A way around that concern, Qasemyar said, is “to send them to the Afghan  government. Then that responsibility would be shifted to our side.”

Karzai supports the new proposal, Qasemyar said, despite some concern in the  Afghan government that the five could become a rallying point for ethnic tension  in Afghanistan.

Mullah Norullah Nori, for example, could be a problem for Karzai. 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 in Northern  Afghanistan, where he has been accused of ordering the massacre of thousands of  Shiite Muslims.

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