WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration, in a move aimed at reviving Afghan peace talks, has sweetened a proposed deal under which it would transfer Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay prison in exchange for a U.S. soldier held by Taliban allies in Pakistan.
The revised proposal, a concession from an earlier U.S. offer, would alter the sequence of the move of five senior Taliban figures held for years at the U.S. military prison to the Gulf state of Qatar, sources familiar with the issue said.
U.S. officials have hoped the prisoner exchange, proposed as a good-faith move in initial discussions between U.S. negotiators and Taliban officials, would open the door to peace talks between militants and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The revised proposal would send all five Taliban prisoners to Qatar first, said sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. Only then would the Taliban be required to release Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. prisoner of war.
Previously, U.S. officials had proposed dividing the Taliban prisoners into two groups, and requiring Bergdahl’s release as a good-faith gesture to come before the second group of prisoners would be moved out of Guantanamo.
Bergdahl, now 26 years old, disappeared from his base in southern Afghanistan in June 2009 and is believed to be being held by Taliban militants in north-western Pakistan.
The White House and the Bergdahl family declined to comment on the revised proposal for a deal.
The altered transfer plans were discussed with Qatari officials during a visit in mid-June by Marc Grossman, U.S. President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the sources said. It was unclear if the altered proposal had been put forward before those discussions.
Qatar, which is hosting a number of Taliban officials, has played a key role in almost two years of initial, secret discussions between U.S. officials and representatives of the shadowy militant group, which remains a formidable enemy in Afghanistan even as U.S. and NATO troops begin to withdraw.
As part of a process the Obama administration hoped would lead to substantive talks on Afghanistan’s future, the Taliban’s leadership had planned to formally open a political office in Doha. But the Taliban announced in March it would withdraw from the talks, citing what it said were inconsistencies in the U.S. negotiating position.
U.S. officials are now cautiously seeking to prepare the ground for a resumption in talks. But any negotiations involving the Taliban, even preliminary ones, could pose a political risk for Obama months before the U.S. presidential election.
The proposed prisoner transfer was first reported in December by Reuters.
The Taliban detainees are seen as among the most dangerous remaining at Guantanamo, and the transfer idea drew strong opposition on Capitol Hill even before it was formally proposed.
Many lawmakers fretted that transferred detainees would reappear on the battlefield, and objected to the possible release of prisoners blamed for bloody crimes in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials stress that the transfer, if it occurs, will be done in accordance with U.S. law, which requires Congress to be notified before any detainees are moved from Guantanamo.
The transfer of the prisoners has long been seen as a necessary evil by U.S. negotiators in their effort to coax the Taliban into talks.
The militant group has long demanded their release, but the Pentagon, which handles detainee transfers, is particularly skeptical of a move officials there fear might not only fail to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table but also lead to the department being blamed for moving dangerous militants out of prison.
According to a report released early this year from the House Armed Services Committee, more than one in four of the 600 former detainees moved from Guantanamo to countries like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen were confirmed or suspected to subsequently be engaged in ‘terrorist activities.
Democrats accused the committee’s majority Republicans of fear-mongering when they released that report.
Of the five senior Taliban figures, many officials and lawmakers are particularly nervous about transferring Mullah Mohammed Fazl, a “high-risk detainee” who was in the first group sent to Guantanamo in early 2002, under what could be only loose security and travel restrictions.
A former Taliban deputy minister of defence, Fazl is alleged to be responsible for the massacre of thousands of minority Shi‘ites.
The group also includes Noorullah Noori, a former top military commander; former deputy intelligence minister Abdul Haq Wasiq; and Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former interior minister.
The identity of the fifth detainee remains unclear.
While a debate continues to rage within the U.S. administration about the wisdom of peace talks with the Taliban, Afghanistan experts see few other options for achieving even a modicum of stability in a region plagued by civil conflict for decades.
The Taliban may have been weakened by Obama’s 2009-2010 troop surge into Afghanistan, but it remains a potent enemy as the foreign force grows smaller. It is also deeply mistrustful of U.S. overtures and has appeared this year to grapple with its own divisions.
In early 2012, Western officials say, the Taliban’s reclusive leaders struggled to contain a backlash from mid-level militants who opposed talking to the West. While they appear to have mostly succeeded in containing that response, even a start to real peace talks could still be years away.
Even so, analysts say there are signs that the Taliban leadership, based in Pakistan, may now be more open to a negotiated settlement, and these have included the appearance of a senior Taliban figure at a recent conference in Japan.
“The Taliban doesn’t want a vacuum in Afghanistan or a civil war with the North they know they can’t win,” said Ahmed Rashid, a prominent Pakistani author and expert on the Taliban, referring to powerful northern warlords who battled the Taliban in the 1990s and continue to wield power in Afghanistan.
“The elements that have been dealing with the U.S. government basically want a deal.”
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Warren Strobel and David Brunnstrom