The United States has agreed in principle to release high-ranking Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay in Cuba in return for the Afghan insurgents’ agreement to open a political office for peace negotiations.
According to sources familiar with the talks in the US and 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 is demanding the release of 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 this week’s announcement from the Taliban that it is prepared to open a political office in Qatar to conduct peace negotiations “with the international community” — the most significant political breakthrough in 10 years of the Afghan conflict.
The Taliban is 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 is going to reciprocate,” said Vali Nasr, who was an adviser on the Afghan peace process until last year. “It is going to be really risky. Guantánamo is a very sensitive issue politically.”
Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Massachusetts, said the Taliban announcement on the opening of an office in Qatar was a dramatic breakthrough. “If it had not happened, the idea of reconciliation would have been finished. The Qatar office is akin to the Taliban forming a political wing to conduct negotiations. The next phase will need concessions on both sides. This doesn’t mean we are now on autopilot to peace.”
Michael Semple, a former European Union envoy in Afghanistan who has maintained contact with senior Taliban figures, agreed that the deal represented a critical moment. “This is at last a real process. There is a long list of things we don’t have and there has been no progress on substantive issues, but now there is a certain amount of momentum.”
Semple said it was clear that the top Taliban council, including its reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was on board. In return, he thought the release of a few prisoners from Guantánamo Bay was politically feasible for the Obama administration, even in an election year.
Prospect of ending war
“The prospect of ending a costly war in Afghanistan is sufficiently attractive for the Obama administration to move forward with it,” Semple said. “Even if all five of these people they release went straight back to Quetta [the Taliban stronghold in Pakistan] to rejoin a fight, it wouldn’t make any real difference.”
The Taliban’s announcement was made by email by a spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid. “Right now, having a strong presence in Afghanistan, we still want to have a political office for negotiations. In this regard we have started preliminary talks and we have reached a preliminary understanding with relevant sides, including the government of Qatar, to have a political office for negotiations with the international community.”
The announcement was strongly endorsed by former officials who served under the Taliban regime in the 1990s. “Everyone now agrees on the need for an office: the government, the foreigners and the Taliban,” said Mohammed Qalamuddin, one-time head of the Taliban regime’s “vice and virtue” police. “Now is the time to talk face to face with the Taliban and ask them what they want and why they are fighting.”
Qalamuddin said a number of leading Taliban members took part in the secret talks that led to agreement with Qatar, including the former Taliban ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Shahabuddin Dilawar, former deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammad Stanekzai and Tayeb Agha, a top aide to Omar.
“The important thing is that all these men are operating with the approval of Mullah Omar,” he said. It is not clear when the office will open, and there is also likely to be disagreement on the role of the Kabul government. A senior Afghan government official said the Karzai administration had accepted the creation of a Taliban office in Qatar only after demanding assurances that any peace process be kept under the control of the Afghan government.
“If it is not led and owned by the Afghan government, it will fail,” the official said. However, the Taliban statement said the group was only interested in talking to the “United States of America and its foreign allies”, Mujahid said. —