WASHINGTON - 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 Rodham 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 Army 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.