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U.S. sweetens Taliban prisoner release proposal to revive talks

WASHINGTON: The U.S. has sweetened a proposed deal to release five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for a U.S. soldier held by Taliban allies in Pakistan.

The revised proposal would alter the sequence of the move of five Taliban figures held at the U.S. military prison to Qatar, sources familiar with the issue said.

The amended deal would send the prisoners to Qatar, said anonymous sources, with the Taliban then required to release Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. prisoner of war.

Bergdahl, now 26-years-old, disappeared from his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and is believed to be held in northwestern Pakistan.

The altered transfer plans were discussed with Qatar during a June visit by Marc Grossman, U.S. President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the sources added.

Qatar has played a key role in almost two years of secret discussions between U.S. officials and representatives of the militant group.

U.S. officials are seeking a resumption of talks, but negotiations involving the Taliban could pose a political risk for Obama before the U.S. election, as the five detainees are seen as among the most dangerous at Guantanamo. The Prisoner transfer is seen as a necessary evil by U.S. negotiators in order to coax the Taliban into peace talks.

The militant group has long demanded their release, but the Pentagon is particularly skeptical of a move officials fear might 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 were subsequently confirmed or suspected of being 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.

While debate rages within the U.S. administration about the wisdom of talks with the Taliban, experts see few options for achieving stability in a region plagued by conflict for decades, because the Taliban remains a potent enemy as the foreign force withdraws.

In early 2012, Western officials say, the Taliban’s leaders struggled with the backlash from 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.

Analysts say there are signs the Taliban 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, an expert on the Taliban, referring to northern warlords who fought the Taliban in the 1990s.

“The elements that have been dealing with the U.S. government basically want a deal.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 09, 2012, on page 11.
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