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(Reuters) - A key Republican U.S. senator warned against negotiating with the Taliban on Monday, illustrating the political risk the Obama administration is taking by considering a prisoner transfer as part of a bid to end the Afghan war.
U.S. officials told Reuters a transfer of Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay military prison into Afghan government custody could be one confidence-building measure critical to making progress on a peace deal between the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"It sounds as if the administration has decided to negotiate with terrorists, something the United States does not do," Senator Saxby Chambliss, senior Republican on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, said in response to senior Obama administration officials' characterization of the talks, which they say have reached a critical juncture.
"Handing over detainees, who likely continue to pose a threat to the United States, should not be the first step in building confidence," Chambliss said in a statement.
Officials are not optimistic about their chances of clinching a deal, but they hope the transfer of five Taliban detainees and other possible confidence-building measures, including a Taliban denunciation of terrorism, might lead to authentic Afghan-Taliban talks on the war-torn country's political future.
White House efforts to strike a deal with a repressive Islamist movement that has been killing U.S. soldiers for a decade - even if it is now widely accepted the war cannot be won on the battlefield alone - could become a liability for Obama in an election year.
"Any discussion of prisoner transfers should only be done after an agreement to cease hostilities has been reached, and should be done in the open, with thorough oversight from Congress and visibility for the American people about exactly who these detainees are and what terrorist acts they committed," said Chambliss, voicing some of the concerns.
U.S. officials say the possible transfer of detainees would be a "national decision" made in consultation with Congress in accordance with new rules for handling detainees.
Obama is expected to shortly sign into law the 2011 defense authorization bill, which includes provisions that would broaden the military's involvement in detaining suspected militants and require the Pentagon to certify in most cases certain security conditions will be met before prisoners can be sent home.
U.S. officials stress that any real negotiations must take place directly between the Karzai government and the Taliban, with U.S. diplomats only playing a facilitating role.
Yet it's clear that in Washington, there is a growing willingness to engage directly with the Taliban as foreign troops edge closer toward the exit in Afghanistan.
Obama has promised to withdraw his 33,000 surge troops by next fall, and most foreign combat troops are expected to be gone by the end of 2014, leaving Afghan forces in the lead. A modest U.S. troop presence is expected to stay beyond that, focused on counter-terrorism and training local forces.
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking this week with Newsweek, said the Taliban "per se is not our enemy" and suggested it only represented an inherent threat if it allowed al Qaeda to strike at the United States. "That's critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests," he said.
Even after a surge in U.S. troops in Afghanistan has pushed Taliban militants out of much of their southern stronghold, the group's intentions regarding peace talks remain unclear.
A senior Taliban commander, speaking after U.S. officials' description of the peace process was published on Sunday, denied the movement was engaged in talks with the U.S.
"Our position on talks remains the same. All occupying forces have to leave Afghanistan. Then we can talk," the commander told Reuters from an undisclosed location.
Still, the Taliban might deny taking part in initial discussions to shore up morale among fighters on the ground.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Susan Cornwell; editing by Todd Eastham