KABUL (Reuters) - Five Taliban detainees held at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay military prison have agreed to be transferred to Qatar, a move Afghanistan believes will boost a nascent peace process, President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman said on Saturday.
The transfer idea is part of U.S. efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to avoid prolonged instability in Afghanistan after foreign combat troops leave the country at the end of 2014.
“We are hopeful this will be a positive step towards peace efforts,” Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi told Reuters, adding the Taliban detainees would be re-united with their families in Qatar if the transfer takes place.
It would be one of a series of good-faith measures that could set in motion the first substantial political negotiations on the conflict in Afghanistan since the Taliban government was toppled in 2001 in a U.S.-led invasion.
A year after it was unveiled, the Obama administration’s peace initiative may soon offer the United States a historic opportunity to broker an end to a war that began as the response to the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States.
But the peace drive also presents risks for President Barack Obama.
He faces the potential for political fallout months before a presidential election, as his government considers backing an arrangement that would give some degree of power to the Taliban, known for their brutality and extreme interpretation of Islam.
Despite months of covert diplomacy, it remains unclear whether the prisoner transfer will go ahead.
Doubts are growing about whether the Taliban leadership is willing to weather possible opposition from junior and more hard-core members who appear to oppose negotiations.
Asked about the disclosure by Karzai’s office that the detainees were willing to be transferred, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said: “The United States has not decided to transfer any Taliban officials from Guantanamo Bay.”
“We are not in a position to discuss ongoing deliberations or individual detainees, but our goal of closing Guantanamo is well established and widely understood,” she said. “In general, any decision to transfer a detainee from Guantanamo would be undertaken in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with the Congress.”
Karzai’s top aide, Ibrahim Spinzada, visited the Guantanamo facility this week to secure approval from the five Taliban prisoners to be moved to Qatar.
Karzai’s government has demanded the five former senior members of the Taliban government, held at Guantanamo Bay for a decade, give their consent before they are transferred to the small Gulf state where they would be under Qatar’s custody.
U.S. officials hope the peace initiative will gain enough traction to enable Obama to announce the establishment of full-fledged political talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban at a NATO summit in May.
That would mark a major victory for the White House and might ease some of the anxiety created by NATO nations’ plans to gradually pull out most of their troops by the end of 2014, leaving an inexperienced Afghan military and fragile government to face a still-formidable insurgency.
The Taliban detainees are seen by some U.S. officials as among the most dangerous inmates at Guantanamo.
Their possible transfer has drawn attack from U.S. politicians from both parties even before the administration formally begins a required congressional notification process.
Among the prisoners who may be sent to Qatar is Mohammed Fazl, a “high-risk” detainee alleged to be responsible for the killing of thousands of minority Shi’ite Muslims between 1998 and 2001.
They also include Noorullah Noori, a former senior military commander; Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former deputy intelligence minister; and Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former interior minister.
Karzai has complained the United States has repeatedly sidelined his government in a process that is supposed to be “Afghan-led” after it emerged that U.S. officials had established contacts with the Taliban in Qatar.
But his worries seem to have eased, and there are signs that the Kabul government is prepared to extend greater support to the Qatar process, even though it wants Saudi Arabia and Turkey to facilitate talks as well.
Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasool will visit Qatar to meet government officials to discuss reconciliation with the Taliban, a ministry spokesman said earlier.
Rasool is scheduled to leave for Qatar soon, Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai told Reuters. He will visit Saudi Arabia before then.
The Taliban announced in January they would open a political office in Qatar, suggesting they may be willing to engage in negotiations that would likely give them government positions or control over some of their historical southern heartland.
An Afghan official described Rasool’s visit as a “very important step”.
The Afghan government has had some contact with the Taliban while U.S. diplomats have been seeking to broaden exploratory talks that began clandestinely in Germany in late 2010.
There are other factors that could make or break peace efforts, in particular Pakistan. The regional power is a critical player because it is believed to have influence over the Afghan Taliban and allied groups like the Haqqani network.
Pakistan could encourage militants to lay down arms, or to keep fighting if it determined it did not have enough say in a peace settlement, or if it feared a settlement might give old rival India undue influence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan denies accusations it has ties to Afghan insurgent groups.
Additional reporting by Missy Ryan and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel and Philip Barbara