KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban proposed a deal in which they would free a U.S. soldier held captive since 2009 in exchange for five of their most senior operatives at Guantanamo Bay, while Afghan President Hamid Karzai eased his opposition Thursday to joining planned peace talks.
The idea of releasing these Taliban prisoners has been controversial. U.S. negotiators hope they would join the peace process but fear they might simply return to the battlefield, and Karzai once scuttled a similar deal partly because he felt the Americans were usurping his authority.
The proposal to trade U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for the Taliban detainees was made by senior Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail in response to a question during a phone interview with the Associated Press from the militants’ newly opened political office in Doha, the capital of the Gulf nation of Qatar.
The prisoner exchange is the first item on the Taliban’s agenda before even starting peace talks with the U.S., said Suhail, a top Taliban figure who served as first secretary at the Afghan Embassy in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad before the Taliban government’s ouster in 2001.
“First has to be the release of detainees,” Suhail said Thursday when asked about Bergdahl. “Yes. It would be an exchange. Then step by step, we want to build bridges of confidence to go forward.”
The Obama administration was noncommittal about the proposal, which it said it had expected the Taliban to make.
“We’ve been very clear on our feelings about Sgt. Bergdahl and the need for him to be released,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “We have not made a decision to … transfer any Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, but we anticipate, as I’ve said, that the Taliban will all raise this issue.”
Bergdahl, 27, of Hailey, Idaho, is the only known American soldier held captive from the Afghan war. He disappeared from his base in southeastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, and is believed held in Pakistan. Suhail said Bergdahl “is, as far as I know, in good condition.”
Donna Thibedeau-Eddy, who has spent the last few days at the Idaho home of the soldier’s parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, said the family was hopeful.
“I was with his Mom and Dad this morning when they got the news of the exchange offer. They were ecstatic,” said Thibedeau-Eddy.
While there have been talks before, Bob Bergdahl is putting more faith and hope into the latest developments because it appears the Taliban are taking the initiative, Thibedeau-Eddy said.
If the Taliban hold talks with American delegates in the next few days, they will be the first U.S.-Taliban talks in nearly 11/2 years.
Prospective peace talks were thrown into question Wednesday when Karzai became infuriated by the Taliban’s move to cast their new office in Doha as a rival embassy.
On Thursday, Karzai spokesman Fayeq Wahidi said the Afghan president is willing to join peace talks with the Taliban if the U.S. follows through with promises he said were made by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Wahidi said Kerry promised Karzai that the Taliban flag and a nameplate with their former regime’s name would be removed and that the U.S. would issue a formal written statement supporting the Afghan government and making clear that the Taliban office would not be seen as an embassy or government-in-exile.
On Thursday, the “Islamic Emirate” nameplate had been removed from the Taliban office. The flagpole inside the compound was apparently shortened and the Taliban flag – dark Quranic script on a white background – was still flying but not visible from the street. Journalists gathered at the office shot images of the flag through the gaps in the walls.
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