According to sources familiar with talks in the US and in Afghanistan, a handful of high ranking Taliban figures including Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, and Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan will be released from Guantanamo Bay as a part of a peace deal. Another part of the deal will have the Afghan insurgent group opening a political office for peace negotiations in Qatar.
The Taliban are also reportedly demanding the release of the former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund. The Obama administration is considering formally handing him over to the custody of another country, possibly Qatar.
The Taliban are holding one American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, a 25-year-old sergeant captured in June 2009, but it is not clear whether his release is part of the negotiations.
“To take this step, the [Obama] administration have to have sufficient confidence that the Taliban are going to reciprocate,” said Vali Nasr, who was an Obama administration adviser on the Afghan peace process until last year. “It is going to be really risky. Guantanamo is a very sensitive issue politically.”
“If it had not happened then the idea of reconciliation would have been completely finished. The Qatar office is akin to the Taliban forming a Sinn Féin, a political wing to conduct negotiations,” Nasr said, but added: “The next phase will need concessions on both sides. This doesn’t mean we are now on autopilot to peace.”
Negotiations over the opening of a Taliban political office and the release of prisoners have been underway for more than a year in secret contacts in Germany and in the Gulf between US and Taliban officials, but have been continually held up by political obstacles.
It is not clear when the office will open, and there is also likely to be disagreement on the role of the Kabul government. A senior Afghan government official said the Karzai administration had accepted the creation of a Taliban office in Qatar only after demanding assurances from foreign powers that any peace process must be kept under the firm control of the Afghan government.
“If it is not led and owned by the Afghan government, it will fail,” the official said.
However, Tuesday’s Taliban statement said the group was only interested in talking to the “United States of America and their foreign allies,” Mujahid said.
Western diplomats hope the opening of an office in Qatar will also lessen Pakistan’s control of the Taliban. Pakistan plays host to most of the Taliban leadership, which it sees as an important bargaining counter in negotiations over the future of the region.