WASHINGTON – The Obama administration appeared Wednesday to acknowledge discussions about transferring some Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as part of U.S. efforts to jumpstart peace talks with the Taliban after 10 years of inconclusive fighting.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said no decision about releasing any Taliban detainees has been made. But in answering a question about whether Washington was ready to transfer Guantanamo detainees, possibly to Qatar, in exchange for talks with the Afghan insurgents, Clinton did not dispute that such a trust-building measure was under consideration.
She also indicated progress on the related effort to open a political headquarters for the Taliban in Qatar, a Persian Gulf nation whose role as would-be host for peace talks has gained reluctant approval from Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month.
The Associated Press reported last month that, to restore momentum to reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, five Afghan prisoners considered affiliated with the Taliban might be allowed to leave the Guantanamo naval prison. The proposed transferees include Khairullah Khairkhwa, former Taliban governor of Herat and Mullah Mohammed Fazl, a former top Taliban military commander believed responsible for sectarian killings before the U.S. invasion that toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001.
Speaking on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Clinton said the U.S. would continue with its strategy in Afghanistan of "fight, talk, build" — combating militarily those who take up arms against Afghans, supporting an Afghan-led reconciliation effort and laying the groundwork for the country's economic development. The first prisoners at Guantanamo were picked up from the battlefield in Afghanistan, including some of those at issue in the potential transfer.
No detainee has left in a year because of increasing restrictions on transfers and releases from the military prison, and indefinite military detention is now enshrined in U.S. law. Unable to keep his promise to close the prison, President Barack Obama has agreed to new rules for military trials there this year.
Talking to reporters alongside Qatar's prime minister, she thanked the U.S. ally in the Middle East for offering to host a Taliban political office, another piece of the administration's efforts to channel the insurgency away from violence and toward the negotiating table. She is sending the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan to Kabul and Qatar next week to work on the details.
"With respect to talking to the Taliban, the reality is we never have the luxury of negotiating for peace with our friends," Clinton said. "If you're sitting across a table discussing a peaceful resolution to a conflict, you are sitting across from people who, by definition, you don't agree with, and who you may previously have been across a battlefield from."
She said that Washington would continue to support the reconciliation effort, "if we believe it holds promise for an end to the conflict." Any power-sharing deal would have to respect America's red lines, she said, which involve insurgents renouncing violence, breaking with al-Qaida and respecting Afghanistan's constitution, including rights guaranteed women and minorities.
The United States has gradually embraced talks as the best way to eventually end the war, even if fighting continues beyond the deadline to withdraw foreign fighting forces in 2014. Although the U.S. says those talks must be led by the Karzai government, it has held its own direct talks with Taliban representatives over the last year.