June 20, 2013

Taliban offer to free U.S. soldier in prisoner swap

By Kathy Gannon and Kay Johnson / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

This image provided by IntelCenter shows a frame grab from a video released by the Taliban containing footage of a man believed to be Bowe Bergdahl, left. A Taliban spokesman, Shaheen Suhail, in a telephone interview from the newly opened Taliban offices in Doha, Qatar, said Thursday, that they are ready to hand over Bergdahl for five of their senior operatives being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

AP

— Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former Taliban minister of the interior and military commander. According to military documents, he had direct ties to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden and was also a friend of Karzai.

— Mohammed Nabi, former chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, the capital of the southern province of Zabul.

If the Taliban hold talks with American delegates in the next few days, they will be the first U.S.-Taliban talks in nearly 1½ years.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was expected in Doha ahead of a conference there scheduled for Saturday on the Syrian civil war. He was not expected to meet with the Taliban although other U.S. officials might in coming days.

On Wednesday in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. had "never confirmed" any specific meeting schedule with Taliban representatives in Doha.

Prospective peace talks were again thrown into question Wednesday when Karzai became infuriated by the Taliban's move to cast their new office in Doha as a rival embassy.

The Taliban held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday in which they hoisted their flag and a banner that evoked the name they used while in power more than a decade ago: "Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." Later, the Taliban replaced the sign to read simply: "Political office of the Taliban."

At the ceremony, the Taliban welcomed dialogue with Washington but said their fighters would not stop fighting. Hours later, the group claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Bagram Air Base outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, which killed four American service members.

The U.S. expectation had been that U.S.-Taliban talks would be followed several days later with direct talks between the Taliban and a Karzai peace delegation.

But on Wednesday, Karzai announced that his government would not participate, apparently also angered by the way Kabul had been sidelined in the U.S.-Taliban bid for rapprochement.

The Afghan president also suspended negotiations with the United States on a bilateral security agreement that would cover American troops who will remain behind after the final withdrawal of NATO combat troops at the end of 2014.

That left U.S. officials scrambling to save the talks, and Kerry spoke with Karzai in phone conversations in an effort to bring him back on board.

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 Kerry over the phone.

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.

"If all those assurances and commitments the U.S. had given, if we are assured that they will be fully put in place on the issue of talks in Qatar," Wahidi said, "we would see no problem in entering into talks with the Taliban in Qatar. "

A decision on whether to restart the U.S. security agreement talks would be made after those assurances, he added, referring further questions to the foreign ministry.

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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