WASHINGTON — Two were senior Taliban commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. When asked about the alleged war crimes by an interrogator, they “did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state,” according to their interrogators.
There are also a former deputy director of Taliban intelligence, a former senior Taliban official said to have “strong operational ties” to various extremist militias, and a former Taliban minister accused of having sought help from Iran in attacking U.S. forces.
These five prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be the key to whether the negotiations the United States has long sought with the Taliban are a success, or even take place. A Taliban spokesman in Qatar said Thursday that exchanging them for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. prisoner of war who has been held by militants since 2009, would be a way to “build bridges of confidence” to start broader peace talks.
Less than a month ago, President Barack Obama gave a speech reiterating his desire to close Guantanamo. But one official familiar with internal deliberations emphasized that any exchange involving the Afghan prisoners should not be seen as part of efforts the president has ordered to winnow the prison of low-level detainees.
The five Taliban members are considered to be among the most senior militants at Guantanamo and would otherwise be among the last in line to leave.
The Taliban offer, made at the same time they were opening a long-delayed office in Doha, Qatar, breathed new life into a proposal floated in late 2011 that collapsed amid congressional skepticism and the strict security conditions the Obama administration sought as part of any exchange. They included the stipulation that the Taliban prisoners be sent to Qatar and forbidden to leave there.
Those conditions, created by the Obama administration to comply with legal restrictions imposed by Congress to prevent any detainees from returning to the battlefield in Afghanistan, led the Taliban to walk away from the negotiations. It is not clear whether the Taliban position on transfers to Qatar, as opposed to outright release and repatriation, has softened.
Any prisoner release, according to officials familiar with the deliberations, is not imminent. The transfer restrictions require 30 days’ notice to lawmakers before any detainee leaves, and the administration has not yet given any notification.