U.S. and Qatari officials began talks Thursday about extending security assurances for five senior Taliban members who were released from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and whose transfer to Qatar triggered an outcry on Capitol Hill.
The talks could lead to an extension of at least some aspects of a one-year arrangement that required Qatar to keep the former prisoners under supervision and ban them from leaving. They could also lead to the former detainees being transferred to another country, according to individuals familiar with the discussions. The agreement expires at the end of May.
In the talks, being held in Doha, the Qatari capital, administration officials presented a number of options for the future status of the aging Taliban leaders, who live with their families on a special compound as guests of the tiny Persian Gulf nation.
Qataris knowledgable about the talks suggested that officials there are open in theory to continuing the agreement, possibly with some alteration, but have been waiting for their American counterparts to tell them what they want. But it remains uncertain whether Qatar would consent to extending — or even increasing — current restrictions on the former detainees’ movements.
Administration officials have maintained that the former prisoners, after years of isolation at the high-security American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, pose little threat. But their transfer infuriated many in Congress, in part because of the possibility that they could someday return to militant activity.
The approaching end of the agreement has sparked new ire among lawmakers still angry about the transfer. “These are dangerous terrorists who, by the Administration’s own admission, should not be allowed to return to Afghanistan,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “It is troubling then that the White House has waited this long to begin deliberation on how to prevent that.”
The administration transferred the men in May 2014 in exchange for the release of Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who was held captive in Pakistan by the Taliban and its allies for almost five years after leaving his base in eastern Afghanistan. In March, the army charged Bergdahl with desertion.
Under the existing arrangement, the men’s phone and electronic communications have been monitored and they have been prohibited from fundraising or militant incitement.
“We are trying to create an atmosphere for political dialogue,” said one Qatari, speaking on the condition of anonymity to comment on the sensitive discussions. “If that will help, by renewing this agreement, I think this is something very important.”
The former prisoners include Mohammed Fazl, who was a top Taliban military official, and Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, a former interior minister in the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until its ouster by U.S. and Afghan forces in 2001.
Even White House allies were frustrated by the administration’s failure to give a required 30-day notice before moving the prisoners. The release was not announced publicly until the detainees had already left.
House Republicans have inserted a provision into the Defense Department spending bill that would slash defense funding if the Pentagon does not provide more information to congressional investigators conducting a probe into the transfer.
The notion of any relaxation of restrictions on the former Taliban leaders, potentially giving them a chance to renew their influence, is an uncomfortable one for some administration officials, especially with 9,800 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan.
“These guys are known bad guys,” said a defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because arrangements have not been finalized. He said that at least two of the five were believed to “be interested in returning to the fight.”
Some lawmakers have alleged that the prisoners have been in contact with hard-line militants over the past year. Administration and Qatari officials have said that there is no evidence of that in monitored conversations.
It’s unclear what the Afghan government or Taliban response would be to an extended travel ban for the former prisoners. Prior to the final agreement reached last May, the group had requested permission for the men to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
In the event the men do not remain restricted to Qatar, U.S. officials have drawn up alternative arrangements they believe would provide adequate assurances that they would not pose a threat. The Obama administration declined to provide details on the talks.
The administration sought for years to kindle peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban in hopes of a negotiated end to the Afghan war. Qatar, whose leaders saw a chance to please its American ally and to enhance its credentials as a major diplomatic player, became a key figure in the on-again, off-again attempts at a peace deal.
Hopes have faded for an imminent start to peace talks, with the Taliban continuing its spring offensive in northern Kunduz province and other parts of the country.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who took over last year, is gambling that the government of neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban’s reclusive leaders are believed to be hiding, can nudge the group toward the negotiating table.
Taliban leaders who favor talks must grapple with opposition from lower-level commanders who are overseeing the fight in Afghanistan.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban official and member of the country’s High Peace Council, said he thought peace talks remained a possibility. “Both the Afghan government and the Taliban are trying to enter into peace negotiations from a position of strength,” he said. “That is why fighting is going on.”
Mujahid raised doubts about Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban. While he said Islamabad has assured Ghani that the Taliban will come to the negotiating table, “if Pakistan had strong influence on Taliban, then peace talks should already have been started.”
Some U.S. officials have hoped that the released Taliban could play a positive role in future peace talks. Mujahid said there has not been any official announcement from the Taliban concerning the five or any suggestion they could play a role in negotiations between the government and the insurgency.
Mohammad Sharif and Sudarsan Raghavan in Kabul contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said the talks began Wednesday. They began Thursday. This version has been corrected.