The future of peace talks with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan war may hinge on thetransfer of a prisoner from Guantanamo Bay. This sign of goodwill could pave the way for broader talks aimed at reconciliation for the Taliban and integration into the Afghan government. But the US is not convinced that they should release the prisoner.
The potential hand-over of Mohammed Fazl, a ‘high-risk detainee’ held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison since early 2002, has set off alarms on Capitol Hill and among some U.S. intelligence officials.
As a senior commander of the Taliban army, Fazl is alleged to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Afghanistan’s minority Shi’ite Muslims between 1998 and 2001.
According to U.S. military documents made public by WikiLeaks, he was also on the scene of a November 2001 prison riot that killed CIA operative Johnny Micheal Spann, the first American who died in combat in the Afghan war. There is no evidence, however, that Fazl played any direct role in Spann’s death.
Senior U.S. officials have said their 10-month-long effort to set up substantive negotiations between the weak government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban has reached a make-or-break moment. Reuters reported earlier this month that they are proposing an exchange of “confidence-building measures,” including the transfer of five detainees from Guantanamo and the establishment of a Taliban office outside of Afghanistan.
Fazl would go into Afghan custody under the deal, rather than be released entirely. The Afghan government has requested his release from Guantanamo for six years. But members of Congress of both parties object to the move, and have protested to the White House privately.
There are other options for the confidence-building measures. The US may establish cease-fire zones inside Afghanistan, for example. The Taliban, for their part, would have to renounce Al Qaeda and accept the legitimacy of the civilian Afghan government.
The release of Fazl and other Taliban may just be a Hail Mary pass, however. Talks have been suspended at the request of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President. Though asking for a prisoner release previously , Karzai doesn’t favor it now. We may get the establishment of a Taliban office in a neutral third country, with talks continuing there on a reconciliation. But Karzai stopped the talks when he found out that the US was negotiating directly with Taliban officers to use Qatar as the third country, recalling the Afghan ambassador there.
Under the provisions of the defense authorization bill that the President is expected to sign, releasing detainees from Guantanamo would be more arduous for the White House. And with Congress opposed on a bipartisan basis, I fail to see how Fazl and his compatriots, who have been at the island prison for almost 10 years, will get set free. If we’re negotiating an end to the war with the Taliban and their reintegration into Afghan society, however, the only difference between the senior commanders at the negotiating table and Fazl is that Fazl got caught. But that won’t matter to members of Congress wanting to use the release as an example of Presidential weakness.
So there appear to be dead ends throughout this negotiating process. And the war drags on.