The Obama administration is negotiating a deal with the Taliban that would include transferring five senior Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay to "house arrest" in Qatar, but the head of Afghanistan's defense ministry said today that the deal shouldn't go forward until or unless the Taliban shows it is serious about peace.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismellah Mohammadi are in Washington this week and spoke Thursday afternoon at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a non-partisan Washington think tank. The Cable asked both ministers what they thought about the pending deal, which would include the Taliban opening up an official office in Qatar and releasing a Western captive in exchange for the transfer of five senior Taliban officials from U.S. custody.
The Obama administration has been telling congressional leaders that the transfer deal is a "confidence-building measure," but Wardak said that the Taliban should give some reasons to have confidence before the deal is signed.
"Any war eventually ends up with peace, so any efforts to facilitate that process will be welcome. But before any deal, we have to make sure that the other side is sincere in their efforts," he said of the Taliban.
The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has expressed some hope that the deal would be a precursor to more positive interactions, although Afghan officials were initially upset that the United States had begun discussions with the Taliban outside their purview.
The Karzai government also has good reason to be suspicious of Taliban peace offers, considering that its most recent peace engagement with the Taliban literally blew up when a supposed Taliban negotiator detonated a suicide bomb that killed the leader of Karzai's peace council, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
At the Thursday event, Mohmmadi was more supportive of the potential U.S.-Taliban deal.
"We welcome any action that will take us even an inch closer to the realization of peace," he said. "At the end of the day, we must have a target point to reach and an address to refer to. The folks in Qatar wanted to set up an office; we agreed with that. We do hope that that will be a point of reference for the continuing process of peace talks and negotiations."
Wardak's statements urging that the Taliban show some signs of sincerity place him in the same position as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), who told The Cable last month that any Taliban prisoner transfer should come after some progress is made in the negotiations.
Other senior U.S. lawmakers are outright opposed to the transfer, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who told The Cable last month, "These are major Taliban figures, they are not minor people. And they will not be in the same kind of custody, maximum-security custody. Forget that it won't be Guantánamo, just maximum-security custody."
Feinstein said the timing of the deal, with the Taliban still actively engaged against Western forces on the battlefield, was particularly problematic. "To do this as just a confidence-building measure without any acceptance by the Taliban of any rules or agreements or anything else, and at a time when the Taliban are still carrying out raids, planting IEDS, still killing people.... I think if you're able to achieve with the Taliban an agreement then it wouldn't be as horrible as it is," she said.
Wardak and Mohammadi's overall message to their Washington audience was that the Afghan war is going well, great progress is being made, and victory is right around the corner, despite widespread reports to the contrary.
Both officials praised the progress of U.S.-Afghan negotiations toward a long-term security agreement, including a recent deal over night raids. Both officials said that the Afghan security forces would probably be drawn down after 2014 following the current buildup, based on the security situation at the time.
Wardak said that the pace of Taliban members switching sides has been increasing. He said that more than 4,000 Taliban members had been reintegrated and more than 1,600 Taliban were in negotiations over abandoning the fight.
Mohammadi said that victory against the Taliban is near.
"The security situation over the last two years has seen considerable progress... We do have information that shows a great weakening of the Taliban strength over the last two years," he said.
"Our assessment and our take [is] we can assure you that we are not that far away from final victory. Therefore we ask the people and the leadership of our greatest friend the United States for more patience and to not to forget the sacrifices that we have made together."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.