The Obama administration said Tuesday it is involved in ongoing consultations with various Taliban officials, but said that a long-negotiated deal to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay is "on hold" indefinitely.
The U.S. plan for Afghanistan took shape today when President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement to extend the U.S. security commitment in Afghanistan until 2024. The agreement was signed during Obama's surprise one-day visit to Afghanistan, which just happened to fall on the anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Two senior administration officials briefed reporters today on a conference call from Kabul. Asked by The Cable whether the Obama administration is still negotiating with the Taliban directly and whether the administration sees Taliban participation in the future of Afghanistan, the officials said yes on both counts.
"We continue to remain in contact with various Taliban leaders and we have several indications of intense interest in the reconciliation process," a senior administration official said. "It's quite clear to us that there is a range of interest among Taliban in reconciliation and there's quite a bit of internal political turbulence within the Taliban on that score."
But the official explained that a deal under consideration to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of Gitmo to "house arrest" in Qatar, in exchange for the release of a Westerner in Taliban custody, was stalled due to internal divisions within the Taliban's ranks.
"For reasons that appear to have to do with internal political turbulence among the Taliban, those efforts have been basically put on hold for the time being," the official said. "The Taliban understand very well what needs to happen in that channel for those talks to restart and we'll see what they do with that knowledge."
Senior U.S. lawmakers in both parties have come out against the proposed transfer of Taliban commanders out of Gitmo, arguing that they were too dangerous to be released and that the Qatari arrangement would not be enough to ensure they did not return to violence. The deal would also have set up a Taliban representative office in Qatar from which the Taliban could operate.
Last month, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told a Washington audience that he also opposes releasing Taliban officials from Gitmo until the Taliban have shown some evidence that they are negotiating in good faith.
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.
Former Deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative at ISAF Mark Jacobson, now with the Truman National Security Project, told The Cable today that the administration's comments represented new openness about its talks with the Taliban.
"I think the White House is increasingly open about U.S. discussions with the Taliban -- an indication to me that we are in a good position to move these talks along," he said. "In the end its going to have to be about Karzai and the Taliban, but both sides feel much more comfortable in direct discussions with us because both sides see us as more reliable than the others. And in the end, any agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government will require the backing and support of the United States."
On the conference call from Kabul, the administration officials rejected assertions that the Obama administration is opening itself up to charges of politicizing bin Laden's killing by signing the agreement on the one-year anniversary of the mission. They said the timing was based on the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago.
"The negotiations were completed in recent weeks... The two presidents set a clear goal for the agreement to be signed before the summit in Chicago," one official said. "It was always the president's intention to spend this anniversary with our troops. What better place to spend that time with our troops here in Afghanistan who are in harm's way."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.