Prisoner exchange a boost for Afghan peace talks
KABUL // The release of five senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for American soldier Bowe Bergdahl bodes well for the resumption of peace talks, a senior member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council said on Sunday.
But despite the Taliban’s “great happiness” over the prisoners’ release, a spokesman for the militant group cautioned the exchange was “not political”.
The five prisoners were named as Mohammad Fazl, Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq, all influential former officials of the Taliban regime driven out of power in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
The transfer leaves 149 detainees in the US military’s prison in Cuba, including 12 Afghan nationals, four of whom have been approved for transfer.
The five men were exchanged for Sgt Bergdahl, an Idaho native who disappeared in June 2009 from a base in Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika province.
He was the only American soldier held captive by Taliban militants in the nearly 13-year war.
Ismail Qasimyar, of the peace council, said: “I think it shows all sides’ goodwill for trust building and start of the peace talks in near future.
“Especially it shows the government of Afghanistan’s commitment toward peace talks. We are very optimistic that the release of these senior Taliban will help the peace process.”
He added that the council together with the Afghan government had been part of the negotiations for a long time.
“In fact, a member of the national security council of Afghanistan went to Guantanamo to seek the possibility of releasing senior Taliban around 10 months ago,” he said.
Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar on Sunday hailed the exchange as a “big victory”.
“I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation, all the mujahideen and to the families and relatives of the prisoners for this big victory regarding the release of five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo prison,” he said in a rare statement.
Another statement from the group said the five men were released with the help of the Qatar government and have now joined their families there, adding the move had brought “great happiness and pleasure to [the] Afghan nation and particularly to the Islamic Emirate Mujahideen”.
However, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, later cautioned against reading too much into the exchange.
“It has only been an exchange of the war prisoners, there is nothing political in it, it has not been done for peace process,” he said.
The Taliban leadership has publicly refused to engage with the Afghan government, accusing outgoing president Hamid Karzai of being an American puppet.
Nevertheless some moderate elements are believed to have broken ranks and engaged in dialogue.
Sgt Bergdahl was in “good” condition after Taliban fighters handed him over to US special operations forces at an undisclosed location in eastern Afghanistan, US defence officials said.
“Sergeant Bergdahl has missed birthdays and holidays, and the simple moments with family and friends which all of us take for granted,” US president Barack Obama said in the White House Rose Garden, flanked by the soldier’s parents Bob and Jani.
“But while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten.”
Mr Obama thanked Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, and the government in Kabul for helping to bring home the 28-year-old.
“The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security,” Mr Obama said, referring to the conditions under which the Taliban figures were transferred.
An informed Qatari source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP that the five men would remain in Qatar for one year.
Previous attempts to free Sgt Bergdahl through a swap with the Taliban had failed. But this time, Qatar was able to secure an agreement.
Sgt Bergdahl’s release comes as the United States prepares to scale back its presence in Afghanistan.
* Agence France-Press
Updated: June 1, 2014 04:00 AM