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Report: US Agrees in Principle to Transfer Taliban Prisoners to Afghanistan

Let’s follow up on today’s item about the Taliban opening an office in Qatar, to begin work on a peace and reconciliation deal in Afghanistan. The counterpart to this action was supposed to be the transfer of several Taliban detainees at Guantanamo into Afghan custody. Because of the constraints placed by Congress on the movement of Gitmo prisoners, I wasn’t sure this could even get pulled off. But Julian Borger and Jon Boone report that the Administration will go for it:

The US has agreed in principle to release high-ranking Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay in return for the Afghan insurgents’ agreement to open a political office for peace negotiations in Qatar, the Guardian has learned.

According to sources familiar with the talks in the US and in Afghanistan, the handful of Taliban figures will include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, and Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan.

More controversially, the Taliban are demanding the release of the former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund. Washington is reported to be considering formally handing him over to the custody of another country, possibly Qatar.

The releases would be to reciprocate for Tuesday’s announcement from the Taliban that they are prepared to open a political office in Qatar to conduct peace negotiations “with the international community” – the most significant political breakthrough in ten years of the Afghan conflict.

Bowe Bergdahl, the only US soldier currently held by the Taliban, may also get released in the deal, though it’s not clear.

There’s a long way from agreement in principle on this prisoner transfer to reality. Because of the NDAA and other appropriations bills, the Defense Department and intelligence officials must certify that there will be no danger to national security created by the transfer, among other hoop-jumping exercises. Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Eric Holder and even Barack Obama have described these imperatives at times as creating an impossible situation for transferring prisoners. In the last signing statement, on the omnibus appropriations bill, Obama wrote:

In this bill, the Congress has once again included provisions that would bar the use of appropriated funds for transfers of Guantanamo detainees into the United States (section 8119 of Division A), as well as transfers to the custody or effective control of foreign countries unless specified conditions are met (section 8120 of Division A). These provisions are similar to others found in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012. My Administration has repeatedly communicated my objections to these provisions, including my view that they could, under certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles. In approving this bill, I reiterate the objections my Administration has raised regarding these provisions, my intent to interpret and apply them in a manner that avoids constitutional conflicts, and the promise that my Administration will continue to work towards their repeal.

I don’t know how the Administration plans to “interpret and apply” the statute to allow for this transfer to Afghanistan or even, in the case of Fazl, a third party like Qatar. But the fact that the Administration would engage this fight, and risk the usual cries of appeasement and weakness, shows how much they want to extricate themselves from Afghanistan. Marcy Wheeler had a good post today about how David Petraeus and the military establishment knew Afghanistan was a loser for years. It has become more of a chess piece than a war. And the White House desperately wants to turn over the table and stop playing the game, even if it means bearing the ire of Congress on the detainee issue.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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