ISLAMABAD— The Taliban says it has temporarily suspended talks with the United States on a possible prisoners’ swap, citing the “current complexity of the political situation in Afghanistan." The statement comes days after media reports quoted U.S. authorities as saying the Obama administration has renewed efforts at talks with the Afghan insurgent group to trade five senior Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
This is the first direct confirmation from either side that talks have taken place in recent weeks between the United States and the Taliban on a possible exchange of prisoners before the planned withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan in December.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, in a statement issued Sunday says its representatives were conducting the discussions through their “political office” in Qatar, and authorities in the gulf state acted as mediators.
Under the reported proposed deal, five Taliban detainees would be released from Guantanamo prison to protective custody in Qatar in exchange for U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured nearly five years ago (June 2009). The 27-year-old American soldier is the only known U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan. He was last seen in a video released in December.
The Taliban spokesman says the footage was released as a “proof of life” demanded by the United States to ensure progress in the secret discussions on the possible exchange of prisoners.
However, he added the Taliban has decided to suspend the talks for some time “due to the political complexity of the current situation” in Afghanistan. Without elaborating, he said that “the prisoner exchange process stands delayed until further notice."
White House spokesman Jay Carney in a recent news conference (last Tuesday) explained the United States continues to call for and work towards Sgt. Bergdahl’s safe and immediate release. But he stopped short of offering direct comments on reported contacts with the Taliban on the issue.
“We are not involved in active negotiations with the Taliban," said Carney. "If negotiations were to resume, we would certainly press the case of Sergeant Bergdahl. In the meantime, we are actively engaged in an effort to see his return. I can’t document every effort, but that includes our military, our intelligence and our diplomatic tools.”
Media reports suggest attempts to arrange the exchange of prisoners are part of wider U.S. efforts to jump-start a troubled peace and reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban that stalled in June.
U.S.-led coalition combat troops are preparing to leave Afghanistan in December, prompting fears the Taliban will try to capitalize on the absence of international forces. A proposed residual American military presence past 2014 to assist Afghan security forces remains uncertain because President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign a bilateral security pact with the United States.
The threat was highlighted by Sunday’s Taliban assault on an Afghan military outpost that killed at least 19 soldiers. The attack occurred in a province that borders Pakistan and has prompted the Afghan president to postpone his planned visit to Sri Lanka.