WASHINGTON - Qatar has agreed to temporarily extend travel and monitoring restrictions on five senior Taliban leaders who were released last year from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for a captured American soldier, a senior U.S. official said .
At the same time, the United States acknowledged several Americans are being held by Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The U.S. official said the restrictions on the five Taliban leaders will remain in effect until a diplomatic solution to their fate is found. The year-long restrictions, imposed in May 2014, were set to expire Monday.
Appearing on U.S. television Sunday, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, said he personally has been in touch with Qatari officials over what is in the best interest of U.S. national security. He said the five are Afghan citizens.
"I want to make sure they are not allowed to return to the fight, and I think this is part of the rehabilitation process, as well as a monitoring and observing process," Brennan said, adding that arangements were being made with the Qataris and the Afghans. "I think we’re trying to still look at what the possibilities are here."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Shaikeb Mustaghani said the objective of the understanding is to make sure the five Taliban leaders do not again pose a threat to Afghanistan’s national security.
Qatar last year agreed to take the five as part of an agreement to free U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years since walking away from his Army post. He has been charged with desertion.
According to one U.S. lawmaker, at least one of the five allegedly had contact with members of the al-Qaida-affiliated Haqqani network during the past year while in Qatar. Four of the five remain on a U.N. blacklist, which freezes their assets and has them under a separate travel ban, although the U.N. acknowledges their sanctions have been circumvented.
Likely pressure on Qatar
James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and now with the Washington Institute on Near East Studies, said he is certain the United States put a lot of pressure on the Qataris to keep the Taliban Five from leaving.
"It was an outrage to hear they had been planning on traveling," Jeffrey said. "The American people were basically told, to one degree or another, that in this transfer that Qatari authorities would assure that these people would not return to the fight against our troops. We still have 9,800 troops in Afghanistan. You let these guys out [and] they’ll go back to fighting them."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, said Monday the sides continue to discuss “the path forward” with regards to the five Taliban members.
“All five remain in Qatar, where they remain subject to extensive monitoring as well as travel restrictions. We are in close contact with our Qatari counterparts on this issue. We continue to work to make sure that these individuals do not pose a threat to the United States, and these are ongoing discussions about what will happen next. But as those discussions happen, Qatar has agreed to maintain those restrictions," Harf said.
As the U.S. negotiates the future of the Taliban Five, it is also, according to a Yemeni government official in Saudi Arabia, engaged in talks with Houthi rebels aimed at finding a solution to the fighting in Yemen. He said the talks, held in Oman, followed a U.S. request for dialogue.
Terrorism analyst Greg Barton of Australia’s Monash University said it is hard to imagine any such dialogue without the approval of Saudi Arabia. The key U.S. ally has spearheaded coalition airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen since late March.
"There would have been a lot of back-channel briefings with Saudi Arabia prior to these going ahead," Barton said. "Whether that means they’re happy or not is not clear, but I think it might be persuaded that these are the least-worst options, even if they’re not happy about them, they’ll accept them, but it’ll be very interesting to watch this space and see how they respond publicly."
Though a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Oman has not participated in the Saudi-led airstrikes. A U.N.-brokered peace conference on Yemen was postponed last week after exiled President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi demanded the Houthis abide by a Security Council resolution and withdraw from territory they have seized before talks can proceed.
Americans held in Yemen
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports the Houthis hold at least four Americans at a prison in the capital, Sana'a. It says one of the four had been cleared for release, but the decision was reversed.
The paper says the quartet's detention has complicated U.S. counterterrorism operations. Three work in the private sector, and the fourth, whose occupation is unknown, holds dual U.S./Yemeni citizenship. A fifth U.S. citizen, identified as Sharif Mobley, has been held on terrorism-related charges for years.
The Post said they are among dozens of U.S. citizens who have either been unable to leave Yemen or chose to remain after the U.S. embassy was closed in February.
Ayaz Gul contributed to this story from Islamabad.