U.S.-Held Taliban as Bargaining Chips Draw Republican Criticism

The Obama administration would cross a “dangerous line” with its plan to facilitate peace talks with the Afghan Taliban by transferring five prisoners from U.S. military detention, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said.

The U.S. hasn’t decided whether to move the five men held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a Qatari prison as part of an effort to start peace talks with the militant group, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified yesterday.

That possibility “sends a horrible message to the world’s bad actors that soldiers, prisoners, citizens are to be traded like commodities,” Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who heads the intelligence committee said.

Administration officials have been laying the groundwork for talks with the Taliban in Qatar, even as they say they have no illusions about what can be accomplished. Moving the Taliban detainees -- who had been deemed too dangerous to release in a 2009 U.S. intelligence review -- is being considered as a way to build confidence with the militant group.

It’s an initiative that may carry political risks for President Barack Obama if Republicans paint it as a deal with terrorists.

“Apparently, the Taliban will not have to stop fighting our troops, and won’t even have to stop bombing them with IEDs,” Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Jan. 31, referring to improvised explosive devices.

“I want to state publicly as strong as I can that we should not transfer these detainees from Guantanamo,” he said.

‘A Horrible Message’

The idea of engaging the Taliban at all draws criticism from Republicans and cautions from others.

“It sends a horrible message to the people that have been with the U.S. in Afghanistan, women, entrepreneurs, people who believe that democracy would bring a better day in Afghanistan,” said Rogers, speaking at his committee’s annual open hearing on national security threats yesterday.

Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South East Asia who met with the Taliban around 20 times between 1997 and 2007, urged wariness.

Engaging with the Taliban is “not a fruitless task,” Inderfurth said in a telephone interview. “It should be pursued because we should find out if there’s any possibility of a change in the Taliban’s long-standing ambition to return to power in Afghanistan,” Inderfurth said. “But we need to engage in any talks with our eyes wide open.”

Talks with Karzai

Marc Grossman, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, traveled to Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in January to build support for talks. The Taliban said Jan. 3 it was ready to open a liaison office in Qatar as a point of contact for talks with the U.S.

Grossman met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on efforts toward a Taliban reconciliation and peace process. Speaking to reporters in Kabul during his trip, Grossman said that peace talks could only begin once the Taliban had renounced international terrorism and agreed to support a peace process.

The diplomatic moves to engage the Taliban in talks comes as the U.S. envisions withdrawing American forces. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Feb. 1 that the U.S. plans to end combat operations by the end of 2013, providing mostly training and support for Afghan forces through the end of 2014.

Republicans in Congress argue that Panetta’s comments will reinforce Taliban leaders’ beliefs that they can wait out the U.S. and its European allies.

‘Wait Us Out’

“The Taliban has little incentive to engage in a meaningful negotiation with the Afghan government or with us to end the conflict when they believe the United States is leaving and that they can wait us out,” Arizona Republican Senator John McCain said in a statement.

Inderfurth, who served under former President Bill Clinton, said, “Based on my direct experiences working with the Taliban, they are not only playing for time, but they’re playing us in terms of their seriousness in searching for a political settlement.”

Alistair Burt, the British Foreign Office’s minister for South Asia, told reporters in Washington yesterday that, if the Taliban’s strategy is to wait for the U.S. and its allies to pull out entirely, the group is making a mistake.

“That’s not going to happen,” Burt said. “If the Taliban believe that by sitting tight we’re going to go away, they’re wrong.”

Security of Afghanistan

State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said the goal is to build up Afghan forces, and “nobody is talking about abandoning the security of Afghanistan.”

A top secret National Intelligence Estimate, the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community, says the Taliban remain determined to return to power, suggesting the militant Islamist group may wait out the U.S. The estimate was described by two U.S. officials who have read it and agreed to describe it only on the basis of anonymity because it’s classified.

“I don’t think anyone in the administration harbors any illusions about the potential here,” Clapper told the intelligence committee.

Separately, three U.S. officials said the Taliban may be interested in talks mostly as a way to bolster their political legitimacy, much as Hezbollah in Lebanon transformed itself from an insurgency into the country’s dominant political party.

An administration official familiar with the proposed prisoner transfer said the goal is to negotiate an end to the war through an Afghan-led process and that Afghan officials and U.S. military officials are supportive.

The official said transfer of detainees would be subject to a series of laws, including the National Defense Authorization Act which codifies the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects, and be decided after consultation with Congress.

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