Afghanistan Says U.S. Has Right to Seek Taliban Prisoner Swap

The Afghan government supports U.S. efforts to secure the release of an American soldier thought to be held hostage by the Haqqani insurgent network that is allied with the Taliban, according Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai.

“We have no problem in the U.S. government engaging the Taliban directly to secure that objective,” Mosazai said in an interview yesterday on the sidelines of the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels. He sought to dispel reports that the Afghan government was displeased with U.S. efforts to establish a direct channel in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar to talk to the Taliban about the missing soldier.

As long as U.S. diplomats are trying to secure the American soldier’s release, there’s no conflict with larger negotiations about peace and stability in his country, he said. “But when it comes to direct negotiations with the Taliban in the context of the peace process, any direct negotiations will have to be and can only be between the Afghan government and the Taliban,” he said.

U.S. officials have engaged in behind-the-scenes exploratory contacts with the Taliban and the Haqqani insurgent network. Negotiations with Taliban representatives in Qatar broke down in March. The two sides were seeking a possible swap of five Taliban prisoners held in the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay for the 26-year-old American sergeant detained since June 2009.

Privately, U.S. foreign policy, intelligence and military officials have said they are pessimistic that negotiations with the Taliban over the soldier’s release might lead to a broader peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Islamic extremist group.

Still Unreliable

The Afghan government still is plagued by a variety of challenges, including some security forces that remain unreliable despite NATO training efforts, continued opium trafficking, and persistent corruption and diversion of foreign aid, according to the U.S. officials, who spoke about the private talks on condition of anonymity.

The Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, had a different message yesterday, saying important progress has been made as the international coalition transfers security responsibilities to Afghan partners. Rasmussen said there has been a significant drop in the number of enemy attacks in regions where Afghan forces have taken over from international troops.

‘Promising Development’

“That’s, of course, a very encouraging and promising development, because it proves we are pursuing the right strategy,” Rasmussen said at a press conference at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting yesterday.

Members also discussed mechanisms to ensure the transparent and efficient use of funds from NATO and coalition partners to support Afghan security forces before and after the withdrawal of international combat forces by the end of 2014.

The 28-member alliance and several non-NATO countries have pledged $4.1 billion in annual support for Afghan security and stability through 2017.

“We are already planning a new mission to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces after 2014,” NATO members said in a statement. For its part, the Afghan government has “committed to taking on an increasingly large share of the funding, as the Afghan economy and its own resources grow.”

President Barack Obama in May signed a security partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that commits the U.S. to supporting the South Asian nation’s security for 10 years.

‘Solidly Committed’

NATO and coalition partners are “all firmly and solidly committed in their pledges, in their continued assistance and support” for Afghanistan “until 2014 and beyond 2014,” Mosazai said.

He called the $4.1 billion in annual pledges “an investment in our common security.” If Afghanistan is left without support, he warned, there could be “grievous consequences that we witnessed with 9/11 and with other international terrorist attacks.”

The U.S. is planning to maintain some non-combat military presence to collect intelligence on militants and continue training Afghan security forces after the alliance withdraws most combat forces by 2014. Negotiations with Afghanistan on a Status of Forces Agreement to govern the actions and liability of U.S. forces are on track, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday at a NATO press briefing.

The failure to negotiate a similar agreement with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki forced the Obama administration to withdraw all American forces from that country by the end of 2011.

The Senate this week approved a non-binding amendment to a defense authorization bill calling on Obama to speed the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and require a congressional review of any bilateral security agreement.

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