Administration Mum on Taliban’s Call for Release of Guantanamo Detainees

By Patrick Goodenough | January 4, 2012 | 6:12am EST

Taliban fighters pose in October 2006 in Afghanistan’s Zabul province. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)

(Update:  State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday that the administration would – neither today nor in the future – “get into the details” of discussions about possible Guantanamo Bay releases. “We’ve not made any decisions with regard to releases,” she told a briefing. “I don’t think I’m going to go beyond that.”)

( – The State Department Tuesday declined to comment on the Taliban’s call for the release of its members being held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, shortly after the Afghan group announced publicly for the first time that it has made such a request as part of a reconciliation initiative.

The Taliban in a statement announced that it was ready to open a liaison office in Qatar to advance negotiations for an end to the conflict and expected in return the release of its detainees from Guantanamo.

It did not name the prisoners it wants freed, but high on the list is Mohammed Fazl, the former Taliban army chief who is accused of responsibility for the slaughter of large numbers of minority Shi’ites while the Taliban ruled over most of what it called the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

Fazl is also suspected of involvement in the killing of nine Iranian diplomats during the Taliban’s capture of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. The diplomats were based at the Iranian consulate in the northern city.

In the statement, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the group had long made it clear that the U.S. and other coalition countries would “never be able to subdue the Afghans by force in order to realize its aims.”

“We are at the moment, besides our powerful presence inside the country ready to establish a political office outside the country to come to an understanding with other nations and in this series, we have reached an initial agreement with Qatar and other related sides,” he said.

“Islamic Emirate has also asked for the release of its prisoners from the Guantanamo prison in exchange basis.”

The Obama administration’s declared position is that it supports an Afghan government-led reconciliation process, on condition Taliban leaders pledge to stop fighting, end support for al-Qaeda, and abide by the Afghan constitution, including its guarantees of rights for women.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland during a briefing Tuesday reiterated those “red lines,” and repeated several times that the process was being driven by the Afghans.

“This is not our negotiation to lead,” she said. “This is a situation that the Afghan government has to be comfortable with – the Afghans have to make their own decisions, and they have to work this through.”

“If this [liaison office proposal] is part of an Afghan-led, Afghan-supported process and the Afghan government itself believes it can play a constructive role, and it is also supported by the host country, then we will play a role in that as well,” Nuland said.

But asked about the demand to release the Guantanamo detainees in order to help move negotiations along, she demurred: “I’m not going to speak to any of those kinds of reported details.”

The Afghan Peace Council, set up by President Hamid Karzai with the aim of persuading Taliban leaders to end their violent campaign, has been pushing for the establishment of an office that will serve as an “address” for ongoing dialogue with the group. The same peace council, which includes former Taliban officials, has lobbied for the release of four top Taliban figures from Guantanamo.

Research by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal notes that all four detainees had “extensive ties to al-Qaeda” before they were captured.

The four are Fazl, former Taliban deputy intelligence minister Abdul Haq Wasiq, former Taliban governor and military commander Norullah Noori, and former Taliban governor of Herat province Khairullah Khairkhwa.

In reply to a question the possibility that the Afghan government could shift on the criteria for reconciliation with the Taliban, Nuland said that Kabul’s red lines currently coincide with those of the United States.

“If that changes, we’ll obviously have to talk about it in that context.”

The Taliban seized control of most of war-ravaged Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and established a regime that was only recognized by just three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Despite the imposition of U.N. sanctions, the Taliban refused to extradite its ally Osama bin Laden, who was wanted in the U.S. for terrorist attacks against Americans, including the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa.

The fundamentalist militia ruled until U.S.-led forces toppled it in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. Over the decade since, more than 1,800 American military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan, most of them at the hands of the Taliban and its allies. Other members of the NATO-led coalition there have lost almost 1,000 soldiers.

Zabiullah Mujahid’s statement included a brief Taliban perspective on Afghanistan’s recent history.

“It is a unambiguous reality that the Islamic movement of Taliban arose to establish an Islamic system in Afghanistan, uproot injustice, eradicate narcotics and the local writ of gunmen, strengthen security and to form national unity and with the help of Allah and with the backing and sacrifices of the nation, it was able to eradicate corruption and establish an Islamic

government in the various provinces and the capital in a very short period of time,” he said.

“It almost completely eliminated the years of strife and fragmentation in the whole country and was able to bring ninety five percent of the country under the control of the central government.”

In contrast to Mujahid’s benign account of the period of Taliban rule, the Sunni militia’s strict interpretation of Islam saw the introduction of many controversial policies, including some highly oppressive of women.

It treated the Shi’ite minority harshly and destroyed artifacts from pre-Islamic times, including two huge 6th century Buddha statues in the town of Bamiyan in March 2001.

Just weeks before 9/11, the Taliban shut down offices of Christian relief agencies and expelled foreign employees. It also arrested foreigners, including two American women, accusing them of seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity.

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