A possible prisoner exchange – and the shortening of a flagpole – were at the heart of urgent efforts to rescue the first direct peace talks for Afghanistan that were announced by the United States on Tuesday, only to be sabotaged by an angered President Hamid Karzai 24 hours later.
Officials with the Taliban confirmed the group’s readiness to free US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held captive since 2009, in exchange for the release of five of its senior operatives at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The Taliban said the exchange would be seen as the first step on the road to a peace accord.
Most of the focus remained last night on Doha, the capital of Qatar, where the Taliban have been allowed to open an office as their initial base to engage in peace talks. It was when the group adorned the office with a nameplate and flag declaring it the “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – the name adopted by the Taliban before it was ousted from power in 2001 – that Kabul cried foul.
After pressure from both the Qatari government and the US, the Taliban changed the nameplate. The Taliban flag had been taken down and run up again but on a shortened flagpole not visible from the street. The deputy US ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Rosemary DiCarlo, told Security Council members that “Qatar has clarified that the name of the office is the Political Office of the Afghan Taliban”. The office, she said, “must not be treated as, or represent itself as, an embassy”.
From Kabul, meanwhile, came signs of a thaw in the position of President Karzai. Officials said US Secretary of State John Kerry had telephoned him to reassure him that the designation of the Doha office would be clarified and promised a formal letter of support for his government. “We would see no problem in entering into talks with the Taliban in Qatar [if those pledges are met],” a Karzai spokesman said.
Meanwhile, in Hailey, Idaho, home to the missing American soldier, hopes were raised that he may soon come home. A spokesman for his parents, Bob and Jahni Bergdahl, said they were cautiously optimistic. “They are aware of this most recent development in Qatar and the possibility of talks starting that may include negotiations for the release of their son,” Colonel Tim Marsano, of the Idaho National Guard, said. “And they’re encouraged by this new development.”
The importance to the Taliban of the putative swap was clear. “First has to be the release of detainees,” a senior Taliban representative in Doha, Shaheen Suhail, told the Associated Press when asked about Bergdahl. “Yes. It would be an exchange. Then step by step, we want to build bridges of confidence to go forward.”
The men the Taliban hope to see released by the US include Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mullah Mohammed Fazl, a former top Taliban military commander.