Five Gitmo prisoners could hold key to Taliban peace talks

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WASHINGTON -- Two were senior Taliban commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. When asked about the alleged war crimes by an interrogator, they "did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state," according to their interrogators.

There are also a former deputy director of Taliban intelligence, a former senior Taliban official said to have "strong operational ties" to various extremist militias and a former Taliban minister accused of having sought help from Iran in attacking U.S. forces.

These five prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be the key to whether the negotiations the United States has long sought with the Taliban are a success, or even take place. A Taliban spokesman in Qatar said Thursday that exchanging them for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. prisoner of war who has been held by militants since 2009, would be a way to "build bridges of confidence" to start broader peace talks.

Less than a month ago, President Barack Obama gave a speech reiterating his desire to close Guantanamo. But one official familiar with internal deliberations emphasized that any exchange involving the Afghan prisoners should not be seen as part of efforts the president has ordered to winnow the prison of low-level detainees. The five Taliban members are considered to be among the most senior militants at Guantanamo and would otherwise be among the last in line to leave.

The Taliban offer, made at the same time they were opening a long-delayed office in Doha, Qatar, breathed new life into a proposal floated in late 2011 that collapsed amid congressional skepticism and the strict security conditions the Obama administration sought as part of any exchange. They included the stipulation that the Taliban prisoners be sent to Qatar and forbidden to leave there.

Those conditions, created by the Obama administration to comply with legal restrictions imposed by Congress to prevent any detainees from returning to the Afghan battlefield, led the Taliban to walk away from the negotiations.

Any prisoner release, according to officials familiar with the deliberations, is not imminent. The transfer restrictions require 30 days' notice to lawmakers before any detainee leaves, and the administration has not yet given any notification.

One of the leading skeptics of such a deal has been House Armed Services Committee chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif. On Thursday, McKeon spokesman Claude Chafin said the congressman would want to know what plans the administration had to ensure that the five would remain under watch. "Absent any actual details, the chairman remains very concerned that these five individuals should never be allowed to re-engage," Mr. Chafin said.

Mohammad Nabi Omari is described in the files as "one of the most significant former Taliban leaders detained" at Guantanamo. He is said to have strong operational ties to anti-coalition militia groups, including al-Qaida, the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

A former Taliban provincial governor, Mullah Norullah Noori, is also "considered one of the most significant former Taliban officials" at the prison, according to the documents. A founding member of the organization, he was a senior military commander against U.S. forces and their allies in late 2001.

Both Mullah Noori and a third detainee being considered in an exchange, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban deputy defense minister, are accused of having commanded forces that killed thousands of Shiite Muslims, a minority in Afghanistan, before the Taliban were toppled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The fourth is Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former top Taliban intelligence official described as "central to the Taliban's efforts to form alliances with other Islamic fundamentalist groups to fight alongside the Taliban against U.S. and coalition forces after the 11 September 2001 attacks." He also helped al-Qaida and Taliban fighters evade capture, according to the WikiLeaks documents.

The fifth prisoner, Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, a former interior minister and provincial governor, has contended that he had direct ties to Osama bin Laden and represented the Taliban in talks with Iranian officials seeking their support after Sept. 11, according to the documents.

The prospect of winning freedom for Sgrt. Bergdahl, who is believed to be the only living U.S. prisoner of war, has complicated the calculation, and the politics, of releasing the five -- at least if the Taliban ultimately agree to a condition that they stay in Qatar until the war's end. An administration official said consultation with lawmakers would be a prerequisite to a deal, if any ultimately emerges.

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