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US moves to revive stalled Afghan peace talks

19 February, 2014

KABUL/WASHINGTON: The Obama administration is taking steps it hopes could lead to a resumption of peace talks to end the Afghan conflict, including reviving a proposed swap of Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in return for a US prisoner of war.

According to Western officials familiar with the matter, President Barack Obama's senior aides in late December resolved to renew attempts to arrange the prisoner exchange with the goal of jump-starting negotiations stalled since last June.

The hope is that the exchange could open the door to more substantive peace talks on Afghanistan's future.

Reuters has learned that, to further the initiative, US officials also have held meetings with the government of Qatar, which has played a mediating role during several years of on-and-off peace efforts, officials said.

The White House last month sent out a team of officials, including the Pentagon's chief lawyer, Stephen Preston, to Doha to ensure that the Qatari government remained willing to host the Taliban detainees who might be sent there from Guantanamo Bay, the officials said.

Government officials in Qatar reaffirmed that they would support the transfer under the same conditions as envisioned in previous discussions, the sources said. US conditions in the past have included preventing the Taliban members from travelling outside of Qatar.

Under the plan, Taliban-linked militants would return US. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was stationed in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan when he disappeared under unclear circumstances on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country.

In another step toward restarting a peace process, Qatar provided US officials a video showing Bergdahl, which it obtained from the Taliban, to confirm he remained alive despite his more than four years in captivity.

News of the video, which US officials said showed Bergdahl appearing to be in "declining health" but not gravely ill, surfaced last month, but the footage has not been made public. US officials said they believed the video was filmed late last year.

The Daily Beast website reported last week that the US government had sought the video as proof Bergdahl was still alive. The site also said that a possible exchange of prisoners was part of a US-backed effort to reach an agreement with the Taliban.

US officials believe Bergdahl, the only known US soldier to remain missing in the war in Afghanistan, is being held in northwest Pakistan by Taliban-linked militants. Several officials said they believe the militants holding Bergdahl are under strict instructions not to harm him because of the possibility of a prisoner trade.

"Clearly if negotiations with the Taliban do resume at some point then we will want to talk with them about the safe return of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He has been gone far too long, and we continue to call for and work towards his safe and immediate release," said White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

The White House declined comment on the recent US discussions with Qatar and the video of Bergdahl.

While the United States has signalled that it is interested in resuming discussions, the Taliban have not yet responded, officials said. In a statement distributed by the US military, Bergdahl's family responded to the renewed diplomatic efforts to secure the soldier's freedom: "We welcome this development and we applaud the unity of purpose and resolve at the White House and the other US government agencies involved. ... We are cautiously optimistic these discussions will lead to the safe return of our son after more than four and a half years in captivity."

US attempts to arrange peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government have collapsed at least twice in the past. It is far from clear that the Western-backed Afghan government and the reclusive Islamist Taliban could reconcile their vastly different visions for the country's future.

The stakes appear higher now because Karzai is declining to sign a security agreement between Kabul and Washington that would permit foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014. That has raised the prospect of renewed civil war.


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