WASHINGTON — Two were senior Taliban commanders said to be implicated in killing thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. When asked about the alleged 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 Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, could be the key to whether the negotiations the U.S. 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.
The proposal to trade Bergdahl for the Taliban detainees was made by senior Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail. The prisoner exchange is the Taliban’s demand before even starting peace talks, said Suhail. “First has to be the release of detainees,” he said Thursday.
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The Obama administration was noncommittal about the proposal. “We’ve been very clear on our feelings about Sgt. Bergdahl and the need for him to be released,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “We have not made a decision to … transfer any Taliban detainees from Guantánamo Bay.”
Bergdahl, 27, of Hailey, Idaho, is the only known U.S. soldier held captive from the Afghan war. He disappeared from his base in southeastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, and is believed held in Pakistan. Suhail said Bergdahl “is, as far as I know, in good condition.”
Donna Thibedeau-Eddy, who has spent the last few days at the Idaho home of the soldier’s parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, said the family was hopeful.
“I was with his mom and dad this morning when they got the news of the exchange offer. They were ecstatic,” said Thibedeau-Eddy.
While there have been talks before, Bob Bergdahl is putting more faith and hope into the latest developments because it appears the Taliban are taking the initiative, Thibedeau-Eddy said.
Less than a month ago, President Obama repeated his intention to close Guantánamo. 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 Guantánamo 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.
More is known about the five Taliban members than other Guantánamo prisoners, because the details of their alleged roles were described in government files given to WikiLeaks by Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is being court-martialed and facing a possible life sentence if convicted. Because the five have never been given a trial, the quality of the evidence and the credibility of the claims against them in the files have not been tested. The five are:
• Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban chief of army staff and the deputy minister of defense.
• Abdul Haq Wasiq, former Taliban deputy minister of intelligence.
• Mullah Norullah Nuri, who has been described as one of the most significant former Taliban officials held at Guantánamo.
• Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former Taliban minister of the interior and military commander. According to military documents, he had direct ties to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.
• Mohammed Nabi, former chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, the capital of the southern province of Zabul.
With U.S. troops still on the ground in Afghanistan, both Obama administration and congressional officials say there is genuine concern about releasing high-level leaders if there is any prospect that they could return to rally new attacks.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.