ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The Afghan Taliban are ready to free a U.S. soldier held captive since 2009 in exchange for five of their senior operatives imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay as a conciliatory gesture, a senior spokesman for the group said Thursday.
The offer follows this week’s official opening of a Taliban political office in Doha, the capital of the Gulf state of Qatar.
The only known American soldier held captive from the Afghan war is U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho. He disappeared from his base in southeastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, and is believed held in Pakistan.
In an exclusive telephone interview with The Associated Press from his Doha office, Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail said on Thursday that Bergdahl “is, as far as I know, in good condition.”
Suhail did not elaborate on Bergdahl’s current whereabouts. Among the five prisoners the Taliban have consistently requested are Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mullah Mohammed Fazl, a former top Taliban military commander, both of whom have been held for more than a decade.
Bergdahl’s parents earlier this month received a letter from their son who turned 27 on March 28 through the International Committee of the Red Cross. They did not release details of the letter but renewed their plea for his release. The soldier’s captivity has been marked by only sporadic releases of videos and information about his whereabouts.
The prisoner exchange is the first item on the Taliban’s agenda before even opening peace talks, saidn Suhail, who is a top Taliban figure and served as first secretary at the Afghan Embassy in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad before the Taliban government’s ouster in 2001.
“First has to be the release of detainees,” Suhail said when asked about Bergdahl. “Yes. It would be an exchange. Then step by step, we want to build bridges of confidence to go forward.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was expected in Doha ahead of Saturday’s conference on the Syrian civil war.
While in Qatar, Kerry is also expected to meet with the Taliban but timing was unclear. On Wednesday in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. had “never confirmed” any specific meeting schedule with Taliban representatives in Doha.
Prospective peace talks are also still in question, especially after Afghan President Hamid Karzai became infuriated by the Taliban’s move to cast their new office in Doha as a rival embassy.
The Taliban held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday in which they hoisted their flag and a banner with the name they used while in power more than a decade ago: “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Later, the Taliban replaced the sign to read simply: Political office of the Taliban.
At the ceremony, the Taliban welcomed dialogue with Washington but said their fighters would not stop fighting. Hours later, the group claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Bagram Air Base outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, that killed four American service members.
Karzai on Wednesday announced his government is out of the peace talks, apparently angered by the way Kabul had been sidelined in the U.S.-Taliban bid for rapprochement.
The Afghan president also suspended negotiations with the United States on a bilateral security agreement that would cover American troops who will remain behind after the final withdrawal of NATO combat troops at the end of 2014.
Suhail said the Taliban are insistent that they want their first interlocutors to be the United States. “First we talk to the Americans about those issues concerning the Americans and us (because) for those issues implementation is only in the hands of the Americans,” he said.
“We want foreign troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan,” he added. “If there are troops in Afghanistan then there will be a continuation of the war.”
Suhail indicated the Taliban could approve of American trainers and advisers for the Afghan troops, saying that “of course, there is co-operation between countries in other things. We need that co-operation.”
He said that once the Taliban concluded talks with the United States, they would participate in all-inclusive Afghan talks.
Suhail ruled out exclusive talks with Karzai’s High Peace Council, which has been a condition of the Afghan president who previously said he wanted talks in Doha to be restricted to his representatives and the Taliban. Instead, the Taliban would talk to all Afghan groups, Suhail said.
“After we finish the phase of talking to the Americans, then we would start the internal phase … that would include all Afghans,” he said. “Having all groups involved will guarantee peace and stability.”
On Thursday, Karzai’s government appeared to throw another spanner into the mix, demanding that Pakistan release imprisoned Afghan Taliban leaders.
“It is a good time to release these Taliban leaders jailed in Pakistan, and then the Afghan High Peace Council together with them will begin talks with the Taliban inside Afghanistan or in Qatar,” a statement from the foreign ministry in Kabul said.
It wasn’t clear, however, whether the Taliban in Pakistani custody would be willing to participate in peace talks as members of Karzai’s council.
Pakistan last year and earlier this year released dozens of Taliban prisoners, most of whom returned to the ranks of the Taliban.
The Afghan government has repeatedly sought the release of the Taliban’s former No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, picked up by Pakistan in 2010 on a CIA tip.
Pakistan has so far refused, and two senior U.S. officials told the AP that the U.S. has asked Pakistan not to release Baradar or if he is released, to give them advance notice so they could monitor his movements. The two officials, both knowledgeable of the process, spoke earlier this year, on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
The reconciliation process with the Taliban has been a long and bumpy one that began nearly two years ago when the U.S. opened secret talks that were later scuttled by Karzai when he learned of them.
It was then that the U.S. and Taliban discussed prisoner exchanges and for a brief time it appeared that the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners would be released and sent to Doha to help further the peace process. But Karzai stepped in again and demanded they be returned to Afghanistan over Taliban objections.
Since then, the U.S. has been trying to jumpstart peace talks and the Taliban have made small gestures including an offer to share power. The Taliban have also attended several international conferences and held meetings with representatives of about 30 countries.
If the Taliban hold talks with Kerry in the next few days, they will be the first U.S.-Taliban talks in nearly 1 1/2 years.
Associated Press writers Kay Johnson in Kabul and Brian Murphy in Dubai contributed to this report.