US Open to Negotiating Over Prisoners With Taliban

Bowe Bergdahl

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government is willing to discuss prisoners taken by both sides in the war in Afghanistan in planned talks with the Taliban movement, the State Department said Thursday in Washington.

Responding to media reports that the Taliban were interested in discussing Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release in exchange for Taliban leaders held by the United States, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the release of the only known U.S. prisoner was "a priority for us."

"And I believe in the same statement [Taliban representatives] said that they want some of their detainees as well. So we knew we would raise this issue. We expected them to. We're happy to discuss it."

The U.S. has held several Taliban commanders for more than a decade at its Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba.

She emphasized that possible talks with the Taliban, who have been allowed to open an office in Doha, would have "a number of items on the agenda" beyond prisoner issues.

"The U.S. has a range of interests that we want to discuss with the Taliban, including the importance of the Taliban renouncing terrorism and violence," Psaki said.

Also Thursday, a presidential palace official said the Taliban office was to be renamed to remove any reference to the state of Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured Afghan government officials that the Qatari government has removed the name "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" from the office, the palace official said on the condition of anonymity.

The office, which opened Tuesday, will be renamed "the Bureau of Peace Talks," the official said.

The move came after Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday suspended military planning talks with the United States and vowed to boycott planned talks with the Taliban because "foreign powers are involved behind the Taliban office in Qatar."

The palace official said Karzai objected to the name of the office implying a government for the insurgents: "The manner in which the office was established and the name of the Taliban office is unacceptable to us."

The 1996-2001 Taliban regime called itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The agreed purpose of the Doha office was to hold talks between Karzai's High Peace Council and Taliban representatives, the palace official said: "There was to be no reference to the office or treatment of it as an embassy or office representing the Taliban as an independent government or an emirate."

"We have also been assured that the Taliban flag would be removed in the Doha office," the official said.

Taliban officials were not available for comment. At the Doha office, the name Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan had been removed Thursday. The Taliban flag had not been withdrawn but was flying so low that it could not be seen from the street.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the peace talks could "reinforce security gains and further contribute to Afghanistan's long-term security and unity" and called for negotiations "sooner, rather than later."

"Reconciliation is a process which must include the breaking of ties to international terrorism, renouncing violence and compliance with the Afghan constitution," he said in Brussels.

Rasmussen expressed confidence that Karzai would unfreeze talks with the U.S. for a post-2014 bilateral security agreement. "I am confident that, at the end of the day, we will reach an agreement on the security arrangements that will create the framework for the NATO training mission Resolute Support after 2014," Rasmussen said.

German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere, visiting German forces in northern Afghanistan, warned that if Kabul and Washington did not reach a security agreement, German troops would not stay on as trainers and advisers after 2014.

The U.S.-Afghanistan security agreement would set U.S. troop levels and bases remaining after the 2014 withdrawal of NATO-led coalition combat forces. Further agreements would give foreign troops immunity from prosecution under Afghan law during their deployment.

De Maiziere, who met in Herat with his Afghan counterpart, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, and Italian Defence Minister Mario Mauro, said he supported negotiations if the Taliban recognize the Afghan constitution and distance themselves from the al-Qaida terrorist network.

With nearly 100,000 foreign soldiers including 4,100 Germans now deployed in Afghanistan, NATO plans call for 8,000 to 12,000 Western soldiers to stay in Afghanistan post-2014, including 600 to 800 Germans.

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