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A Taliban spokesman said yesterday the group would consider releasing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier missing since 2009, if the US released five members of the Taliban being held at the US military prison in Guantánamo bay, Cuba.
The swap, the spokesman implied, could be the initial step of larger peace talks that have so far proved elusive but could be nearing as the Taliban makes a bid to lessen its status as an international pariah.
Blocking the release of the five men in exchange for Sergeant Bergdahl, who has been held by militants since 2009, is concern that they could return home to organize new attacks on US troops still in Afghanistan.
The strict security conditions that the Obama administration required to prevent them from fighting again – releasing the detainees to Qatar and barring them from leaving there – scuttled the last attempt at peace talks in 2011, The New York Times reports.
The Times describes the five men in question:
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 is 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 American forces.
The men are among the most high level detainees at Guantánamo. Without this deal, they would be among the last prisoners to be removed from the facility if it is closed, The New York Times reports. There are 18 Afghans total remaining at Guantánamo, but the others are not high level enough to be "bargaining chips."
Meanwhile, the possibility of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government may have evaporated. CBS News reports that a senior envoy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the Taliban delegation "is still not sending the signals which would allow peace talks" to begin.
During a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Taliban's new office in Doha, Qatar, the group flew a flag representing the "Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan,” the name the group used during its rule over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
"In taking the name 'The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,' the Taliban is pretending it is a sovereign power," Ismail Qasimyaar, the government High Peace Council's chief international adviser, told CBS News. "They are trying to give the impression that the Doha office is an embassy or quasi-diplomatic mission."
The Los Angeles Times reports that the possibility of Taliban talks is causing regional players to pay sincere attention to the group, which has become a more formidable diplomatic foe as it becomes more politically savvy.
"It's early days, but India's watching this very carefully," said Rana Banerji, a New Delhi-based Central Asia expert and former Indian Cabinet Secretariat intelligence official. "The Taliban's moved on, become pretty sophisticated. Their media management is quite good, they're Internet savvy, things have moved on from 1996."
Although the US pressured the Taliban to take down its provocative flag, "it succeeded in putting Karzai on the defensive with public relations antics and showmanship" and shining the spotlight on itself as it spoke about international cooperation, according to the Los Angeles Times.
This is part of a broader Taliban image makeover, analysts said. The militants have softened their opposition to secular education and video technologies they once vehemently opposed as un-Islamic and embraced social media, frequently used to exaggerate the effectiveness of their attacks against international and Afghan forces or to take credit for attacks they didn't plan. Their website now issues news releases in five languages, complemented by a Twitter feed with more than 8,000 followers.
At a conference in December with Afghan officials, Taliban representatives expressed a willingness to share power and grant more rights to women, allowing them to choose their husbands, own property, attend school and hold jobs, all rights denied during Taliban rule.
Whether this is heartfelt or mere window dressing in an effort to better appeal to an increasingly educated and worldly Afghan electorate remains to be seen. Also unclear is how representative these initiatives are of different factions and generations in the Taliban.
The Taliban are trying to set themselves up well in the longterm, an analyst in Kabul told the Los Angeles Times. The US withdrawal in 2014 may not be the end of political dealings with the group.
"The Taliban vision is not 2013 or 2014, but beyond 2015," he said. "The Taliban are trying to get rid of the international and especially US sanctions and get their names removed from the black list. And they want political power in Afghanistan."