An Afghan government delegation visited the U.S. Guantanamo Bay military prison this week to secure approval from five Taliban detainees who may soon be moved to Qatar, a sign that the Obama administration is inching closer to establishing peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan.
The delegation, which visited the top-security detention centre in Cuba on Monday, included Ibrahim Spinzada, a senior foreign policy aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, sources familiar with the subject said.
Government sources in Kabul said Spinzada and Shahida Abdali, a senior Afghan security official, visited the United States this week. The White House said the two officials were in Washington briefly but both the White House and the Pentagon declined comment on the Guantanamo visit.
Karzai's government has demanded the five former senior members of the Taliban government, held at Guantanamo Bay for a decade, give their consent before they are transferred to , the small Gulf state where they would under Qatar's custody.
The transfer would be one of a series of good-faith measures that, if U.S. diplomats can surmount remaining hurdles, would set in motion the first substantial political negotiations on the bloody conflict in Afghanistan since the Taliban government was toppled in 2001 in a U.S.-led invasion.
A year after it was unveiled, the Obama administration's peace initiative may soon offer the United States a historic opportunity to broker an end to a conflict that began as the response to the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States. The war has dragged on for a decade at great financial and human cost.
But the peace gambit also presents extraordinary risks for Obama, facing the potential for political fallout months before presidential elections, as his government considers backing an arrangement that would give some degree of power to the Taliban, a movement known for its brutality and extreme interpretation of Islam.
Despite months of covert diplomacy, it remains unclear whether the prisoner transfer will go ahead. Doubts are growing about whether the Taliban leadership is willing to weather possible blowback from junior and more hard-core members who appear to oppose negotiations.
U.S. officials have been hoping the behind-the-scenes peace initiative will gain enough momentum to permit Obama to announce the establishment of full-fledged political talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban at a NATO summit in May.
Such an announcement would mark a major victory for the White House and might dispel some of the anxiety created by NATO nations' plans to gradually pull most of their troops by the end of 2014, leaving an inexperienced Afghan military and wobbly Afghan government to fend off a still-potent insurgency.
The confidence-building measures the administration has proposed also include the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar and a Taliban statement distancing itself from terrorism.
The Taliban detainees are seen by some U.S. officials as among the most threatening inmates remaining at Guantanamo. Their possible transfer has become a lightning rod for attack - or at least anxiety - from U.S. politicians from both parties even before the administration formally begins a required congressional notification process.
Among the prisoners that may be sent to Qatar is Mohammed Fazl, a high-risk detainee alleged to be responsible for the killing of thousands of minority Shi'ite Muslims between 1998 and 2001.
They also include Noorullah Noori, a former senior military commander; Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former deputy intelligence minister; and Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former interior minister.
Republicans particularly have voiced concerns that transferred Taliban officials might regain positions of power or rekindle an insurgency that Western forces are working to extinguish.
My assumption is that my client would welcome an opportunity to be released from Guantanamo, said Frank Goldsmith, an attorney for Khairkhwa, who arrived at Guantanamo in May 2002.
This week's visit to Guantanamo may reflect the narrow course that Karzai, who had gone from Western darling to frequent antagonist, must tread as he seeks to build support for peace talks among Afghans who fear a Taliban return - all while shoring up his own fragile political backing.
It was unclear who else may have accompanied Spinzada to Guantanamo.
The reconciliation initiative has proceeded in fits and starts in part because of what U.S. officials describe as an unpredictable partner in Kabul. U.S. officials have held eight meetings with Afghan militant interlocutors since the peace initiative began, Reuters learned.
Karzai, meanwhile, has complained the United States has repeatedly sidelined in a process that is supposed to be Afghan-led.
While those disagreements may have been put to rest, the latest diplomatic manoeuvres come at a particularly sensitive time for the U.S.-Afghan relationship following the burning of copies of the Koran on a NATO military base, an incident that sparked protests and attacks on Western forces.
On Friday, the two governments announced a breakthrough in efforts to strike a bilateral deal that would outline their long-term presence and authorize a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Editing by Bill Trott)