The White House is denying a plan to release high-ranking Taliban officials held in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for an agreement by the Afghan insurgency to open a political office to begin peace negotiations in Qatar. The plan was reported by The Guardian on Tuesday, which cited "sources familiar with the talks in the US and Afghanistan," saying the U.S. would release a "handful of Taliban figures" including Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, and Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan.
In a statement to The Atlantic Wire, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor dismissed the The Guardian's story. "This report is not accurate," he said. "The United States has not decided to release any Taliban officials from Guantanamo Bay in return for the Taliban's agreement to open a political office for peace negotiations."
On Tuesday, The Guardian report lit up the conservative blogosphere as President Obama's critics assailed him for the alleged compromise. "So let’s get this straight," wrote John Hinderaker at the conservative blog Powerline. "We agree to release key Taliban leaders from Gitmo, and the Taliban 'reciprocates' not by releasing the one American they hold hostage, but by agreeing to 'open a political office…in Qatar?' Wow, what a sacrifice!" Rick Moran at The American Thinker asked "Shouldn't prisoner releases like, you know, happen at the end of a negotiations, not the beginning?"
While it's not clear where The Guardian got its information, it is clear that U.S. officials and the Taliban are on the verge of some sort of deal involving the opening of a political office in Qatar, according to today's New York Times and The Washington Post. The reports were triggered by an announcement Tuesday by the Taliban that it struck a deal to open the office. The Times reported:
In a statement, Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said that along with a preliminary deal to set up the office in Qatar, the group was asking that Taliban detainees held at the American prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, be released. Mr. Mujahid did not say when the Qatar office would be opened, or give specifics about the prisoners the Taliban wanted freed.
... The opening of an office in Qatar is meant to give Afghan and Western peace negotiators an “address” where they can openly contact legitimate Taliban intermediaries. That would open the way for confidence-building measures that Washington hopes to press forward in the coming months.
The release of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay is obviously a highly-sensitive issue that Republicans would likely pounce on during this election cycle. It will be interesting to see where the White House moves forward on the issue. Notice that Vietor's denial says the White House "has not decided" on the release of the prisoners, not that it won't ever agree to release them.