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Afghan Taliban to seek prisoner swap as U.S. attempts to broker peace talks

“If they are sincere in talks in the future, they would accept our proposal for a prisoners’ exchange.”
Image: Afghanistan Taliban arrest
Afghan security forces guard captured Taliban militants in Ghazni province on April 14, 2018.Zakeria Hashimi / AFP - Getty Images file

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The youngest son of the feared Haqqani terror network’s founder is among hundreds of prisoners whom the Taliban is demanding be released as part of an upcoming round of talks with the United States, four Taliban officials told NBC News.

“This meeting with the U.S. authorities would either help pave the way for more meaningful talks or stop them forever,” a Taliban commander in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “If they are sincere in talks in the future, they would accept our proposal for a prisoners’ exchange.”

The four Taliban officials, speaking from Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, said that the next round of discussions will be held very soon and deal with a possible prisoner exchange.

But despite the Taliban’s tough talk, it is unlikely the U.S.-backed Afghan government will agree to releasing such a senior figure in the insurgency without major concessions from the other side, experts said.

Image: Kandahar prison
Afghan policemen in front of the main prison in Kandahar, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 25, 2011.Allauddin Khan / AP file

In Washington, the State Department said no talks were scheduled and declined to comment on whether a potential prisoner swap was on the table. On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters, “We’re ready to work with the people of Afghanistan, the government of Afghanistan, and to talk to the Taliban all together to bring an end to the conflict.”

The Afghan government did not respond to requests for comment.

In recent months, the U.S. has stepped up attempts to broker peace talks between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, the militant group ousted after sheltering Osama bin Laden as he plotted the 9/11 attacks. Since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, more than 2,400 American personnel and tens of thousands of Afghans have died.

President Donald Trump’s impatience with the 17-year-old war has prompted U.S. diplomats and commanders to gamble on a bid to kick-start peace negotiations, including holding direct talks with the Taliban, current and former U.S. officials have told NBC News.

A former U.S. official with extensive experience in Afghanistan said that the administration sees a potential window of opportunity to advance peace talks, but the effort was still at an early stage.

“There are serious indications that there are internal discussions inside the Taliban,” he said of their response to the offer for reconciliation, despite the group’s position that the Afghan government is illegitimate. The former official spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the discussions.

Image: Jalaluddin Haqqani, center, sits with two top commanders
Jalaluddin Haqqani, center, with two top commanders in his base in Pakistan's Miranshah in 1991.Zubair Mir / AFP - Getty Images

Anas Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani who founded the militant group under his name in the 1970s, tops the list of those the Taliban is saying must be released, according to the Taliban officials.

Anas Haqqani has been in Afghan custody since October 2014 when U.S. security forces nabbed him while en route to Qatar from Bahrain.

The network’s founder was reported to have died last week after a lengthy illness.

The Haqqanis are believed to be holding Kevin King, an American who was one of two professors from the American University of Afghanistan who were kidnapped in Kabul in Aug. 2016. In October, the Taliban said he was seriously ill.

The Haqqani network has also been behind some of the bloodiest attacks against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan as well as high-profile abductions including Caitlan Coleman, an American who was pregnant when she was taken hostage with her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, in 2012.

A Western official and a foreign diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said it is possible that both sides could agree to a swap as a confidence-building measure. But they played down the possibility of a release of high-profile prisoners by either side.

Anas Haqqani’s release “would be politically very difficult for the government,” the Western official said, adding that a swap of low-level figures such as Afghan government troops and Taliban foot soldiers would be more likely.

Releasing Anas Haqqani would be unpopular among many Afghans who despise the group for staging complex, well-organized attacks on Afghan military personnel and civilians. Banners and posters demanding that he be hanged have appeared around Kabul.

Another of Jalaluddin Haqqani's sons, Sirajuddin, is in charge of the Haqqani network and also serves as deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban. He has a $5 million bounty on his head.

Image: Afghan forces operation against Taliban militants
Members of the Afghan security forces fire at Taliban fighters in Nad Ali district of Helmand province in April 2017.Watam Yar / EPA

The Taliban say that 13,000 to 15,000 of their members are being held in Afghan jails. The group claims to hold 400 prisoners, most of whom are members of the Afghan security establishment but also including U.S. nationals and other foreigners.

The Western official was cautious about the prospects for genuine peace negotiations, saying there was no sign yet that the Taliban was ready to speak directly with the Afghan government itself — long a Afghan prerequisite for negotiations. The Taliban has always insisted on speaking directly and exclusively to the Americans and refuses to recognize the Afghan government.

“It seems they haven’t shifted their position at all,” he said, referring to the Taliban. “There’s a number of people on their side who think they’re winning.”

The United States last year stepped up its military assistance to Afghanistan, notably through a sharp increase in airstrikes, with the aim of breaking a stalemate with the insurgents and forcing them to the negotiating table.

While the U.S. military says it is hitting the Taliban hard, the group has made major gains in recent years, continues to inflict severe casualties on Afghan forces and controls or contests much of the country.

Image: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Mohammad Ismail / Reuters file

In June, the government of President Ashraf Ghani announced another truce with the Taliban during the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which the Taliban accepted. The group later rejected a call by the president to extend the ceasefire.

One of the Taliban officials said that Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador recently named as a special adviser for Afghanistan peace talks, arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday for discussions.

The State Department did not confirm or deny if Khalilzad was traveling to the region for discussions, but a spokesperson said that he had not formally take up his duties yet.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis paid a surprise visit to Kabul on Sept. 7 to encourage peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar, Pakistan; Ahmed Mengli from Kabul; Dan De Luce and Abigail Williams from Washington; and Linda Givetash from London.