Negotiations are continuing between U.S. and Qatari officials over the travel status of five Taliban members who were released to the Gulf state last year as part of a prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Al Jazeera learned Monday that weekend reports suggesting the men's stay in Qatar had been extended were erroneous, and that their situation remains under negotiation. But the fate of the so-called Taliban 5 will be decided against a backdrop of intermittent efforts mediated by Doha to conduct peace talks among the main parties to the conflict in Afghanistan.
The five Taliban members were released to Qatar last June from the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, and have since been under strict surveillance. The exchange for Bergdahl, who had been held by Taliban forces for five years, has proved controversial for Barack Obama's administration — Bergdahl was charged in March with desertion for leaving his U.S. military post in June 2009. The prisoner swap was not directly linked to any broader peace efforts in Afghanistan. But U.S. officials expressed hope at the time that it might help achieve a new opening for talks.
Mindful of the Taliban's continued strength more than 12 years after U.S. forces first invaded Afghanistan with the goal of destroying the movement that had hosted Al-Qaeda, the U.S. has over the years cautiously explored back-channel diplomacy with the movement and encouraged its Afghan allies to do the same.
Taliban officials have also expressed a willingness to enter into peace talks, although they had long set U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the release of Taliban prisoners as preconditions for negotiating a political solution to the conflict.
In February, media reports suggested U.S. and Taliban officials had planned direct talks in Doha to discuss peace efforts, though officials from both sides subsequently denied this.
Qatar has also hosted several rounds of talks between Taliban representatives and the Afghan government.
In 2013, the Taliban’s political wing opened an office in Doha, in a move some hoped would launch a diplomatic opening between the group and the Afghan government. But the office closed within weeks, after former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai voiced displeasure at the Taliban casting itself as Afghanistan's government-in-exile.
Diplomatic prospects improved with last year's election of Ashraf Ghani as Karzai's successor. Ghani has pledged to enter talks with the Taliban to end to the war in his country.
As a part of that effort, Ghani has attempted to patch up relations with neighboring Pakistan, viewed by Western and Afghan officials as a key backer of the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan appears to have stepped up its encouragement of peace efforts in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the December massacre of 132 students in Peshawar, an attack conducted by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), which is allied to but distinct from the Afghan Taliban.
In the intervening period, Ghani and Pakistan President Nawaz Sharif have sought to thaw relations between their countries.
Afghan government and Taliban officials met last month in Doha for two days of “reconciliation” talks that were organized by the Pugwash Conferences, an international group that often facilitates discreet talks between conflicting parties. There are plans for a follow-up Pugwash round of talks in the near future.
Also, in mid-May, an Afghan government official met with former Taliban officials in the western Chinese city of Urumqi. China has sought to increase its footprint in Afghanistan to help diplomatic efforts, and uses its influence with Pakistan to that end.
But successful peace negotiations with the Taliban by the U.S. and its allies continue to face many obstacles.
In April, the Taliban launched its annual spring offensive in Afghanistan and its fighters have kept up a steady stream of attacks. And despite the end of the NATO mission in Afghanistan last year and a U.S. declaration that its combat role there was over, nearly 10,000 American soldiers have remained in country at Ghani’s request. Their continued presence remains a primary reason cited by the Taliban for declining talks.
Ghani’s office, in a recent letter obtained by various media outlets, reproached Pakistan for not doing enough to push the Taliban to the negotiating table and reciprocate his diplomatic opening.
“Regardless of his firm commitment to peace, Ghani has no choice but to become a war president to ensure the survival of his country and the safety of Afghan women and children,” the letter said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
"Since he made all these efforts, the Taliban based in Pakistan have launched their biggest spring offensive ever,” Barnett Rubin, an Afghan expert who previously advised the Obama administration on Afghanistan, said on Saturday, “and I have not seen any evidence that anyone in Pakistan is trying to stop them.”