WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- The White House may miss a historic chance for Afghan peace by delaying a prisoner release after a Taliban offer to open talks, Western Afghan specialists say.
"It's an open question whether the Americans appreciate how momentous a step this was for the Taliban," former European Union Afghan envoy Michael Semple, now a Harvard University human rights fellow, told the British newspaper The Guardian. "It is serious and it is profound. It's completely game-changing."
Semple was referring to a Jan. 3 announcement the Taliban would open a political office in Qatar, a wealthy Persian Gulf emirate, for the purpose of holding peace talks with the international community. The announcement, which The New York Times said caught U.S. officials by surprise, reversed the insurgents' longstanding policy of refusing to negotiate as long as foreign forces remained in Afghanistan.
The Taliban said they expected the Qatar office opening to be the first in a series of reciprocal confidence-building measures that could include the release of at least five senior Taliban officials held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. officials said they might transfer the Taliban officials -- including a "high-risk detainee" held at Guantanamo for 10 years -- to Qatari custody. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week the Obama administration was "still in the preliminary stages of testing whether this can be successful."
The release of prisoners could unfold in the middle of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, U.S. officials pointed out.
"We know there is a political risk involved in the middle of [U.S. presidential] elections," a senior European official told The Guardian. "But we also believe the earlier they do this, the less the political risk, because by November it will be in the distant past."
Administration officials told The Guardian the obstacle was bit U.S. politics -- it was the challenging dynamics of a tenuous Afghan coalition that keeps President Hamid Karzai in power.
"Reconciliation is, after all, still controversial in Afghanistan," a U.S. official said.
The Taliban have so far agreed to talk with U.S. representatives but not with Karzai's administration.
Washington and its allies maintain the peace process must be "Afghan-led."
Veteran U.S. envoy Marc Grossman, who met secretly with a representative of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar in the hope of starting peace talks, was due back in Afghanistan this week for talks with Karzai to move the process forward.
Grossman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, came out of retirement to take on the Taliban-negotiation job.