The Afghan Taliban are ready to free a U.S. army soldier held captive since 2009 in exchange for five of their senior operatives imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay as a conciliatory gesture, a senior spokesman for the group said Thursday.
The offer came as an Afghan government spokesman said President Hamid Karzai is now willing to join planned peace talks with the Taliban — provided that the Taliban flag and nameplate are removed from the militant group's newly opened political office in Doha, the capital of the Gulf state of Qatar. Karzai also wants a formal letter from the United States supporting the Afghan government.
The only known American soldier held captive from the Afghan war is U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho. He disappeared from his base in southeastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, and is believed held in Pakistan.
In an exclusive telephone interview with The Associated Press from his Doha office, Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail said on Thursday that Bergdahl "is, as far as I know, in good condition."
Suhail did not elaborate on Bergdahl's current whereabouts.
It is not clear, however, if the offer is good with the entire Taliban.
A spokesman, located in Afghanistan, for the militant group "said the offer is not valid," according to freelance reporter Jennifer Glasse.
"This leads to some concerns about who is really speaking for the Taliban," and whether the officials in Qatar "have control," of the organization, Glasse told CBC News on Thursday.
Bergdahl's parents earlier this month received a letter from their son who turned 27 on March 28 through the International Committee of the Red Cross. They did not release details of the letter but renewed their plea for his release.
The prisoner exchange is the first item on the Taliban's agenda before even opening peace talks, added Suhail, who was first secretary at the Afghan Embassy in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad before the Taliban government's ouster in 2001.
"First has to be the release of detainees," Sukhail said when asked about Bergdahl. "Yes. It would be an exchange. Then step by step, we want to build bridges of confidence to go forward."
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was expected in Doha ahead of Saturday's conference on the Syrian civil war.
While in Qatar, Kerry is also expected to meet with the Taliban, who opened their political office earlier this week.
But complications set in almost immediately when Afghan President Hamid Karzai became infuriated by the Taliban's move to cast their new office in Doha as a rival embassy.
The Taliban held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday in which they hoisted their flag and a banner with the name they used while in power more than a decade ago: "Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."
Later, the Taliban replaced the sign to read simply: "Political office of the Taliban."
Karzai pulled out of the talks and suspended negotiations with the United States on a bilateral security agreement that would cover those U.S. troops who remained behind after the final withdrawal of NATO combat troops at the end of 2014.
Suhail said the Taliban are insistent that they want their first interlocutors to be the United States.
"First we talk to the Americans about those issues concerning the Americans and us and for those issues implementation is only in the hands of the Americans," he said.
"We want foreign troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan," he added. "If there are troops in Afghanistan then there will be a continuation of the war."