The US has agreed in principle to release high-ranking Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay in return for the Afghan insurgents' agreement to open a political office for peace negotiations in Qatar, the Guardian newspaper reported on Wednesday.
More controversially, the Taliban are demanding the release of the former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund. Washington is reported to be considering formally handing him over to the custody of another country, possibly Qatar.
The releases would be to reciprocate for Tuesday's announcement from the Taliban that they are prepared to open a political office in Qatar to conduct peace negotiations "with the international community" – the most significant political breakthrough in ten years of the Afghan conflict.
The Taliban are holding just one American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, a 25-year-old sergeant captured in June 2009, but it is not clear whether he would be freed as part of the deal.
"To take this step, the [Obama] administration have to have sufficient confidence that the Taliban are going to reciprocate," said Vali Nasr, who was an Obama administration adviser on the Afghan peace process until last year. "It is going to be really risky. Guantánamo is a very sensitive issue politically."
Nasr, now a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said the Taliban announcement on the opening of an office in Qatar was a dramatic breakthrough.
"If it had not happened then the idea of reconciliation would have been completely finished. The Qatar office is akin to the Taliban forming a Sinn Féin, a political wing to conduct negotiations," Nasr said, but added: "The next phase will need concessions on both sides. This doesn't mean we are now on autopilot to peace."
Michael Semple, a former EU envoy in Afghanistan who has maintained contact with senior Taliban figures, agreed that the deal represented a critical moment.
This time, he said, it was clear that the top Taliban council – including its reclusive leader, Mullah Omar – was on board with the proposal. In return, Semple said he thought the release of a few prisoners from Guantánamo Bay was politically feasible for the Obama administration, even in an election year.
"The prospect of ending a costly war in Afghanistan is sufficiently attractive for the Obama administration to move forward with it," Semple said.
Tuesday's announcement was made by email by a Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid.
"Right now, having a strong presence in Afghanistan, we still want to have a political office for negotiations," Mujahid said. "In this regard, we have started preliminary talks and we have reached a preliminary understanding with relevant sides, including the government of Qatar, to have a political office for negotiations with the international community."
The announcement was strongly endorsed by former officials who served under the Taliban regime in the 1990s, many of whom have been pushing for an overseas Taliban "address" for years.
Western diplomats hope the opening of an office in Qatar will also lessen Pakistan's control of the Taliban. Pakistan plays host to most of the Taliban leadership, which it sees as an important bargaining counter in negotiations over the future of the region.