Afghan govt rejects prisoner swap under US-Taliban accord

Published March 2, 2020
JALALABAD: Taliban fighters stand beside the weapons they handed over to the authorities at a ceremony on 
Sunday.—AFP
JALALABAD: Taliban fighters stand beside the weapons they handed over to the authorities at a ceremony on Sunday.—AFP

KABUL: Afghanistan’s weakened government protested on Sunday against a key component of a deal between the US and the Taliban, setting the scene for fractious talks when Kabul and the insurgents meet to strike a separate agreement.

President Ashraf Ghani, who faces a political crisis following claims of fraud in his recent re-election, said he would not commit to a clause in the US-Taliban deal that calls for a massive prisoner exchange, something the militants have been demanding for years.

The swap is one part of the accord, fleshed out over more than a year of talks between the US and the Taliban, which was signed on Saturday in Doha and lays out a 14-month withdrawal timetable for all foreign forces — provided the militants fulfil various pledges and open talks with Kabul.

President Ghani pledges to honour the truce that has helped reduce violence

Ghani committed to continue honouring a partial truce that has seen violence plummet in Afghanistan, but he pushed back against the requirement for the Taliban to release up to 1,000 prisoners and for the Afghan government to release around 5,000 captives by March 10, when talks are supposed to start.

‘Biggest challenge’

While supporters of Saturday’s accord say it marks a critical first step toward peace, many Afghans fear it amounts to little more than a dressed-up US surrender that will ultimately see the Taliban return to power.

The extent to which that happens hinges on the coming “intra-Afghan” dialogue between the Taliban, the Ghani administration, and other Afghan political players.

But critics say Ghani has prioritised his re-election over making a deal with the Taliban, and has struggled to finalise who will negotiate with the militants.

“The biggest challenge right now is the lack of preparedness of the Afghan government to negotiate, even though they knew for several years ... that this was going to happen and that these would be the parameters of the deal,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.

“It would be an extremely lucky situation if in 14 months there was a deal signed with the Taliban,” she added, referring to the timeline under which all foreign forces are supposed to quit Afghanistan.

In Jalalabad, capital of the eastern province of Nangarhar, more than a dozen Taliban fighters handed weapons over to the authorities in a ceremony.

“We came here to join the government peace and reconciliation process,” Taliban fighter Atiqullah Jan told reporters. “We are happy the security forces accepted us, I call on others to (join the process).”

Meanwhile, the Taliban’s political chief met senior diplomats from countries including Russia, Indo­nesia and Norway, hours after signing a deal with Washington, the Islamist group said in a statement on Sunday.

Soon after the agreement, US President Donald Trump said he would be personally meeting leaders of the Taliban in the near future and rejected criticism surrounding the deal signed with the insurgents.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar met foreign ministers from Turkey, Uzbekistan and Norway in Doha along with diplomats from Russia, Indonesia and neighbouring nations, the Taliban said, a move that signalled the group’s determination to secure international legitimacy.

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2020

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