Kabul delays Taliban prisoner release plan

Updated March 15, 2020

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Members of the Taliban delegation gather ahead of the signing ceremony with the United States in the Qatari capital Doha, on February 29. — AFP/File
Members of the Taliban delegation gather ahead of the signing ceremony with the United States in the Qatari capital Doha, on February 29. — AFP/File

KABUL: The Afghan government has postponed its plan to release Taliban prisoners, a senior official said on Saturday, throwing a precarious peace process between the insurgents and Kabul into deeper crisis.

President Ashraf Ghani recently announced that the authorities would free 1,500 militants as a “gesture of goodwill” before negotiations begin, in an attempt to resolve one of the long-running disputes that had roiled talks.

The insurgents had earlier rejected the offer and demanded that up to 5,000 captives are released ahead of talks, citing the US-Taliban deal signed last month that excluded Kabul.

On Saturday Javid Faisal, spokesman for the National Security Council, said that “the prisoners’ release has been delayed” to allow more time to review their identities. “We have received the lists of prisoners to be released. We are checking and verifying the lists; this will take time,” he said.

Ghani’s decree said the government would begin releasing 1,500 captives on Saturday if the militants cut violence, with plans to free another 3,500 prisoners after negotiations begin.

“We want guarantees that they will not return to fighting,” Faisal said.

Since the US-Taliban agreement was signed in Doha on February 29, violence has flared up, with the insurgents carrying out dozens of attacks across the country, killing Afghan forces and civilians.

There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban to the announcement of the delay, which is likely to further stall peace talks, which were originally expected to begin on March 10.

On Wednesday, the government warned it would resume offensive operations against the militants if violence continues, ending a unilateral partial truce put in place ahead of the talks.

Political chaos in Kabul has complicated matters further, with Ghani’s former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah also claiming the presidency following last September’s election, which was marred by delays and allegations of voter fraud.

On Monday, Abdullah swore himself in as president minutes after Ghani took the oath of office.

According to the Doha agreement, foreign forces will withdraw from the country within 14 months in exchange for Taliban security guarantees and a pledge to hold talks with Kabul.

The US has said its withdrawal of troops was not dependent on successful negotiations between Afghans on both sides of the conflict. However, the US State Department has issued statements urging Kabul’s feuding politicians to find a compromise, urged an end to posturing and said many of the Taliban prisoners on the list had already served their sentence and that the names were decided after lengthy negotiations.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2020