Taliban prisoners

09 Aug 2020

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THE peace process in Afghanistan has reached a critical stage. Stakes are high for everyone concerned, none more so than the people of Afghanistan who have endured four decades of conflict. As the Loya Jirga meets in Kabul to decide on key questions including the release of the remaining Taliban prisoners, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has had a telephonic conversation with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and discussed Pakistan’s role in promoting peace in Afghanistan. In a tweet, Mr Pompeo termed the call “productive” and said, “I look forward to advancing our shared goals and increasing partnership.” Mr Qureshi said Pakistan would be a partner for peace with the United States.

Peace hinges on the talks that are expected to take place between the government in Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. These talks in turn are dependent on Kabul’s decision to release about 400 Taliban prisoners. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stressed that peace talks could begin in days if prisoners were freed. The Afghan government has already released about 5,000 Taliban prisoners but there is some unease about freeing the last batch which includes many who have apparently been involved in high-profile attacks. Mr Pompeo has, however, urged Kabul to release the prisoners because this could lead to direct talks and an end to the war. The Trump administration wants a peace deal quickly so it can withdraw enough troops from Afghanistan before the US presidential elections in November allowing President Donald Trump to tout this as a major foreign policy achievement. Timing is therefore key. Pakistan has played a major role in facilitating discussions and remains heavily invested in a positive outcome of these talks. Kabul should swallow the bitter pill and proceed with the release of the remaining Taliban prisoners without delay. With Washington egging both sides on and Islamabad providing full support in every sense, there is no reason why the peace talks should not commence without much delay. Once they do, the next stage of negotiations regarding power sharing will bring up many sensitive issues. It will not be an easy task given the fact that the government controls Kabul while the Taliban hold sway over a major portion of the country.

Everyone wants an end to violence. This war-weariness may help stakeholders display greater flexibility in their positions. However, long-drawn negotiations could complicate matters. The presence of the militant Islamic State group is already a looming threat and the longer this uncertain situation prevails, the greater the chances of spoiler events taking place. The US is also pressed for time which means it can lean on the Afghan government to do away with unnecessary delays. It is an opportune moment for Afghanistan to make peace with itself and agree on a framework for future power-sharing and governance. All stakeholders must stay the course and make it happen.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2020