A MAJOR stumbling block standing in the way of peace between the government in Kabul and the Afghan Taliban may have been removed with the recommendation of the Afghan Loya Jirga to free 400 “hardcore” Taliban prisoners. There were great expectations after the Americans and the Taliban had signed what was described as a landmark peace agreement in Doha in February. A stipulation in that agreement was that Kabul would release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the Afghan militants would set free 1,000 government troops. While the Afghan government had set free the vast majority of detainees, around 400 Taliban men remained in captivity, with some of them accused of perpetrating heinous crimes. However, this hurdle too seems to have been cleared as the Jirga — in which around 3,200 Afghan influentials and politicians took part — has spoken in favour of extending an olive branch to the Taliban by freeing their remaining fighters. “We are on the verge of peace talks,” declared Dr Abdullah Abdullah, head of the Loya Jirga and amongst the most powerful politicians in Afghanistan. The Foreign Office also welcomed the move, saying it hoped that with the decision “intra-Afghan negotiations will commence at the earliest”.
The decision to free the Taliban fighters was certainly not easy, as the Jirga faced criticism from some of its own members as well as others for releasing the insurgents, some of whom have been involved in egregious acts of violence targeting civilians along with soldiers. However, it is clear that the grand Afghan gathering has taken the risk of freeing these fighters to prevent Afghanistan’s collapse into total anarchy with the departure of foreign troops, especially with even more bloodthirsty groups such as the self-styled Islamic State waiting in the wings. As reported, Afghan security forces arrested 11 IS terrorists who were aiming to attack the Loya Jirga on Sunday. The fanatical group clearly wants to see chaos in Afghanistan so that it can use the vacuum to expand its tentacles across the region. This is all the more reason for all Afghan factions — including the Taliban — to end the violence and work for a political settlement in their country.
The ball is now in the Afghan Taliban’s court. Now that one of their key demands has been met and endorsed by a grand gathering of Afghans, let them put forth their own confidence-building measures. There is combat fatigue across Afghanistan. The Western forces that invaded the country in 2001, led by the US, have lost their appetite where their nation-building plan for Afghanistan was concerned and now want to bring their troops home. Most of all, the Afghan people are tired of almost non-stop instability dating back to the 1970s. The Taliban and the Afghan government must now take full advantage of the situation to start a meaningful dialogue, as this window of opportunity may not last long.
Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2020