Afghanistan’s president has formally approved the release of Taliban prisoners starting this Saturday as part of Kabul’s efforts to start direct talks with the rebel group.
As per a decree signed by President Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban prisoners would be required to give a written commitment stating they would not take up arms again.
In a tweet on Tuesday night, presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said the decree greenlights the release of Taliban prisoners “in accordance with an accepted framework” for the start of talks between the government and the rebel group.
The decree, issued to the media on Wednesday, states that 1,500 prisoners would be freed initially. They will be released after a biometric process and in groups of 100 every day over a period of 15 days.
“The releasing of the 1,500 Taliban is a goodwill gesture and the process will be started on March 14 at Parwan prisons. Every day 100 Taliban prisoners will be released in consideration of age, health status, and the remaining time of sentenced imprisonment,” read the document.
Kabul expects the gesture will bring the Taliban to the negotiation table and has conveyed its conditions for the release of the remaining 3,500 Taliban prisoners.
“With the beginning of the direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban, every two weeks 500 Taliban prisoners will be released — provided that a major reduction in violence continues — until 3,500 more are released,” said the decree.
After the U.S.-Taliban deal and joint Afghan-U.S. declaration of Feb. 29, Kabul is expected to release up to 5,000 prisoners and the Taliban are to free 1,000 captives in order to start the intra-Afghan negotiations.
The #Afghan #Taliban have expressed reservations on the conditional #prisoners release order announced by President #AshrafGhani and said it is against the #peace agreement signed with #US in #Doha last month.#Afghanistan#AfghanPeaceDealhttps://t.co/8xjzDhAMAE
— Khyber News (@KhyberNews247) March 11, 2020
A day after the historic agreement was signed in Qatar’s capital Doha, President Ghani had clarified that the Afghan government had not made any commitment for the proposed release of Taliban prisoners.
“The release of the detainees is not in the domain of the U.S., only the Afghan government has that authority,” he said at a press conference in Kabul, and said the country’s parliament would decide the matter.
However, Ghani announced on Monday that a mechanism for the release of Taliban prisoners had been reached, as he took oath as president for another five-year term.
Release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners
The Afghan government will gradually release 5,000 Taliban prisoners starting this week if the insurgents significantly reduce violence, President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman said early Wednesday, seeking to resolve a dispute that has delayed peace talks between the militants and Kabul.
The announcement came hours after the US said its forces had started pulling out of two bases in Afghanistan, in line with a deal signed between Washington and the Taliban in Doha last month aiming to end America’s longest war.
The government will “release 1,500 Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill” starting Saturday, with another 3,500 to be freed after negotiations begin, spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said on Twitter.
The agreement, which will initially see 100 prisoners freed each day, will depend on the Taliban’s willingness to significantly limit attacks in the country, he added.
The decision attempts to resolve one of the long-running spats that has stymied potential peace talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government.
Although the Taliban were due to start talks with Kabul on Tuesday, negotiations were delayed because the insurgents’ demanded as a prerequisite the prisoner release in exchange for 1,000 captives.
Ghani had refused but Wednesday’s decree signalled a softening of his stance, with the proviso that none of the released prisoners would return to the frontlines.
According to the decree, after the first 1,500 captives are freed, a further “500 Taliban prisoners will be released every two weeks” once negotiations begin.
US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad welcomed the announcement and urged the Afghan government and the Taliban to meet “immediately” in Qatar to sort out prisoner details.
The State Department voiced confidence that Afghan peace talks would open soon, saying Ghani was speaking to rivals and would name a negotiating team “in the coming few days.”
UN backs deal
The UN Security Council on Tuesday endorsed the US-Taliban deal, a rare step for an agreement involving insurgents.
The Council urged the Afghan government “to advance the peace process, including by participating in intra-Afghan negotiations”.
Under the US-Taliban deal, foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to Taliban security guarantees and the insurgents holding talks with Kabul.
The US is initially supposed to cut its troop presence from about 12,000 currently to 8,600 by mid-July, and close five of its roughly 20 bases across the country.
Troops have started leaving one base in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the south, and another base in Herat in the west, a US official told AFP on the condition of anonymity.
UNSC endorses Afghan Peace Agreement; Ghani issues plan to release Afghan Taliban prisonershttps://t.co/DgNt0X2t56
Islamabad: The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted a resolution in support of the agreement signed between the…
The Fortress – … pic.twitter.com/jHUEnhNpr6
— The Fortress (@TheFortress_ISB) March 11, 2020
Helmand is where US and British forces fought some of the bloodiest campaigns of the 18-year war.
The initial drawdown comes as the Taliban, which see themselves as having achieved “victory” over America, test the Pentagon’s resolve to protect local partners by conducting dozens of low-level attacks against Afghan forces.
The US has only responded to a few of these attacks, but the State Department warned Tuesday that the level of violence was “unacceptable.”
In the previous 24 hours, the insurgents carried out attacks in 32 out of 34 of the country’s provinces, killing seven people including two civilians, interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi told AFP.
The Taliban have ramped up attacks since halting a week-long partial truce in place until the signing of the Doha accord, ending a welcome reprieve for ordinary Afghans who have born the brunt of the deadly violence.
Under the US-Taliban deal, the militants are to prevent groups including Al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base to threaten the security of the US and its allies.
In congressional testimony on Tuesday, a top US general, Kenneth McKenzie, said the Islamist extremist Taliban have been “very effective” against the Islamic State group in Nangarhar province over the last few months.
“There was very limited support from us,” he said, without elaborating.
There was no immediate reaction from the insurgents to Ghani’s decree on the prisoners, which followed a deepening political crisis in Kabul. Ghani’s rival Abdullah Abdullah also declared himself president and held a simultaneous swearing-in ceremony on Monday, minutes after Ghani took the oath for his second term.
A member of the Taliban’s leadership council — the Quetta Shura — told AFP on Tuesday the insurgents had delivered a list of the 5,000 captives they wanted freed to the Afghan government.
But he accused Kabul of acting in bad faith, alleging that “the government (planned) to release only those prisoners who are elderly, very ill, or those whose sentences have expired”.
Kabul did not respond to the allegations, but Ghani’s decree on Wednesday said that “prisoners will be released based on their age, health status and the remaining jail term”.
GVS News Desk with inputs from AFP and Anadolu.