AFGHANISTAN government released 100 Taliban prisoners on April 09, claiming they were among 5,000 detainees to be freed under Afghanistan Peace Agreement between Taliban and the US. Taliban said they have yet to verify those released were on the list they handed over to Washington during negotiations. Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen in a message to Associated Press said Taliban doesn’t know who the government is releasing without verification. Taliban have released 20 prisoners belonging to Afghan Defence Forces. This micro-level prisoner swap gives the peace agreement another lease of life, at least for the time being. Interestingly, during the winding talks between the US and Taliban, the American side had often questioned as to whether Taliban would be able to deliver on the terms of peace agreement. Paradoxically, it is the US side which appears unable to deliver. Its handpicked dysfunctional political dispensation of Afghanistan is playing spoilers. The Afghanistan Peace Agreement signed on February 29 had been touted to be the best chance to end the 18-year-long war. Plans for a prisoner swap have faced opposition and hurdles from the start, threatening to unravel the agreement.
According to ABC News,” three-member Taliban team arrived in Kabul last month to begin the prisoner exchange process. Last week, Afghan officials said they would release 100 Taliban prisoners who were sick or over the age of 50”.In exchange, the Taliban were expected to free 20 members of the Afghan security forces. Ultimately both sides would aim to release the 6,000 prisoners they are holding. Afghan are not known for abiding treaties and agreements. They are also poor performers in handling intra-Afghan negotiations. Earlier, according to Reuters, Suhail Shaheen said, “Their release has been delayed under one pretext or another.” “Therefore, our technical team will not participate in fruitless meetings.” The government says the Taliban are making unreasonable demands by asking release of high profile prisoners first. A prisoner exchange is meant to build confidence on both sides for intra-Afghan talks. Taliban say Afghan officials are trying to delay the release, while officials say the militants’ demands are unreasonable. Prisoner exchange is a confidence building measure. It was meant to trigger intra-Afghan dialogue leading to end the war.
Matin Bek, Mr Ghani’s head of local governance, told a news conference the Taliban were demanding that the first batch of releases include about 15 senior commanders convicted of major attacks. “We cannot release the killers of our people,” he said. The US had agreed to the prisoner swap as a first step between the Afghan government and the Taliban, who are still technically at war. The Afghan government was not included in the talks. The government says it’s willing to release up to 400 low-threat Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture in return for a considerable reduction in violence. As per peace agreement document the US had committed that its 5,000 soldiers troops would leave the country by May. The process has already begun. The remaining US and NATO troops are slated to withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months, provided Taliban uphold their side of the deal. Most of the international analyst opine that even if Taliban abide by all provisions of the agreement, the US is not likely to proceed with troop pullout beyond the magic 5000 figure. America had also agreed to lift sanctions against the Taliban and work with the UN to lift its separate sanctions against the group. In return, the Taliban agreed not to allow Al-Qaeda or any other extremist group to operate in the areas they control.
Even after the Taliban released a statement saying they were pulling out of the talks, Afghan officials hoped another meeting between the technical teams scheduled for 07 April would go ahead, but it did not. The International Committee of the Red Cross, experienced in prisoner swaps, is a third party in the talks to help overcome mistrust. It is not clear what particular point broke down the talks. “Discussions on release of Afghan security forces and Taliban prisoners had entered an important phase ahead of release,” said Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Security Council. “Withdrawing from talks at such a time indicates a lack of seriousness about peace. We tried our best — that they need to trust us, and we trust them as we have to work together. We thought their arrival in Kabul was a big step”, Javid added.
The Taliban insisted that the senior commanders be released in the first batch so they could help verify the rest of the 5,000 prisoners who had been expected to be released. Afghan officials offered a workaround: They could not release the senior commanders now, but those commanders could participate in the verification process and then return to prison. ABC has reported that a spokesman for the government said it would maintain its work on the prisoner release plan. “We ask the Taliban to not sabotage the process by making excuses now,” said Javid. Mujib Mashal reported for Times that “Several Afghan officials aware of the discussions said the government had tried earnestly to use the opportunity of a Taliban delegation in Kabul to make progress. Afghan government is under pressure from the US side for an aid slashing of the tune of $1 billion over differences between President Ghani and his political rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah, which the Americans say has undermined the timelines of a tightly choreographed deal. Coupled with aid cut, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had delivered a second stern message to Afghan leaders: that if they did not resolve their dispute to prioritize the peace talks, the United States could pull out all American troops.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.