KABUL -- A long-anticipated prisoner swap involving three Haqqani Network commanders and two American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) professors has taken place, Taliban and Afghan security sources told AFP.
"This morning at around 10.00am two American University professors were released in Naw Bahar District of Zabul Province," a local police source said Tuesday (November 19). "They were flown out of Zabul by American helicopters."
The Taliban in a statement confirmed the prisoners' exchange, saying the group also freed 10 Afghan soldiers.
"These actions are a step forward in good-will and confidence building measures that can aid the peace process," said the statement.
The three Haqqani Network commanders were released from Bagram prison on Monday evening (November 18) and flown to Doha, where they will remain under "house arrest", sources told TOLOnews.
The commanders include Anas Haqqani, who was arrested in 2014 and is a younger brother of the Taliban’s deputy leader Sirajuddin and son of the Haqqani Network’s founder Jalaluddin.
The two others are Haji Mali Khan, believed to be the uncle of Sirajuddin, and Abdul Rashid, said to be the brother of Mohammad Nabi Omari, a member of the Taliban's political office in Qatar.
They were exchanged for two American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) professors Kevin King, 63, a US citizen, and Timothy Weeks, 50, an Australian.
King and Weeks have been held by the Taliban since August 2016, when gunmen ambushed their vehicle in Kabul and abducted them.
The Haqqani Network, a notorious Taliban affiliate, is known for its heavy use of suicide bombers against Afghan civilians, security forces and US-led NATO troops.
Taliban's false promises
President Ashraf Ghani announced the prisoner exchange November 12, saying the decision had been "very hard and necessary".
But questions swirled days later, with officials and observers blaming the Taliban's notorious bad faith promises for delays.
"The inability of the Taliban to meet the conditions has caused a delay in the exchange," Ghani spokesman Sediq Sediqqi tweeted Saturday (November 16).
The Taliban once again disrupted the prisoner swap by breaking their promise, said Sadiq Baqiri, a political affairs analyst in Kabul.
"The Afghan government had taken the decision in consultation with their international partners that they would swap three Taliban prisoners with two [AUAF] teachers as good will to start the peace process and to reduce violence," he said.
"The conditions were that the three Taliban prisoners should accept the Afghan Constitution and not return to the battleground, and the Taliban should also free the two [AUAF] teachers," he said. "Unfortunately, the Taliban didn't lower the level of violence and even launched terrorist attacks in many parts of the country ... killing and injuring a number of civilians."
"The Afghan government and the United States honestly fulfilled their promises," said Dawood Rawesh, a Kabul University lecturer. "But the Taliban, as always, didn't keep their promises as they perpetrated a suicide attack in Kabul that killed civilians including children just one day after the announcement of the Taliban prisoners' release."
At least 12 people were killed -- including at least three children -- and 20 wounded when a minivan packed with explosives detonated during Kabul's morning rush hour on November 13.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Both the Taliban and the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) are active in the city.
"The Taliban had promised they would implement all the conditions put in place for the swap, but they didn't do so," said Rawesh.
Ghani spoke with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien on Monday to review the steps necessary to implement the prisoner exchange, Sediqqi tweeted.
The US officials reiterated their support for Ghani's decision and agreed "to work closely together to respond to any possible Taliban violence" in the event the group backtracks on its promises, he said.
"Both sides agreed that a ceasefire and/or a reduction in violence was a necessary pre-condition for kick-starting the intra-Afghan negotiations to reach a political settlement."
The US officials praised the performance of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), including their continued efforts to eliminate safe havens for ISIS's Khorasan branch in Nangarhar Province, Sediqqi tweeted.
They "reaffirmed continued American support to these forces so that Afghanistan can never again be used as a platform for international terrorism", he said.
Rifts among Taliban top brass
One reason for the delay is the growing rift between factions of Taliban leadership and the group's fighters on the ground, analysts say.
"The reasons that prevented the resumption of peace talks and the prisoners swap include that a number of Taliban commanders who are on the battlefield have different views on war and peace from their leaders who run the [peace] talks," said Daud Kalakani, a former member of the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament).
This rift stems from when Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada became the leader of the Taliban, which a faction of the group never accepted, he said.
"The Taliban who have been fighting for years in the name of 'jihad' against the Afghan security and international forces and are still present on the battlefield don't accept any negotiation, swap or agreement with the government and international community -- which is in contrast to what their leaders have been pushing for in Qatar," Kalakani said. "If the peace agreement or any other deal is reached, they say their years-long 'jihad' will come into question."
"The Taliban's low-ranking commanders who run the war do not agree with the decisions of their leaders," said Aminullah Shariq, a political affairs analyst in Kabul.
"This part of the Taliban believe that they fight alongside their fighters to achieve the Taliban's goals, and while they lose lives, commit suicide attacks and become captives, their leaders live in luxury homes and hotels," he said.
"They think their leaders try to release members of their families but not those fighters who have been imprisoned for many years."
[Sulaiman from Kabul contributed to this report.]