KABUL -- 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 Wednesday (March 11), seeking to resolve a dispute that has delayed peace talks between the militants and Kabul.
The announcement came hours after the United States 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.
The government will "release 1,500 Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill" starting Saturday (March 14), with another 3,500 to be freed after negotiations begin, Ghani 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 a long-running dispute 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 (March 10), the negotiations were delayed because the insurgents demanded the release of the 5,000 in exchange for 1,000 Taliban captives.
Ghani had refused, but Wednesday's decree signaled a softening of his stance, with the provision that none of the released prisoners would return to the front lines.
The decree added that "prisoners will be released based on their age, health status and the remaining jail term". After the first 1,500 captives are freed, a further "500 Taliban prisoners will be released every two weeks" once negotiations begin.
However, the Taliban on Wednesday rejected Ghani's offer, saying it wanted the 5,000 captives freed even before the opening of negotiations.
The Taliban had been using Kabul's refusal to release prisoners to justify a new violent campaign against Afghan forces since the signing of the peace deal on February 29.
However, the agreement sets no time frame for the prisoner swap, and contrary to the insurgents' claims, it clearly states that the prisoner exchange will be contingent on "co-ordination and approval of all relevant sides".
"The United States is committed to start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence building measure with the co-ordination and approval of all relevant sides," the agreement states.
Still, US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad welcomed the prisoner-release announcement by the Afghan government and urged Kabul and the Taliban to meet "immediately" in Qatar to sort out the details.
The US State Department voiced confidence that Afghan peace talks would open soon, saying Ghani was "consulting with Dr. Abdullah and other Afghan leaders" and would name a negotiating team "in the coming few days."
The State Department was referring to Afghan election runner-up Abdullah Abdullah, who on Monday (March 9) inaugurated himself as rival president of the country.
UN backs deal
The United Nations 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 United States 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.
However, 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 long-suffering ordinary Afghans.
The militant group carried out 32 attacks in the past 24 hours in 15 provinces, Nasrat Rahimi, a spokesperson for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said on Twitter Tuesday.
The United States has responded to few of these attacks, but the State Department warned Tuesday that the level of violence was "unacceptable."
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 United States and its allies.
In congressional testimony on Tuesday, a top US general, Kenneth McKenzie, said the Taliban have been "very effective" against the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) group in Nangarhar Province over the last few months.
"There was very limited support from us," he said, without elaborating.