KABUL -- The Taliban are looking for excuses to avoid peace talks with the government now that President Ashraf Ghani agreed to start releasing the group's fighters from prison, analysts and ordinary citizens say.
Ghani on March 10 signed a decree to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a key Taliban demand for starting face-to-face peace negotiations with the Afghan government in the Taliban's agreement with the United States.
For its part, the Afghan government demanded a reduction in violence by the Taliban, a guarantee that released fighters will not return to the battlefield and the start of direct peace talks as conditions for the prisoners' release.
So far, 1,500 Taliban prisoners have been pardoned in a gesture of goodwill, and 100 Taliban prisoners are to be released each day starting March 14.
Once direct peace talks between the government and Taliban delegations start, the remaining 3,500 prisoners will be released in batches of 500 prisoners every two weeks -- providing that the level of violence is considerably decreased.
But the Taliban have opposed this approach, demanding the release of all 5,000 prisoners at once before any intra-Afghan talks can begin.
Taliban officials have told Reuters that their leadership opposes the Afghan government collecting written guarantees from prisoners being released that they will not return to the battlefield.
The release of Taliban prisoners signifies the government's flexibility for ending the 40-year-long war, said Ghani spokesman Sediq Sediqqi at a news conference March 11, adding that Afghanistan is working with the United States on implementing the peace process.
"If the Taliban escalates violence as the prisoners are being released, the [release] process will pause," said Sediqqi.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, described the Afghan government's action as a key step toward peace in his interview with Ariana News on March 13.
The Taliban must guarantee that their released prisoners do not return to the battlefields, he said.
Taliban seeking 'political leverage'
Members of the parliament, analysts and Afghan citizens have accused the Taliban of stalling to avoid peace talks with the Afghan government.
The staggered release of Taliban prisoners is a logical and responsible approach and Ghani has taken this position based on his responsibility to the Afghan people, said Farooq Bashar, a Kabul University law professor.
"The guarantee is very important as it will reassure the public that the prisoners released won't return to the battlefields and won't stand against the government and society," Bashar said.
"The Taliban don't have any agreement with the Afghan government for releasing their prisoners, and the government has the right to release the prisoners in any fashion," he added, referring to the militant group's reluctance to negotiate. "The Taliban are making themselves unavailable for peace talks in order to gain political leverage."
Gen. (ret.) Dawlat Waziri, a former Defence Ministry officer and a military affairs analyst in Kabul, called on the Taliban to refrain from their dissembling and to prepare themselves for peace talks.
"The Afghan president has made the right decision in calling for talks by releasing Taliban prisoners, and the Taliban should welcome [his decision]," said Waziri.
The conditions cited in the Afghan government's decree for the Taliban prisoners' release are appropriate, and therefore the Taliban must reduce violence and guarantee that their released members do not return to the battlefields, he added.
Ghani's position on the prisoner guarantees is the responsible action in order to protect the security of Afghans, agreed Zaifunoon Safi, a Laghman Province representative in the Wolesi Jirga.
"If the Taliban don't reduce violence after their prisoners are released and they don't stop these released prisoners from returning to war, the Afghan government must reassess the degree of the Taliban prisoners' release," she said.
"If violence is not reduced, the Taliban won't begin the peace process and the group's released prisoners will go back to the battlefield and continue their violence. It won't be the right thing [to happen]," said Safi, adding that Afghans are weary of war.
"Afghans are fed up with war from both the government and the Taliban's sides, and therefore the Taliban must care for the public, reduce violence instead of making excuses and make peace," she added.
Gesture of goodwill
Ordinary Afghans also say they are tired of the conflict and that the Afghan government and the Taliban should begin talks to reach peace.
"If the Taliban consider themselves Afghans, they have to know that Afghans want peace because they've had enough of this war," said Gul Nabi, 35, who works with a local NGO in Kabul.
"Since the Afghan government is releasing Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill for starting peace talks, the Taliban should reciprocate and make themselves available for talks," he said.
"I am personally not in favour of the Taliban prisoners' release, but as I am tired of war, I welcome the release of these prisoners if this can pave the way for peace talks and help us reach peace," said Wazhma Sediqi, 28, a civil servant at a government agency in Kabul.
"The Afghan government responded to the Taliban's demand that if their prisoners were released, they'd begin talks with the Afghan government," said Sediqi. "Now that the government is freeing their prisoners, the Taliban need to stop making more excuses and should start peace talks."
"We trust our government, and we hope that the gains of the past 19 years, especially freedom of expression and women's rights, are not compromised during the peace talks," she said.