WASHINGTON -- The United States Wednesday (March 18) pressed the Afghan government and Taliban to move ahead with a delayed plan to free prisoners, saying the coronavirus crisis created urgency.
Afghanistan had 22 confirmed cases as of Thursday (March 19), but the number is expected to grow, particularly after Iran forcibly deported thousands of infected refugees and pilgrims back into Afghanistan, flouting international safeguards set up to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
The United States signed a deal with the Taliban on February 29 that set in motion the withdrawal of forces and called for the release of captives ahead of talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government.
"The United States would like to see prisoner releases begin as soon as possible in line with the US-Taliban agreement," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator who brokered the deal with the Taliban.
"Coronavirus makes prisoner releases urgent; time is of the essence," he wrote on Twitter.
The global pandemic means the two sides would likely need to hold talks virtually, he said, although he still voiced hope for a face-to-face meeting.
He had earlier called for the insurgents and government representatives to meet in Qatar, the site of a year of US-Taliban negotiations, to agree on the logistics of the prisoner swap.
The Afghan government and the Taliban, though, are deadlocked on the timing of a mass release of imprisoned Taliban members.
President Ashraf Ghani March 11 signed a decree on the planned release of 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.
The Taliban wanted them freed all at once before talks could begin, while Kabul intended to release them in phases, conditioned on good behaviour by the Taliban.
The Afghan government sought 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.
Because the Taliban rejected the terms set forth in Ghani's decree, the Afghan government never released an initial batch of 1,500 Taliban members, as it originally planned to do in a gesture of goodwill.
The two sides are still locked in a standoff on the issue.
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 has declined considerably.
But the Taliban have opposed this approach, demanding the release of all 5,000 prisoners at once before any intra-Afghan talks can begin.
As a result, the government has delayed the release, saying Kabul needed time to review the identities of prisoners.
Under the agreement, the Taliban would free 1,000 captives.
The Taliban, who have not renounced violence against the government, have agreed to the key demand of the government that freed militants not return to battle, said Khalilzad.
"The Taliban commit that released prisoners will abide by the commitments made in the peace agreement and not return to the battlefield," he said. "A violation will undermine the peace process."