Afghan government releases 100 Taliban prisoners in bid to salvage talks

AFP and Salaam Times


A man wearing a mask as a precautionary measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus walks past a wall painted with images of US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (right), in Kabul April 5. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

KABUL -- The Afghan government said on Wednesday (April 8) it released 100 Taliban prisoners, a day after the insurgents said they were walking out of talks with Kabul.

The 100 prisoners were on the broader list that the Taliban technical team shared and discussed during meetings with the technical team of the government, and were released based on their health condition, age and length of remaining sentence and as part of the government's efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

The National Directorate of Security and the Attorney General’s Office thoroughly vetted the prisoners, who have taken an oath never to return to the battlefield, said a statement from the National Security Council on Wednesday.

The two foes have been negotiating in Kabul since last week to try to finalise a prisoner swap that was originally supposed to have happened by March 10 and to pave the way for "intra-Afghan" peace talks between the government and the Taliban.

But the swap has been beset with problems, with the Taliban wanting 15 "top commanders" to be released.

"We cannot release the killers of our people," said Matin Bek, a member of the government's negotiating team, on April 6 referring to the 15 commanders. "We don't want them to go back to the battlefield and capture a whole province."

"One hundred Taliban prisoners will be released today," Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Office of the National Security Council, told AFP.

"We are doing our part in the agreement," he added. "The peace process should move forward."

The 15 commanders were not among those being released and additional prisoners will be freed "depending on what the Taliban do", said Faisal.

"Discussions on ANDSF and Taliban prisoners had entered an important phase ahead of release. Withdrawing from talks at such time indicates a lack of seriousness about peace," the Afghan National Security Council said on Twitter Tuesday (April 7). "Gov’t remains committed to pursuing peace, and Pres. [Ashraf] Ghani's decree of March 11 remains in effect."

The insurgents did not immediately comment.

Obstruction by Taliban

The United States signed a deal with the Taliban in late February that suggested the Afghan government free 5,000 Taliban prisoners and for the insurgents to release 1,000 pro-government captives in return.

On April 7, Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen accused the Afghan government of "intentionally postponing the release and breaching the deal".

However, many Afghans see the Taliban as the ones delaying peace talks.

The Taliban last month continued posting photos touting the military training of its members, raising doubts among Afghans about how serious the militants were about peace.

That came after the militants on March 28 first stalled talks on the prisoner exchange when they rejected a negotiating team put together by the Afghan government, claiming that the team was not inclusive.

The militant group instead agreed only to meet a technical team from the Afghan government to discuss the contentious issue.

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We ask the Afghan government never to release the Taliban commanders, because each of them can recruit hundreds of more people into the ranks of the Taliban and once again up the oven of war in Afghanistan.