Hours after Afghan president Ashraf Ghani announced the signing of a decree for the release of 1,500 Taliban prisoners, provided the fighters do “not return to the battlefield”, the Taliban has rejected the government’s conditional release offer. The decree was meant to be a confidence building measure ahead of the intra-Afghan negotiations between the government and Taliban insurgents scheduled on March 10. The Taliban has, however, claimed that it was decided in the peace agreement with the US that its 5,000 prisoners would be unconditionally freed before any intra-Afghan dialogue begins.
The Ghani-led Afghan government signed the decree following a major split in the country with rival candidate Abdullah Abdullah forming a parallel government on March 9, Monday. The opposition to the results of the presidential elections had showcased the growing fault lines within Afghanistan, with many fearing that the country may plunge into further political crisis or even a civil war.
Meanwhile, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, in a statement, “opposed the creation of the parallel government” or any kind of “force used to resolve political indifference”. The US has thrown its full support behind Ghani’s government.
Spokesperson of the Afghan president, Sediq Sediqqi tweeted: “[the] decree would facilitate the release of the Taliban prisoners in accordance with an accepted framework for the start of negotiation between the Taliban and the afghan government. Details of the decree will be shared tomorrow.”
The two-page decree states that the release of prisoners will begin within four days. A Taliban spokesperson responded that the armed group had never agreed to a conditional release, claiming that the decree was against the peace accord signed between the US and the Taliban on March 1.
As per this agreement, the US officially agreed to withdraw its troops entirely from Afghanistan within 14 months, cutting down the number of US troops from 12,000 to 8,600 in the next 135 days. The agreement also pitched for intra-Afghan negotiations, which were described as the main decider of the peace talks and fate of the 18-year-old long conflict in Afghanistan.
Members of the Taliban negotiation team had previously hinted that their main demand – the release of 5,000 Taliban fighters in exchange for the 1,000 hostages it holds – was an essential and mandatory step to be taken prior to the launch of any intra-Afghan negotiations.
President Ghani initially tried to refuse the release of any Taliban fighters saying, “The request has been made by the United States for the release of prisoners and it can be part of the negotiations but it cannot be a precondition.” However, the changing ground realities with the formation of a parallel government in the country and the diplomatic pressure by neighboring countries may have compelled Ghani to announce this new decree.
Meanwhile, in a rare endorsement of an agreement with an armed group, the UN Security Council on March 11 unanimously approved a US resolution on the US-Taliban deal.