Afghan council backs freeing of Taliban prisoners to start peace talks

But some Afghans question motivation of decision and whether it is unjust to the insurgents' victims

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An assembly of prominent Afghans on Sunday approved the release of hundreds of Taliban prisoners accused of serious crimes, a decision that clears the way for peace talks with the insurgent group but evokes mixed emotions among victims of their attacks.

The traditional gathering, known as a loya jirga, was convened by President Ashraf Ghani who has been under pressure from the United States to release the prisoners as part of its peace deal with the Taliban.

The agreement signed in February requires the government to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 detainees held by the Taliban before it can begin direct peace talks with the insurgents.

The government has freed most of the prisoners demanded by the Taliban, but President Ghani said releasing the last batch of about 400 prisoners with “serious cases” against them was “not within the authority of the president of Afghanistan” and referred the decision to the loya jirga comprised of more than 3,000 representatives from across the country.

The gathering was chaired by the Afghan National Reconciliation Council headed by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, which issued a preliminary statement on Saturday advising the release of the prisoners so that “there is no excuse to delay [the intra-Afghan] negotiations”.

After deliberations on the issue among 50 committees representing different interests and groups, the jirga issued a collective statement approving the prisoner release.

“War has taken a great price from us,” the statement read. “To achieve peace and stability and the end of this devastating war, we agree to the release of Taliban prisoners, conditioned that the global community guarantee the success of talks and lasting peace.”

The declaration listed several conditions and recommendations, including guarantees that freed prisoners would not resume fighting, an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, and the release of all Afghan security forces in Taliban captivity.

President Ghani assured the loya jirga that its decisions would be implemented. He said he would sign a decree to release the remaining prisoners and that the intra-Afghan talks would begin in the coming days.

However, there is scepticism about the peace process among some of those who took part in the gathering. “The Taliban has set rigid conditions for the Afghan government by demanding the release of these 400 prisoners before a long-term ceasefire can be put in place and intra-Afghan talks start,” said Mowloda Tawana, 33.

“It seems to me they are blackmailing and using unethical ways to coerce and pressure the government and Americans for their benefit,” she said.

Lima Ahmad, a doctoral scholar who has worked with the Afghan civil society and the government and has taken part in previous loya jirgas, questioned the autonomy of the decision.

“I am not convinced that 3,500 people who participated believe that these murderers should be free,” she said, adding that US pressure played a big role in the outcome.

“This is just a political settlement, and not actual efforts towards reconciliation or conflict resolution,” said Ms Ahmad, whose 24-year-old sister Fatima, an employee of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, was killed in a bomb blast in Kabul on June 26.

“They will release the murderers, and my sister will just be collateral damage,” she said.

“Even before the jirga started we knew what the result would be. But with this, Ghani and all political stakeholders want to shift the responsibilities of the prisoner release on to the people of Afghanistan, so that if anything goes wrong then they can blame the jirga,” Ms Ahmad said.

“Even if it wasn’t for the loya jirga, the US would have enforced the Taliban on us one way or another.”

Other Afghans are willing to accept the prisoner release as the price of peace, but remain deeply cautious of the Taliban’s intentions.

Among them is Breshna MusazaiIn, who was shot several times during a Taliban attack on the American University of Afghanistan in August 2016.

Lailuddin, a Taliban commander accused of masterminding the attack, as well as the bombing of the German Embassy in May 2017, is on the list of the 400 prisoners to be freed.

“It doesn’t seem right to release people who have killed many innocent people and it’s hard to trust them, but if this can bring peace then I think we should,” said Ms Musazai, who survived the attack by pretending to be dead for several hours after attackers seized the campus. She was eventually rescued and spent months recovering from the physical and emotional trauma. Thirteen people were killed in the attack, including seven students and a professor.

She remains concerned about the continuing violence despite the US-Taliban deal and fears that the prisoner release could aggravate the situation. “It’s hard to say that they won’t do it again, because they haven’t shown interest in peace… they haven’t stopped fighting.”

Ms Ahmad said the injustice of freeing people accused of deadly attacks would simply perpetuate a cycle of violence.

“Those who have suffered deserve some kind of justice to heal and releasing prisoners will not help the survivors heal,” she said.

“Everyone reacts differently and there will be those who might become another version of Taliban, seeking revenge. We cannot expect everyone to forgive the murderers of their loved ones and live with them as neighbours. There is not even an acknowledgement of what they have suffered,” she said.

“I am not a violent person and I don’t seek war, but this is not the peace I can make.”