Afghan peace process stalls over Taliban prisoner release

Delay over government conditions rejected by the insurgents

FILE- In this Dec. 14, 2019, file photo, jailed Taliban are seen after an interview with The Associated Press inside the Pul-e-Charkhi jail in Kabul, Afghanistan. After a series of delays, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued a decree early Wednesday, March 11, 2020,  promising to release 1,500 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture to get intra-Afghan negotiations started, even though a deal signed by the United States and the Taliban calls for the release of up to 5,000 prisoners ahead of the much sought after negotiations.(AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, file)

Plans for the Afghan government to begin releasing Taliban prisoners have been stalled by disagreements on the number of detainees to be released and guarantees that they will not return to fighting.

The Taliban promised to open talks with the Afghan government as part of an accord reached with the United States last month to end 18 years of US involvement in war in Afghanistan.

The militants say the agreement requires the government to release 5,000 prisoners before the start of talks, which was originally scheduled for March 10. The government says the talks must begin and violence subside before it will free all the prisoners.

President Ashraf Ghani last week promised to start freeing 1,500 prisoners from Saturday and to release the remainder once conditions were met. He decreed that 100 prisoners would be released every day until 1,500 prisoners were freed, and the release of the remaining 3,500 would go ahead only if talks progressed and the Taliban reduced violence.

Although Mr Ghani's decree differs from the US-Taliban deal, Javid Faisal, spokesman for Afghanistan's National Security Council, said the president was committed to releasing the 5,000 prisoners.

"We are ready to start the process the way it is described in the presidential decree but we won't release anyone if there is no guarantee that they will not return to fighting," Mr Faisal said. "The Taliban have to show flexibility."

He said the government also needed to check the identities of the prisoners to be freed. "We have received the lists of the prisoners to be released. We are checking and verifying the lists, this will take time," he said.

The Taliban are refusing to accept a partial release of the prisoners or any conditions on their release.

"Our stance on the prisoners' release is crystal clear. They should be released without any pre-condition the way it is mentioned on the US-Taliban peace agreement," Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters. "We have not agreed to any extra dialogue or conditions."

Officials and experts say the issue poses a major hurdle to starting peace talks, alongside an additional challenge of rising discord between Mr Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah.

Both men say they are the country's rightful leader after a disputed presidential election in September. The election authority declared Mr Ghani the winner in February but last Monday Mr Abdullah swore himself in as president minutes after his rival took the oath of office.

The dispute is leading to the risk of parallel governments being formed and is hindering the appointment of a delegation to negotiate with the Taliban

According to the US-Taliban agreement signed in the Qatari capital Doha, foreign forces will withdraw from the country within 14 months in exchange for Taliban security guarantees and a pledge to hold talks with Kabul.