Afghan peace talks to go ahead despite prisoner release confusion

Talks were held up after France and Australia raised objections to release of six Taliban fighters

epa08445523 A Taliban prisoner looks on during his release from Bagram prison in Parwan province, Afghanistan, 26 May 2020. The Afghan government released hundreds of Taliban prisoners after the Afghani president announced that his government would free some 900 more Taliban prisoners, report state. A total of 5,000 Taliban prisoners will be released by the Afghan government in exchange for 1,000 Afghan security force members freed by the Taliban as part of a US-Taliban agreement, signed in Doha in February 2020, before intra-Afghan talks between Kabul and the Taliban are set to take place. So far the Afghan government has released 1,000 of the 5,000 Taliban inmates, and the Taliban released a few hundred of the 1,000 Afghan security forces personnel in the prisoner swap process.  EPA-EFE/STR *** Local Caption *** 56110482
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The much delayed intra-Afghan talks are set to begin on Saturday, the Afghan government and Taliban confirmed.

US President Donald Trump revealed on Thursday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had left for Doha, Qatar, for the talks.

Mr Trump said that America would "be down to 4,000 soldiers in Afghanistan in a very short period of time".

The Afghan government’s delegation of 21 members will be led by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the National Reconciliation Council.

It will include acting foreign minister Hanif Atmar, President Ashraf Ghani's special representative, Salam Rahimi, and Saadat  Naderi, Minister of Peace.

“In accordance with the agreement reached with the US, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan announces its readiness to participate in the inaugural meeting of the intra-Afghan dialogue,” Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem said.

FILE - In this Feb. 29, 2020, file photo, U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader sign a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban say the long-awaited peace talks with the negotiating team selected by the Afghan government are to begin on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar. The announcement on Sept. 10, came in a statement from the Taliban in Qatar, where the insurgents maintain a political office, and also as an announcement from Qatar’s foreign ministry. (AP Photo/Hussein Sayed, File)

“[The Taliban] intends to carry out the negotiation process and establish sustainable peace and a pure Islamic system within the framework of Islamic values ​​and for the highest interests of our country."

Negotiations between the parties were delayed after the governments of France and Australia objected to the release of the last six of the 5,000 prisoners who the Taliban demanded be freed before the talks.

A security source in the Afghan government confirmed to The National that the remaining prisoners were released and sent to Doha on Thursday evening, clearing way for the commencements of the talks.

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Taliban is trying to portray itself as the winners, so their demands will reflect the same certainty and rigidity

But it is not clear why these six prisoners were transferred to Qatar while the others were released in Afghanistan after they guaranteed that they would not rejoin the battle.

Talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban were due since March, after the US administration made a deal with the insurgent group on February 28.

But the Taliban set rigid conditions in the deal and was promised the release of up to 5,000 prisoners as a gesture of good will.

The Afghan government was not party to the deal and was not consulted over the release of prisoners in its custody, which created friction.

"From what I understand the first meetings, which will be purely introductory, will see demands from the Pakistani and Afghan governments, which will set the course for the talks ahead," Hekmatullah Azamy, the deputy director at the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul, told The National.

Mr Azamy has been following the developments within the government very closely, and predicts a few “big moves”.

“Taliban is trying to portray itself as the winners, so their demands will reflect the same certainty and rigidity,” he said.

“As a general, emotional appeal would be for the ceasefire but I can tell you with a lot of certainly that an unconditional ceasefire will not be acceptable for the Taliban."

Mr Azamy said that the Afghan government’s team seemed unprepared as to what their demands are.

"I am concerned that many will be pursing their own agenda instead of the the agenda of the republic,” he said.

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