Afghan prisoner dispute fuelled by US document discrepancy

The issue presents a fresh impediment to intra-Afghan peace talks due to begin next week

In this Monday, March 2, 2020 photo, Hakim Mujahed a member of government peace council and the Taliban's representative to the United Nations during their harsh five-year rule, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Kabul, Afghanistan. Mujahed said Monday that the Taliban will likely not back down on segregation of the sexes, and will not accept co-education, nor will they accept women and men working together. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Differences in the language between the US-Taliban deal and the declaration seen by Kabul have sparked a dispute among the Afghan sides that threatens to derail the roadmap to peace signed just three days ago.

The US-Taliban deal reportedly lays out a plan for the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for around 1,000 detainees held by the insurgents by March 10, when intra-Afghan peace talks begin in Norway.

While the actual deal has not been made public, Reuters news agency reported that the final deal says the government will go through with the release.

By contrast, the US-Afghan declaration, made public shortly before the US-Taliban accord was signed in Doha on Saturday, only commits the Kabul government to participate in US-brokered discussions over the “feasibility” of such a release.

The contradiction presents a fresh challenge to peace talks between the insurgents and the Kabul delegation and has already seen a resumption of violence.

The insurgents observed a week-long reduction in violence before the deal with the US was reached, and American officials expressed hope that it would be prolonged beyond the signing on Saturday.

But two days later, three people were killed in a bomb attack at a football match in eastern Afghanistan as the Taliban announced the partial truce had come to an end. Overnight, the insurgents conducted more than a dozen attacks on Afghan army bases in 13 provinces, officials said, killing two soldiers in southern Kandahar and five security forces in Logar province near the capital Kabul.

A Taliban spokesman said on Monday that there could be no peace talks unless the prisoners were released.

"If our 5,000 prisoners – 100 or 200 more or less does not matter – do not get released, there will be no intra-Afghan talks," Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by phone.

"As per the [US-Taliban] agreement, our mujahideen will not attack foreign forces but our operations will continue against the Kabul administration forces."

But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the release could be a precondition to peace talks.

"It is not in the authority of United States to decide, they are only a facilitator," he said.

The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the discrepancy.

"There is going to have to be a compromise," said a former senior US official. "The question is whether [the Afghan sides] can do it themselves or America has to play the heavy."

Asked about the discrepancy, a second source said: "It's clearly a problem."

"I am sympathetic to Ghani. This is his leverage in the negotiation. For the US to negotiate away his leverage before they even get to the negotiating table, I imagine, was somewhat galling.”

The Kabul government's stance appears to be supported by the declaration Mr Ghani and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper issued in Kabul shortly before Saturday's signing of the US-Taliban accord.

That statement said the Afghan government would take part in a "US-facilitated discussion with Taliban representatives on confidence-building, to include determining the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides".

In contrast, Reuters reported that the US-Taliban agreement commits Kabul to the release, even though Mr Ghani's government was excluded from the negotiations with the Taliban led by Zalmay Khalilzad, chief US negotiator.

"Up to five thousand [5,000] prisoners of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be released," the document reportedly said, using the Taliban's preferred name, while the insurgents would free up to 1,000 prisoners.

Asked in a Fox News interview about Mr Ghani's refusal to release the Taliban prisoners, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: "It shouldn't surprise anyone that the habits of old days are hard to break. And this will be a bumpy road going forward."

The deal between the US and Taliban envisioned talks between Afghans on both sides of the conflict starting March 10, most likely in Oslo.

But so far there’s no confirmation that important next step will take place.

Getting the two sides to the table is a formidable task and the Taliban has in the past refused to negotiate with the Afghan government.

Washington’s withdrawal is not tied to Afghanistan’s warring sides figuring out how to talk to each other, let alone coming to an agreement on what peace among them will look like.

According to Saturday’s deal, the roughly 12,000 US troops will leave Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban meet their obligations.

Those promises are tied to fighting terrorism, preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for groups opposed to the US, denouncing terrorist groups, severing past links with the likes of Al Qaida and helping fight ISIS affiliates.

The US-Taliban pact could pave the way to ending the nearly 19-year US-led international military presence in Afghanistan.

The US invaded in 2001 after attacks on September 11 by Al Qaeda and ousted the Taliban, but the group waged a bloody insurgency and is active in at least half the country.

The United States said it was committed to cutting its troop levels to 8,600 within 135 days of signing the deal, and working with its allies to proportionally reduce the number of coalition forces in Afghanistan over that period, if the Taliban adhere to their commitments.

Since the deal was signed, the Taliban has been claiming "victory" over the US. Despite the latest developments, Mr Pompeo told Fox News it was "so far so good."

"So I've seen lots of remarks. Just watch what really happens. Pay less attention to statements, pay less attention to things people say," Mr Pompeo said.

"Watch what happens on the ground. There's been a lot of work done at detailed levels about how this will proceed. So far, so good."

On Tuesday, the Afghan Interior Ministry said that during the last 24 hours the Taliban had carried out 33 attacks on Afghan civilians and forces in 16 provinces, killing six civilians and wounding 14, local media reported.