Fear about thousands of freed Taliban hangs over Afghan peace talks

Experts and negotiators fear many will return to waging war unless peace deal is reached

epa08602640 A handout photo made available by the National Security Council (NSC) of Afghanistan shows Taliban prisoners preparing to leave from a government prison in Kabul, Afghanistan, 13 August 2020 (issued 14 August 2020). Afghanistan's National Security Council announced that at least 80 Taliban prisoners out of 400 have been released from jail. The prisoners' release is a pre-condition for the intra-Afghan talks.  EPA/AFGHANISTAN NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL HANDOUT -- BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE -- HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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"Mohammed Gul" insists he was never a member of the Afghan Taliban, even though he was one of 5,000 inmates released by the government as a condition to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table.

But if the peace talks fail, Mr Gul says he might consider signing up.

He would not be the only freed prisoner taking up arms against the government despite international efforts to end nearly two decades of the Taliban’s brutal insurgency.

A study of 108 freed prisoners found 68 per cent "have already been reintegrated into the Taliban and have resumed active roles in the conflict, or are in Taliban groups intent on resuming fighting", Foreign Policy  magazine reported.

The report was quoting unpublished research by the Afghan Peace Dialogue Project.

These figures and accounts from civilians and security forces have raised concern about the peace process among Afghan analysts and political stakeholders, especially if the talks drag on or collapse.

The negotiations, expected to begin any day in Qatar, are already months behind schedule, delayed by bickering between the government and Taliban over the terms of the prisoner release.

“Delays can create some incentives for the released prisoners to rejoin in the absence of an integration programme that can keep them away from the fighting,” said Said Ibrahimi, a researcher at the Centre on International Co-operation.

“However, if the talks fail it will be a recipe for disaster. It will not only facilitate the released prisoners to rejoin the Taliban but it can also create avenues for new recruits.”

The Afghan government has indicated that it is prepared for worst-case scenarios, but it is unclear what this entails.

The government has been making contact with local militia leaders such as Nizamuddin Qaisari, the notorious police chief in the north who evaded arrest last year after his gunmen clashed with security forces.

“The government is allowing some local militias and uprisings against the Taliban to take root in the country," Mr Ibrahimi said.

"These measures are not new and have not been sustainable in the past."

He suggested that the government should merge those militias without a record of abuse into the national security force with provisions for accountability.

Government peace negotiators were also concerned about the released prisoners returning to combat.

“I hope that our international partners give us a guarantee that those prisoners will not return to their militias, that the peace process will materialise into reality,” said Khalid Noor, one of 21 members of the Afghan negotiating team.

“At the same time, we should have the same assurances from the Taliban. The Taliban must comprehend the ground realities so that we can all work together.”

Mr Ibrahimi painted a grim scenario if the peace attempt were to fall apart.

“The warring parties will likely go back to fighting if the talks completely fail,” he said.

“We may not see a sudden collapse of the government in Kabul but a gradual decay, perhaps something similar to what happened to the government [of president Mohammad Najibullah] in 1992.

"We may not have a victor at all but factions controlling pockets of the country, which will essentially be a textbook example of a failed state."

But Mr Noor was optimistic about the chances of success.

“The most important thing is to show good intentions and a willingness to bring enduring peace in this process," he said.

"I hope the Taliban will reciprocate to bring an end to this catastrophic, prolonged and meaningless war."

Mr Gul, 50, says he was freed five years into a 19-year sentence after being wrongfully convicted of terrorism.

"I was arrested by the American forces in 2014," he told The National.

"I was held for 39 days in a [National Directorate of Security] prison in the north.

“They then took me to a government court where I was sentenced to 19 years in prison.

"I was taken to Bagram from there, where I spent the next five years. I was tortured and mistreated. I was like a dead body during that time.”

But on February 29 this year, the US struck a deal with the Taliban under which the insurgents agreed to hold direct peace talks with the Afghan government.

One of the conditions was a prisoner swap involving 5,000 Taliban held by the government and 1,000 government officials and soldiers held by the insurgents.

Mr Gul’s name was on the Taliban’s list of prisoners it wanted freed.

He said gratitude to the insurgents for rescuing him from the horrors of prison was one reason he might consider joining them, but also that he had no other option.

“I am a homeless man and I can’t find work," Mr Gul said. "Many members of my family were also arrested.

"My nephew was released before me but some of my relatives were martyred in prison. If my situation doesn’t improve soon, I will join the Taliban.

“I do pray that the peace talks continue and that we have permanent peace. I suffered for too long in that prison and I want to live what is left of my life in peace.”