Taliban expecting release of 7,000 prisoners additional to US deal

Demand will put pressure on the Afghan government, who were not part of the deal

Members of the Taliban's peace negotiation team attend a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, amid talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, in Doha, Qatar November 21, 2020. Patrick Semansky/Pool via REUTERS
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The Taliban is expecting the release of an additional 7,000 prisoners in Afghan custody, per an agreement with the US administration, US charge d’affaires Ross Wilson said on Sunday.

The statement came a day after a meeting between US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Abdul Hakim on Saturday, where the two parties discussed the intra-Afghan peace process, among other things.

The US signed a deal with the Taliban in February this year, while the Afghan government is engaged in long-drawn negotiations with the insurgent group.

“If you do the maths, the Taliban expect under the terms of that agreement that there would be progress on releasing those prisoners by roughly mid-December,” Mr Wilson said.

On behest of the US administration and much to the displeasure of Afghan citizens, the Afghan government released 5,000 Taliban prisoners earlier this year, in keeping with the agreement between the US and the Taliban. They also released an additional 500 prisoners as a gesture of goodwill to help start the intra-Afghan talks with the insurgent group.

The demand to release the additional 7000 Taliban insurgents, which is not explicitly mentioned in the US-Taliban deal, is likely to put pressure on the Afghan government, who were not part of the deal.

“All of the various parts of the US-Taliban agreement are interlocked with one another and you can’t just take out one and say 'this one has to be adhered to' without other aspects being adhered to,” Mr Wilson said.

According to Andrew Watkins, senior analyst at Crisis Group, Mr Wilson’s public comments may have been meant to “soften the blow” before more official requests and pressure reach Kabul.

“The US charge d’affaires’ comments seem to have been a reminder to the Afghan government and public that the Taliban will be expecting additional concessions on prisoners, perhaps before making significant concessions of their own in the peace talks, and that the US government has entered into an agreement boosting those concessions,” he said.

However, experts and analysts close to the negotiations told The National that the demands arise from unpublished annexures to the original deal.

“[US Envoy Khalilzad] is trying to implement the annexures of the Doha deal, which were not shared with anyone,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former Afghan spy chief and strong critic of the prisoner release. “The push for the release of 7,000 prisoners is from that part of the agreement."

The existence of the annexures was confirmed to several analysts by US officials.

"This was a Taliban demand and the US is speaking on their behalf. The list of 7,000 detainees was compiled before the 29 February deal," one security expert said. The additional annexures are related to issues concerning the form of the next government, counter-terrorism and details of the planned US drawdown, among other things, the expert said.

“There are no signs that the government has agreed to this so far,” they said.

The Afghan National Security Council dismissed the possibility of an additional prisoner release.

"Liberating 5,500 [Taliban] prisoners did not achieve the expected results," Rahmatullah Andar, NSC spokesperson, said on Monday. "The [Taliban] did not honour their promise [in the deal] to reduce violence, and also the released inmates rejoined battlegrounds."

Mr Nabil said that such clauses take away leverage from the Afghan government.

“Unfortunately, the Afghan government lost all the leverage they should have. The only leverage will be mobilising the Afghans in support of the republic, but President Ashraf Ghani’s administration has been losing legitimacy day by day among Afghans,” he said.

“Not only did the US betray us, but also the Afghan forces. This deal only serves the strategic interests of the US, Pakistan and those Afghan leaders who want to stay in power.”