US envoy urges Afghan government to release Taliban prisoners

The first batch of prisoners were meant to be released last Saturday

epa08280912 US special envoy for Afghanistan Zulmai Khalilzad attends the president swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, 09 March 2020. Ghani was announced on 18 February as winner of the presidential elections held on 28 September 2019 by 50.64 percent of total votes.  EPA/JAWAD JALALI

US special representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on Wednesday called on Kabul to move forward with plans for Taliban prisoner releases, amid rising concerns around the coronavirus.

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has signed a decree that would see 5,000 Taliban prisoners released over the next months as a confidence-building measure ahead of direct talks between the Taliban and the government. The talks were scheduled for March 10, but have been postponed and no new date has been confirmed.

The first batch of prisoners should have been released on Saturday, March 14, but so far no arrangements have been made by the Ghani administration.

Government officials told The National that no release is to be expected in the coming days, with many issues still unsolved - including what might happen to child prisoners. The Taliban has shared a list of 5,000 prisoners to be released with the US.

“The United States would like to see prisoner releases begin as soon as possible in line with the US-Taliban agreement,” Mr Khalilzad tweeted. “No prisoners have been released to date despite the commitment to do so expressed by both sides.”

A deal signed between the US and the Taliban on February 29 mentioned that 5,000 prisoners should be released ahead of intra-Afghan negotiations - the long-awaited direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to find a solution to the decade-long war.

Mr Khalilzad said that the coronavirus outbreak makes the prisoner release urgent, stating that “time is of the essence”.

The Taliban warned that the coronavirus could be threatening more than 40,000 prisoners throughout Afghanistan, with poor health facilities and crowded conditions in detention centres. The militants called on health organisations to intervene. So far 22 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Afghanistan, though only 305 people have been tested, according to the United Nations. Many more are thought to be infected, with the largest outbreak being in the western city Herat near the Iranian border.

Mr Ghani, whose dispute continues with his bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah, who also claimed the presidency, first opposed the prisoner release, but later said that Taliban fighters would be released in batches of 100 a day for 15 days, after which the remaining 3,500 prisoners would be released in groups of 500 on a bi-monthly basis.

“The Taliban commit that released prisoners will abide by the commitments made in the peace agreement and not return to the battlefield. A violation will undermine the peace process,” Mr Khalilzad said. Each released fighter has to sign a declaration form upon release.

The coronavirus outbreak has caused further uncertainty in Afghanistan, and travel bans are further complicating the setup of intra-Afghan negotiations, due to happen outside the country. The US envoy has arrived back in Kabul to mend political tensions and help facilitate the prisoner release.