Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani said March 1 that he won’t free thousands of Taliban prisoners ahead of all-Afghan peace talks, aiming at a provision outlined in the recently signed U.S.–Taliban deal.
The Taliban later said it wouldn’t take part in the intra-Afghan talks unless the prisoners were released.
According to the agreement, up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners would be released by March 10, when intra-Afghan peace talks are scheduled to start. The Taliban would release up to 1,000 prisoners.
But Ghani said at a news conference in the Kabul that the United States couldn’t promise the release of prisoners, adding that the decision was one for the Afghani people. He wouldn’t release any before intra-Afghan peace talks start March 10.
“The request has been made by the United States for the release of prisoners, and it can be part of the negotiations, but it cannot be a precondition,” said Ghani, who also called on the Taliban to “sever their ties with all terrorist groups” after the group committed to cutting ties with Al Qaeda.
The Taliban responded on March 2, with a spokesman saying militants wouldn’t take part in the intra-Afghan talks until the prisoners are released, according to Reuters.
The proposed release of prisoners was near the top of the U.S.–Taliban agreement. “The United States is committed to start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence-building measure with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides,” it stated.
Any Taliban prisoners released would “be committed to the responsibilities mentioned in this agreement so that they will not pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies.”
Asked about Ghani’s comments on March 1 during an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the document.
“It says that we will work with all relevant parties to build on confidence, to create confidence-building measures amongst all of the parties, the Afghan government, non-Taliban, and others in the Afghan. We want this to be an inclusive process,” he said.
Referencing past prisoner releases from both sides, Pompeo said the United States “will know” the identities of the militants released when asked if they’d stay off the battlefield if they’re released.
The United States has focused on the Taliban’s responsibility, tying the slated withdrawal of U.S. troops to efforts by the group.
“All of our decisions moving forward are conditions-based and require the Taliban to maintain the ongoing reduction in violence. If the Taliban fail to uphold their commitments, they will forfeit their chance to engage in negotiations with the Afghan government, and will not have a say in the future of this country,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told troops in Afghanistan last week.
The ultimate goal, he said, is to reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan down to zero. The initial reduction would see the troop level drop from 13,000 to 8,600.
President Donald Trump told reporters over the weekend that he’d be meeting personally with Taliban leaders “in the not-too-distant future.” He didn’t say where the meeting would be held, and Pompeo said he wasn’t sure when or where the meeting would take place.
“I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show that we’re not all wasting time. If bad things happen, we’ll go back,” Trump said. “I let the people know: We’ll go back, and we’ll go back so fast, and we’ll go back with a force like nobody has ever seen. And I don’t think that will be necessary. I hope it’s not necessary.”