KABUL: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday rejected a clause in a peace deal signed between the Taliban and Washington by saying his government had never committed to the release of 5,000 Taliban inmates.
Based on the historic deal, which followed a week-long reduction in violence in Afghanistan that mostly held, Kabul and the Taliban are required to work expeditiously toward a prisoner swap deal as part of a “confidence-building measure” following nearly 18 months of intensive negotiations between the US and the armed group.
But Ghani and his government were not included in these talks because the Taliban views the Kabul administration as a “puppet of the West.”
The president said at a news conference that freeing Taliban prisoners had nothing to do with Washington.
“Freeing Taliban prisoners is not the authority of America, but is the authority of the Afghan government,” Ghani said at the presidential palace.
“There has been no commitment for the release of 5,000 prisoners. We have frequently said this very clearly to (US special envoy) Mr.(Zalmay) Khalilzad and all other authorities.”
The US, which has up to 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, will draw that number down to 8,600 within 14 months of the agreement.
Taliban delegates said that their prisoners must be freed before March 10, when the first major intra-Afghan dialogue is scheduled to take place outside Afghanistan.
Ghani is due to be sworn in on March 9 following his narrow win in last year’s presidential elections, putting him in office for a second term.
But Washington has urged Ghani to postpone the event after his rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah threatened to form a parallel government. Abdullah claims that he was the victor in the disputed poll.
In January, there was a high-profile meeting attended by Abdullah, Deputy Chief Executive Hajji Mohammad Mohaqiq and former President Hamid Karzai among others.
They were seeking to draw up a mechanism for peace talks with the Taliban, despite Ghani’s condition that the insurgents declare a truce before starting an intra-Afghan dialogue.
The meeting was a result of complaints from Abdullah and other politicians who accuse Ghani of monopolizing the peace process by not consulting them before setting up a team which could represent the government in the first direct talks with the Taliban.
Ghani was asked at the news conference if he would step aside.
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“Making decisions on my position is not the authority of the delegation,” he replied, referring to the group tasked with starting talks with the Taliban.“If the Loya Jirga (legal assembly) asks me (to quit), that would be a different thing, this is not the authority of the delegation. I am not an individual ... do not raise this request (leaving office) prematurely,” Ghani said, adding that “if there is no republic, then the presidency will have no meaning.”
The Doha peace deal is seen by some Afghans as the first step toward ending a war in the country after more than 40 years of conflict.
But there are concerns that the nation could be at the brink of another civil war if Ghani and Abdullah fail to reach a consensus, especially if Washington pulls out and decides not to pressure the leaders to compromise.
“When we heard about the news of the pact, we were overwhelmed with joy,” Nasruddin, a 55-year-old resident of southern Helmand who now lives in a refugee camp in Kabul, told Arab News. “But the peace process is very complicated given that Ghani wants to be president, Abdullah separately is keen on himself and the Taliban wants power too.”
Zaki Shah, who lives in the same camp on the western edge of the city, said Afghans would mark the deal as a success when their leaders agreed among themselves on the future set-up.
Analyst Zabihullah Pakteen told Arab News that Ghani was using the prisoners’ release as “the only bargaining chip” and was looking to trade it very carefully.
Politician Zakia Wardak said that, as well as the reservations expressed by the Taliban and the government, other challenges were coming from “spoilers” looking to benefit from the “war economy.”
“Another challenge would be to stay positive,” he told Arab News. “In Afghanistan, negativity fills the air just as much as pollution does. I am disappointed about the negative reactions from people in not welcoming this step.”
The US has spent more than $1 trillion in fighting and rebuilding in Afghanistan since it led an invasion of the country after the 9/11 attacks.
About 2,400 US soldiers have been killed, along with tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians.