KABUL: The Taliban must end violence before Kabul releases its imprisoned fighters, an Afghan government spokesman said on Thursday, a day after US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said Washington would like to see the process begin as soon as possible.
Under a deal signed by the US and the Taliban in Doha on Feb. 29, the Afghan government was obliged to free 5,000 Taliban inmates in return for 1,000 members of the security forces held by the group by March 10, when the first round of intra-Afghan peace talks was expected to start.
Based on an order by President Ashraf Ghani, who took the oath of office for a second term on March 9, the prisoner release process should have started on March 14.
The government has not justified the delay, but following Khalilzad’s call, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Faisal Javid, said on Thursday: “There has been no change with regard to the prisoner release as per the decree of the president.” However, he specified a condition under which it could begin.
“It’s important that the Taliban stop killing Afghans and Muslims, and we get assurances that those released in the name of peace wouldn’t return to battlefields again,” he said in a video message sent to the media. “It’s time for them to end violence and commit to dignified peace.”
The scheduled intra-Afghan talks have also yet to commence. As Ghani’s contender in September’s presidential election, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah announced himself as the country’s ruler and vowed to form a parallel government. Parties are divided over who should represent the government during the intra-Afghan talks.
While Khalilzad has been trying to overcome Afghanistan’s deepening political crisis, on Wednesday evening he said the prisoner release was urgent in light of the coronavirus outbreak in the country.
“The United States would like to see prisoner releases begin as soon as possible in line with the US -Taliban agreement. No prisoners have been released to date despite the commitment to do so expressed by both sides,” Khalilzad said in a series of Twitter posts.
“Coronavirus makes prisoner releases urgent; time is of the essence. We are committed to do our part and after consultation with all relevant sides, the United States understands.”
Khalilzad said technical teams from both sides can work together and focus on steps to begin the prisoner release as soon as possible.
He added that he would participate in the initial meetings, although the current epidemic makes it more complex.
“While preferable to meet face-to-face, coronavirus and the resulting travel restrictions likely requires virtual engagement for now,” Khalilzad said.
“We call on all sides to avoid provocative media statements. 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.”
Analyst Taj Mohammad said the Afghan government’s condition for the prisoner release process will further delay the intra-Afghan talks and peace in the country.
“We’re in an uncertain situation now, and I think the government is attaching a condition that will lead to a postponement of the exchange and reduce hope for an earlier start of the talks,” he told Arab News.
Taliban representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.