KABUL: With the cancellation of many international flights due to the global coronavirus outbreak, Afghan government officials and Taliban delegates resorted to holding talks on Skype to move ahead with the technical details for a prisoner exchange program.
The meeting, which took place on Sunday and was facilitated by the US and Qatar, breaks a deadlock which had threatened to derail the talks.The prisoner swap deal was part of a major condition set by both groups prior to signing a historic peace deal on Feb. 29, a move aimed at ending Washington’s war in Afghanistan — the most protracted conflict in American history.
US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who signed the deal following over a year of secret talks with the Taliban, described Sunday’s discussions as “important, serious and detailed.”
He tweeted on Sunday that: “Prisoner releases by both sides is an important step in the peace process, as stated in the US-Taliban agreement,” adding that the prisoner exchange program was the need of the hour to limit the spread of the virus.
As per the deal, which the Taliban signed with Khalilzad, 5,000 Taliban inmates were expected to be freed by Kabul on March 10, in exchange for 1,000 government forces held by the militants.
However, President Ashraf Ghani, whose government was excluded from the talks, refused to release all 5,000 prisoners, pushing instead for a phased-out and conditional release.
On Sunday night, due to the coronavirus outbreak, Ghani’s government said it would free several prisoners from jails, but did not specify whether Taliban inmates would be among them.
The Taliban had previously refused to speak to the government until all prisoners were released.
The group has stepped up deadly attacks against government forces since but avoided targeting foreign forces, as promised in the deal signed with Washington.
Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Ghani’s national security adviser, said that government officials also discussed other vital issues, which the Taliban have so far refused to consider.
“It was important to seize this opportunity for peace, and we have direct negotiations with the Taliban. What lies ahead is a reduction in violence, a permanent and comprehensive cease fire and the exchange of prisoners,” he told Arab News.
The Taliban’s Doha office spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, also confirmed the meeting on Twitter but stressed that the discussion was only about the release of prisoners.
Some analysts regard Sunday’s discussions as a partial breakthrough in ending an impasse over prisoner releases, which blocked the start of talks between Ghani’s government and the Taliban.
Speaking to Arab News, lawmaker Waliullah Shaheen called it a “positive development.”
Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan journalist who knows several Taliban leaders based in Qatar, said the talks were part of “efforts to end the deadlock.”
Intra-Afghan talks will follow the prisoner exchange, Shaheen said, without divulging more details.
Ghani has yet to name a delegation for the talks with the Taliban due to differences with non-state leaders and because his election rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, has declared his government, throwing the country into unprecedented political chaos.Two Afghan officials in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Arab News that US Secretary Mike Pompeo was in Kabul on Monday to hold talks with Ghani and Abdullah to discuss the current crisis and the prospect of future peace talks.