Although the country is on lockdown due to the coronavirus, Afghanistan began a prisoner exchange with the Taliban on Tuesday as part of the ongoing peace process aimed at ending the nearly two-decade long war.
The Afghan government is set to release 6,000 Taliban prisoners it has in its custody. As a sign of good faith, Afghan officials met with a three member team from the Taliban to release 100 prisoners on Tuesday, Reuters reported. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called the move “good news” that day.
Esper previously wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that the peace deal the United States struck with the Taliban was the best chance of bringing U.S. forces home. He said because the U.S. has not suffered a major deadly terrorist attack from Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, the latest peace deal was “the best chance we have to ensuring it never does again, while safely bringing our troops home.”
Since the terrorist attacks on that infamous day, the United States has had a permanent presence in Afghanistan and almost 3,000 U.S. troops have lost their lives in the sustained conflict.
A week ago, Esper met with Afghan and Taliban representatives in the Qatari capital Doha, where the Taliban has a diplomatic mission, to urge them to move forward with the peace deal.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said that there have been a number of technical challenges, including the lockdown from the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, which have added another element to the challenges of the peace process.
Mujahid said the Taliban have been working to ensure that old and sick prisoners could be received by their families, but had no plans to provide financial assistance, according to Reuters.
“One hundred prisoners will be released in first batch, then both sides will assess whether releasing 100 per day is working out well or not,” Mujahid said.
In a signed agreement between the United States and the Taliban, both parties agreed to parameters the Taliban must abide by in order for the United States to remove its forces.
If the United States assess that the Taliban is honoring the deal, U.S. forces will reduce its presence from about 13,000 troops down to 8,600 within 135 days, according to the agreement.
All of the United States’ forces will be withdrawn in 9.5 months after that as long as the Taliban does not conduct acts of terrorism on Afghan soil against the United States or it allies, according to the agreement.
“If progress stalls, then our drawdown likely will be suspended, as well. At no time will we relinquish the right of self-defense,” Esper said of the deal. “Should the Taliban renege on its obligations, it will bear full responsibility for forfeiting a chance for peace, economic opportunity and a role in deciding the future of the country.”
“Peace will not come through military means; rather, safety and security for the United States, our allies and Afghanistan will be won when all Afghans lay down their arms, sit beside one another and decide their future together. A political solution is the best way forward,” Esper continued in his op-ed.
“If the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan live up to these commitments, we will have a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home,” President Donald Trump said as the U.S. signed the deal in February, ABC News reported.
Some violent attacks have continued throughout Afghanistan despite the peace efforts.
Reuters reported that eight civilians were killed in an explosion when their vehicle hit a landmine on Wednesday in the southern province of Helmand. The victims of the attack included some children.
The Taliban, nor any other group, claimed responsibility for the blast. The Taliban did acknowledge it’s fighters target security forces in their attacks, however civilians are frequently hurt or killed.