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Afghan president says ‘all barriers removed’ for Taliban talks despite uncertainty on prisoner release

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a joint news conference with then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 12, 2016. (Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Tim D. Godbee/Department of Defense)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says that “all barriers and excuses have been removed” ahead of expected peace talks between the government in Kabul and the Taliban militants.

In a televised message to Afghan security forces on August 20, Ghani said his government had “met all conditions for a peace with dignity.” He called on the Taliban to accept a permanent cease-fire and start negotiations with the government soon.

“We have shown our will and our commitment,” he said, citing the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners, a major precondition for the peace talks sought by the United States.

Ghani’s message comes amid new uncertainties over the start of the intra-Afghan peace talks. The government said it would not release the last 320 Taliban prisoners it holds until the militants freed more captured Afghan soldiers.

The decision goes against that of the Loya Jirga, a traditional Afghan council held earlier this month, and is likely to further delay the talks.

Ghani himself had announced on August 9 his intention to release the remaining 400 militants, many of whom have been convicted for deadly attacks on Afghans and foreigners.

Kabul had already freed 4,600 Taliban inmates out of the 5,000 pledged in a landmark U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February.

Afghan officials have described the remaining prisoners as the most dangerous, accusing them of masterminding attacks on embassies, public squares, and government offices, killing thousands of civilians in recent years.

Australia and France have urged the Afghan government not to free several Taliban fighters accused of killing Australian and French nationals.

Ghani also told a British newspaper that all NATO leaders would be complicit if there was an increase in the international drug trade caused by the release of the prisoners. Afghanistan has been the world’s largest opium producer since 2001 and the Taliban is accused of using the drug money to fund itself.

In an interview with The Times, Ghani warned that a wave of narcotics could hit the West if the final batch of Taliban fighters was released from prison.

“If drugs go through the roof in the United Kingdom and Europe, all your leaders have been part of this,” Ghani said in the interview published on August 18.

“If amphetamines reach the shores of the United States, we should know that these are the consequences, and if these people commit crimes, there’s shared international responsibility.”

The Taliban says it has freed all 1,000 government prisoners it had pledged in the agreement with the United States.

In addition to the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops, the U.S.-Taliban deal calls on the Taliban to guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks on the United States or its allies.

Meanwhile, near-daily attacks continue across Afghanistan. Officials said at least 13 security forces were killed in northern province of Takhar on August 20.