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Afghan president says he’ll release 400 Taliban prisoners

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 said on August 9 that he will approve the release of 400 jailed Taliban militants in the final part of a prisoner swap meant to clear the way for the start of intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban.

Ghani announced his intention to release the militants, many who have been convicted for deadly attacks on Afghans and foreigners, shortly after the move was recommended by 3,400 prominent Afghans at a three-day Loya Jirga in Kabul.

“Today I will sign a decree that I wouldn’t be able to sign in a lifetime, because it was beyond my authority,” Ghani told the Loya Jirga after its August 9 vote on the resolution. “Now, based on your consensus and your moral decision, I will sign the decree on releasing the 400 prisoners and release them.”

The head of the Loya Jirga, Abdullah Abdullah, said the Loya Jirga’s August 9 resolution removed the last remaining obstacle to the beginning of talks between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives under the format of intra-Afghan talks.

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Afghanistan’s former president, Hamid Karzai, who was present at the Loya Jirga, said on August 9 that he expects an Afghan team to start negotiating with the Taliban within two or three days of the prisoners’ release.

The Afghan delegation is to be led by the former head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, Masoom Stanakzai. The delegation will include Afghan politicians, former officials, and representatives of civil society. Kabul has previously said that five members of the delegation would be women.

Abdullah, who is also head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, has previously said that the first round of the talks would begin in Qatar’s capital, Doha, where the Taliban maintains a political office.

There was no immediate comment from Taliban on the Loya Jirga’s August 9 recommendation to release the 400 Taliban prisoners.

The resolution recommending the release of the Taliban prisoners was passed at the end of the three-day Loya Jirga in Kabul — a traditional meeting of Afghan tribal elders and other stakeholders convened to decide on controversial national issues.

President Ghani had called for the gathering, declaring that he did not have the authority under Afghanistan’s constitution to release the 400 prisoners from Afghan jails as part of a prisoner swap because they’d committed violent crimes.

“In order to remove the hurdles for the start of peace talks, stopping bloodshed, and for the good of the public, the Loya Jirga approves the release of 400 prisoners as demanded by the Taliban,” Loya Jirga member Atefa Tayeb announced at the gathering in Kabul on August 9.

Both the Afghan government and the Taliban have committed to completing a prisoner exchange before the intra-Afghan talks can begin.

Ghani was expected to make a final decision on the basis of the Loya Jirga’s recommendation.

Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Loya Jirga, said on August 8 that all 50 committees of the assembly had supported the release of the prisoners, who have been convicted of involvement in high-profile attacks in the country.

The release of the prisoners is the last hurdle to opening peace talks between the internationally backed government in Kabul and the Taliban under a peace deal between the militants and the United States.

Abdullah, who is also head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, said that intra-Afghan peace talks can begin three days after a potential prisoner release.

The Loya Jirga committees also asked both sides of the conflict to observe an unconditional cease-fire ahead of intra-Afghan peace talks.

Kabul has already released 4,600 Taliban inmates out of the 5,000 pledged in a landmark agreement signed in February by the United States and the Taliban, but authorities have balked at freeing the remaining prisoners demanded by the Taliban.

Afghan officials have described the remaining prisoners as dangerous. About 200 of them are accused by the Afghan government of masterminding attacks on embassies, public squares, and government offices, killing thousands of civilians in recent years.

The Taliban says it has freed all 1,000 government prisoners it had pledged in the agreement with the United States and insists on its demand for the release of the remaining 400 prisoners on its list.

In addition to a gradual 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.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in an interview on August 8 that the United States plans to cut its troop levels in Afghanistan to “a number less than 5,000” by the end of November.

Esper’s comments on Fox News came after President Donald Trump said earlier in the week that the United States first plans to reduce the existing 8,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 8,000 “in a very short period.” He said the number would then drop to 4,000.

Despite the U.S.-Taliban deal, Taliban attacks since February have killed 3,560 Afghan security personnel, according to the government.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented more than 1,280 Afghan civilian deaths during the first half of 2020 — mainly as a result of fighting between Afghan government forces and Taliban militants.