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Stalling strategy? Long-delayed Afghan peace talks hit by new obstacles

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the 2014 London Conference on Afghanistan, co-hosted by the governments of the UK and Afghanistan. (DFID - UK Department for International Development/Released)

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

Afghanistan’s controversial pledge to free the last of some 400 Taliban prisoners was supposed to be the final hurdle before the launch of long-delayed peace talks between the two warring sides.

But those talks have been postponed indefinitely after Kabul abruptly halted the release of the remaining inmates, some of whom have been accused or convicted of deadly attacks on Afghans and foreigners since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

At the same time, the Afghan government has accused the Taliban of failing to free all government soldiers in its custody, a claim rejected by the insurgents.

The prisoner swap is supposed to involve a total of 5,000 Taliban militants and some 1,000 Afghan soldiers.

Meanwhile, some foreign governments are strongly urging Kabul not to release specific Taliban inmates because they were involved in killing their citizens on Afghan soil.

A senior Afghan official has also blamed the Taliban for an assassination attempt on a member of the government’s peace-negotiating team.

Some Afghan and foreign observers say President Ashraf Ghani could be deliberately delaying a process that has undermined his administration and boosted the legitimacy of the Taliban. “The Afghan government has cited several justifications in order to stall this prisoner release in the past week alone,” said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group.

Watkins said if the government was intentionally trying to “slow the pace of the peace process then we should expect further delays and obstacles.”

The prisoner swap was a precondition for launching peace talks, a key component of the U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February that called for the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban.

Under the deal, the militants agreed to negotiate with Kabul over a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement.

The Afghan government, which was not a signatory to the bilateral deal, initially balked at the prisoner swap but grudgingly accepted, freeing some 4,600 Taliban inmates in staggered releases.

Unfulfilled Promises

The Afghan government released about 80 of the remaining 400 Taliban militants on August 14, days after the move was recommended by a traditional Loya Jirga consultative assembly in Kabul. Ghani, who was under no legal obligation to consult the extraconstitutional body, agreed to the Loya Jirga recommendation on August 10.

The first peace talks were set to begin on August 20 in Qatar, where the Taliban has a political office, but have been scrapped after the latest roadblocks emerged.

Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said the government would release the remaining prisoners but added that the exchange cannot be “one-way.” Afghan officials have said the Taliban still holds a group of around 22 Afghan special forces soldiers.

Sediqqi added that Taliban violence remained “very high,” suggesting the government was attempting to tie the releases to a commitment by the insurgents to decrease their attacks.

Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, said the group had fulfilled its obligations and was not aware of any other government security personnel in its custody who were to be released.

‘Danger’ To The World

Meanwhile, First Vice President Amrullah Saleh blamed the Taliban for an August 14 attack on Fawzia Koofi, a former lawmaker and government peace negotiator, who suffered minor injuries after being shot.

The insurgent group denied responsibility.

“Only the Taliban and its allies have an interest in silencing the voice and eliminating the diversity of Afghan society,” Saleh wrote on Facebook on August 16. If given the chance, the Taliban would “shoot down the entire government negotiating team today or destroy it in a suicide attack,” he said.

Ghani, meanwhile, warned that the release of some of the remaining Taliban inmates was “dangerous” but “necessary.”

“The list is likely to pose a danger both to us and to you and to the world because it is the drug dealers and hardened criminals — that [information] has been shared with all our allies and friends — but again this is a step that we have considered necessary,” Ghani told a videoconference organized by the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations on August 13.

In an interview with The Times published on August 18, Ghani warned that a wave of illicit drugs could hit Britain and Europe if the final batch of Taliban fighters were released from prison.

Foreign Concerns

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

Fereydoon Khuzoon, a spokesman for the High Council for National Reconciliation, told reporters on August 17 that the prisoner-release process has been slowed down by the foreign countries’ objections.

Khuzoon said Afghan authorities were now trying to resolve the problem in such a way that both the peace opportunity and relationships with Kabul’s foreign partners remain unharmed.

According to an official list of the Taliban prisoners seen by RFE/RL, many of the prisoners are accused of involvement in high-profile militant attacks, with more than 150 of them on death row because of the severity of their crimes.

The list also includes a group of 44 militants who have been blacklisted by the United States and some other countries.

Among the larger group, 150 are convicted of murder, 51 of drug trafficking, and 34 of kidnapping. The prisoners include militants involved in the 2018 attack against the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul that killed 40 people, including 14 foreigners.

It also includes an insurgent involved in the May 2017 truck bombing near the German Embassy in Kabul that killed over 150 people and wounded hundreds, in the deadliest militant attack of the nearly 19-year war.

The list also includes a former Afghan National Army officer who killed five French troops in 2012 in an “insider “attack and another ex-soldier who killed three Australian troops.

‘Little Choice’

“Ghani might use some of these issues to make sure he is in control of the peace process to the extent possible,” said Ali Adili, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul.

Observers have suggested that Ghani is attempting to retain power because it is widely speculated that negotiations could seek a neutral interim government.

Others have said Ghani’s strategy may be tied to hopes that Washington’s policy on Afghanistan will shift after the U.S. election in November if Democratic rival Joe Biden beats President Donald Trump.

Trump has made the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan a foreign-policy priority even as U.S. lawmakers and Afghan officials fear the president is rushing to the exit door without a comprehensive peace agreement.

“If Ghani has a strategy to slow the process, it may be tied to hopes that Washington’s Afghanistan policy will shift under a potential Biden White House,” Watkins said.

“Additionally, the entire framework of the U.S.-driven peace process, which will almost certainly call for the restructuring of the Afghan government and changes to the constitution, is something Ghani has had little choice but to oppose,” he added.