Kabul: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will host a national gathering of leaders Friday to discuss plans to release hundreds of Taliban prisoners, a controversial move that could pave the way for negotiations to end the 19-year war.
The three-day gathering, or Loya Jirga, is expected to draw more than 3,000 delegates from all walks of Afghan life — tribal elders, politicians and other prominent figures. The Taliban have boycotted the meeting, describing it as an illegitimate debate prolonging an incessant conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Afghans since the U.S. invasion in 2001.
“Peace is an urgent desire of every Afghan,” said Sediq Sediqqi, a presidential spokesman. “If the people decided not to release the inmates, that’s the decision of Afghanistan people.”
Since a February peace agreement between the U.S. and Taliban leadership, only partial progress has been made on a key demand by the insurgent group for a prisoner swap — up to 5,000 Taliban fighters for about 1,000 government troops. The exchange was meant to foster talks between the militants and the Kabul administration to wind down the war. However, Ghani has been accused of dragging his feet and has yet to release the final 400 inmates.
It’s a decision fraught with risk for Ghani as Washington speeds up its withdrawal plans. Already thousands of troops have exited Afghanistan following the agreement, bringing President Donald Trump one step closer to fulfilling his campaign pledge to get America out of its “endless wars.” Approximately 8,500 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000 in 2010 and a full withdrawal is expected by April 2021.
The insurgent group has so far released about 800 government forces and over 200 civilians, according to Jawid Faisal, a spokesman of the Afghan National Security Council. Of the Taliban prisoners, 156 are awaiting the death penalty, he said. All of the remaining inmates were convicted of major crimes including murder, rape and drug trafficking. “They are the worst of the worst,” Faisal said.
“There are many bad apples among these 400 Taliban inmates, and that’s why, along with surrendering government leverage over the Taliban, it’s risky for Kabul to release them,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. “If the Loya Jirga agrees to release the prisoners, then any blame for freeing 200 murderers couldn’t be deposited directly on Ghani’s doorstep.”
Taliban leaders in Qatar, where the group has a political office, said that Ghani should release their inmates without hesitation, accusing him of holding the Loya Jirga as a “tool against peace and the wishes of nation,” the group said in an statement on Wednesday.
The Afghan president has likewise claimed that the Taliban have failed to deliver on promises to reduce violence across the country, which remains stubbornly high despite the peace agreement. Since then about 3,560 Afghan security officials have been killed in attacks and thousands more maimed, Ghani said last week.
It’s a view held by some of those attending the Loya Jirga, who are distrustful of the Taliban’s intentions.
“If the U.S. and international community tried to force us to free the most violent Taliban, they will make our country a terrorist safe haven,” Shahla Farid, a delegate who is prepared to veto their release, said in an interview on Wednesday. “They’re top criminals and have raped and killed innocent women and masterminded suicide attacks.”
Despite the high emotions the gathering will air, political analysts are expectant that the delegates will ultimately call for a release of the final prisoners.
“It is a sensitive political tactic,” said Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France. Yet the Loya Jirga will most likely “express concerns but reluctantly enable the release of remaining prisoners, which could result in intra-Afghan talks happening within days.” – Bloomberg