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Prisoner-hostage swap may help resume US-Taliban talks

The exchange of three Taliban members and two western hostages may not ensure direct talks, but it can help build mutual trust in order to restart discussions.

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Kabul: The release of three senior Taliban members in exchange for two western hostages is not a gateway to peace talks or even a temporary cease-fire with the Afghan Government, but it may help resume stalled negotiations with the U.S. and ultimately lead to an agreement on the withdrawal of foreign troops, the militant group said.

“Perhaps the prisoner swap can help build mutual trust between the U.S. and Taliban in order to restart discussion on a nearly-finalized troop withdrawal deal that can end the U.S. occupation,” Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed said in a phone interview. “It’s baseless to say the release can help begin direct talks or a temporary truce with the government. The occupation must end first as that’s a major roadblock to any government-Taliban talks.”

The statement is a setback to President Ashraf Ghani’s hopes that the prisoner-hostage swap — Taliban members freed in return for American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — would bring the Taliban to the table for direct talks. The militants who now control or lay claim to half the country have repeatedly rejected Ghani’s calls for talks calling his government illegitimate and a U.S. puppet.

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke to Ghani and expressed appreciation for his support in freeing the hostages, according to a White House readout of the call Thursday. Both leaders agreed a reduction in violence was necessary to move the peace process along and “for any intra-Afghan negotiations regarding a political settlement to be successful.”

Also read: Absence from Afghan peace talks has hurt India. It’s time now to engage with Taliban

Earlier, the president expressed hope their release might get talks back on track, tweeting: “Let’s hope this leads to more good things on the peace front like a ceasefire that will help end this long war.”

“I don’t anticipate the Taliban will seize on this goodwill gesture and declare a cease-fire or reduce violence noticeably,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior South Asia associate at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. “Violence is leverage for the Taliban, and so it would take a lot more than a one off prisoner swap for it to agree to lay down arms or even to lessen the intensity of its fight.”

Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi was not immediately available for comment.

One of the released militants is Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s deputy chief and head of the Haqqani network, one of the deadliest terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The two others are Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Abdul Rasheed. All three arrived in Doha where the Taliban has a political office earlier this week.

The western hostages were handed over to American forces in Afghanistan’s Zabul province. King, 60, and Weeks, 48, both academics, were abducted by Taliban in 2016 outside the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.

The U.S. saw the prisoner swap as a “hopeful” sign that the nearly two-decade-old war would “soon conclude through a political settlement,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said in a statement. The conflict has left tens of thousands of Afghans and more than 2,400 U.S. troops dead and cost the Americans nearly a trillion dollars.

Trump in September abruptly called off talks with the Taliban following the death of an American soldier in an attack claimed by the group.

Also read: ‘War no solution’: Pakistan pushes Taliban to resume talks with US for Afghan peace deal

Representatives from the Afghan government and independent political and civil society groups are preparing to hold a third round of intra-Afghan peace talks with a Taliban delegation in Beijing after similar meetings in Moscow and Doha. No date has so far been set.

Still, the country’s current political stalemate — the results of the Sept. 18 presidential polls are indefinitely delayed — makes any real breakthrough unlikely.

“It doesn’t matter how many prisoner swaps or other confidence building measures you get,” Kugelman said. “Neither Kabul nor the broader Afghan political class can realistically pursue talks until there’s a new government in place. And that could take some time.”- Bloomberg

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