On March 11th, 2020, the Taliban rejected the Afghanistan Government’s offer for the ‘conditional release’ of Taliban prisoners. President Ghani’s offer follows the groundbreaking February 29th deal between the United States and the Taliban to end the 18 year-long conflicts in Afghanistan. In a bid to withdraw U.S. troops in the region over the next 14 months, the United States agreed to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners ahead of intra-Afghan negotiations. Ashraf Ghani accepted the United States’ bid for a prisoner exchange in return for recognition of his victory over political rival Abdullah Abdullah.
However, Ghani’s plan for the release of the prisoners differs from the United State’s negotiations with the Taliban. Ghani announced in his second inaugural speech an alternate framework of ‘conditional release’, revising the deal so that a gradual release of prisoners would be contingent on “a significant reduction in violence”. Under these new terms, the release of 1,500 Taliban prisoners would begin on March 10th, with 100 prisoners being released for 15 consecutive days. The first phase of prisoner release is remarked by President Ghani as a “gesture of goodwill”, with the remainder of the 3,500 prisoners to be released following intra-Afghan peace negotiations.
The Taliban rebuffed Ghani’s decree, instead of demanding the release of all 5,000 prisoners before intra-Afghan talks began. Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen responded on Twitter that the Taliban will only comply with pre-negotiated conditions with the U.S., saying “we handed over to the U.S. team a detailed list of 5000 prisoners that none can tamper with. Our very condition is that the detainees are acceptable if verified by our team whether they are handed over to us in an open rural area or the premises of prisons”. The release of the listed 5,000 Taliban prisoners is cited as being a term in the February U.S.-Taliban deal, although at the time the Afghanistan government had not consented to the release of such prisoners.
In the face of the Taliban’s rejection of ‘conditional release’, the government of Afghanistan has postponed the release of prisoners. “We have received the lists of the prisoners to be released. We are checking and verifying the lists, this will take time,” commented Javid Faisal, spokesperson for the Afghanistan National Security Advisor’s office. The delay in the prisoner release has postponed peace talks, which were set to begin March 10th. The instability in the timeline for the release endangers the entire peace negotiation process.
The priority of America’s exit should be the success of the intra-Afghan peace talks. If negotiations over prisoner release fail, it is highly likely that all talks regarding peace between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban will cease. Without the backing of the United States, Afghanistan will be left vulnerable to a strengthened insurgency and further political division that could threaten to disintegrate the state.
The removal of U.S. troops should be heavily contingent on the success of intra-Afghan peace negotiations if reentry of U.S. forces for future regional conflicts is to be avoided. Moreover, pressure from the U.S. government and the presence of non-combative forces in the region can aid in influencing the Taliban to have greater flexibility in negotiations. This is not to say that America should cease in its effort to remove itself from the region. However, the more gradual removal of troops and a transition of forces into non-combative entities could be greatly beneficial to see a lasting peace deal.
According to the U.S.-Taliban deal, the success of the intra-Afghan negotiations is not necessary for troop removal. Instead, the U.S.-Taliban deal is reliant on the Taliban keeping their promise to cease support to terrorist groups. Securing a Taliban promise to disaffiliate from terrorist groups has always been a primary goal of the U.S. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Taliban supported Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, launching the entry of American forces in the region. The U.S.-Taliban agreement was greatly tailored towards American desires to exit the region, rather than acting as an outline for peace.
The framework of the United States’ troop removal needs to prioritize socio-political stability in the region before placating negative public opinion of the war. The prolongment of the Taliban prisoner exchange paints a dim picture of what the future of intra-Afghan peace talks could look like. If talks over the prisoner exchange break down it is highly likely that the Afghanistan government will resume attacks on the Taliban and violence will increase in the region. While the U.S.-Taliban agreement is a monumental step towards securing peace in Afghanistan, it is only the beginning of a long process.