On August 9, the Afghan government agreed to release the final 400 Taliban prisoners from detention. This decision was made to fulfil the Taliban’s condition in a U.S.-Taliban agreement to commence peace talks with Afghanistan. Since their removal from power in 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion, the Taliban have only been in negotiation with the U.S. The release of prisoners would be a sign of good faith from the Afghanistan government and remove what the Afghan traditional council described to be a barrier to peace talks with the militants. In February this year, it was agreed that 5,000 Taliban prisoners would be freed, and as of August 9, there were only 400 remaining in prison.
The Afghan government had been reluctant to release the final prisoners, and the decision to do so has come under international scrutiny and concern. The Human Rights Watch has cautioned that many of the Taliban prisoners had been jailed under “overly broad terrorism laws that provide for indefinite preventive detention.” Many of the prisoners are convicted murderers with ties to al-Qaeda, as bomb-makers and foreign extremists. The Afghan National Security Advisor has made publicly clear that at least five were responsible for major terrorist attacks, including a 2017 truck bombing near Kabul which killed over 150 people. He believes these prisoners were most likely to return to the battlefield upon their release.
However, the Taliban has rejected the depiction of the remaining 400 prisoners as highly dangerous. Taliban political spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, maintains that “this [negative characterisation] is what the spoilers of the peace agreement say and claim in order to create hurdles in the way of a peaceful solution of the Afghan issue. [Taliban prisoners] are political prisoners like other prisoners.” Once the final prisoners have been released, Shaheen said that the Taliban wouldn’t “see any [further] hurdles” to commencing peace talks.
The Trump Administration’s role in escalating pressure on the Afghan government to agree to this release and commence peace negotiations has been considered a way to justify its withdrawal of troops to below 5,000 by November this year, just in time for the U.S. Presidential Elections. This move could be politically advantageous, and popular among voters who have been seeking U.S. withdrawal from the Afghanistan War. The U.S. has made assurances, however, that the remaining number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be sufficient to keeping insurgents with ties to ISIS and al-Qaeda at bay.
Intra-Afghan negotiations are set to commence mid-August in Doha. Patricia Gossman, Associate Asia Director of the Human Rights Watch, has warned that “given the enormous amount of mistrust … old grievances can easily erupt into more violence.” But, this agreement has also been the closest the Taliban and the Afghan government have been to negotiating a cease-fire and bringing an end to the 19-year-long conflict. Khalilzad, the special envoy for Afghanistan, has said the Taliban has made some progress breaking with terrorist groups, but “they have to take a lot more steps.”
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