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On Monday, a source from the Afghan government confirmed that a prisoner swap had taken place between the Afghan government and the Taliban. According to numerous reports, the Afghan government released eleven Taliban members in exchange for three Indian engineers. The engineers were among seven kidnapped by the Taliban in May of 2018. According to Reuters, two sources close to the Taliban confirmed the exchange took place on Sunday.
According to a senior Afghan government official, negotiations with the Taliban had been going on for months in the northern Baghlan province, where the kidnapping of the Indian engineers took place (New York Times). This prisoner exchange also came just days after a United States representative had met with senior Taliban officials. According to Reuters, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad met with Taliban representatives last week in Islamabad, Pakistan for the first time since President Donald Trump halted peace talks. It is unknown if the release of these prisoners is connected to the recent U.S.-Taliban talks.
According to Reuters, the kidnapping of foreigners and Afghan nationals for extortion is common in Afghanistan. For this reason, prisoner exchanges and swaps are not unusual in Afghanistan. Many of these exchanges go on without a great deal of media attention. This specific exchange, however, is of great interest to the United States. According to the New York Times, one of the prisoners released was Abdul Rashid Baluch. Baluch was arrested five years ago after he was caught with a huge shipment of opium. He was previously a shadow governor in the southwestern province of Nimroz, in charge of military and political operations. Baluch had been named to the U.S. Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” list. Additional reporting by the New York Times states that Baluch was tried in Afghanistan’s high-security court and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. The BBC reports that another shadow governor from the Kunar province was also among the eleven Taliban members released.
While it is unclear if these specific releases are related to the recent U.S.-Taliban talks, reporting by the New York Times says that prisoner swaps were a topic of discussion. The negotiations included discussions of potentially releasing thousands of Taliban prisoners. Afghan officials were angered to discover that although they were not included in the talks, the possibility of releasing individuals from Afghan prisons was mentioned (New York Times).
This course of events has raised concerns that U.S. negotiators were unable to properly address the complexities of the conflict, including the Taliban’s control of the drug trade in Afghanistan (New York Times). Prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban government condemned drug usage. But in recent years, the militant group has turned increasingly to the illegal drug trade as a means for financial support. When it comes to discussing the drug trade in Afghanistan, opium is the most prominent drug in question, and the Taliban largely controls its cultivation and distribution. Fighting the drug trade in Afghanistan is one of the United States’ top priorities. According to the New York Times, “earlier this year, the American-led mission in Afghanistan called off its latest attempt to cut off the Taliban’s revenue stream from drugs: a concerted bombing campaign that targeted drug labs, mostly in the country’s volatile south where much of the opium is grown”. No details were provided on why the attempt was cancelled.
Prisoner swaps and exchanges have long been a part of negotiations between states and militant groups. They become a major point of contention, however, when one actor has a vested interest in keeping certain individuals detained. But as with all international conflicts, all parties will not always agree. While prisoner releases may not be the most ideal form of conflict resolution, it is a peaceful method. If a direct conflict can be avoided by agreeing to release certain prisoners, it should be maintained as a viable option for conflict resolution.