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Afghanistan to free 400 Taliban prisoners to set up peace talks

Eltaf Najafizada
Bloomberg News

Afghanistan’s government will release hardened Taliban prisoners to clear the final hurdle for direct peace talks with the insurgent group and end the 19-year war.

President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday said he would accept the recommendation of the Loya Jirga, a grand national assembly of 3,400 influential members of society, which sought to free 400 Taliban prisoners “in order to remove the obstacles to the start of peace talks, stop the bloodshed and serve the common good.”

The traditional gathering, seen as an authoritative non-government body for providing recommendations on Afghan policy, was held Friday at Ghani’s request. Approval from the panel provides the president political cover on the release of the militants, about 156 of whom are in jail on death row.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani holds up the resolution on the last day of an Afghan Loya Jirga or traditional council, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020.

The Taliban must now show they have no hesitation in announcing a nationwide ceasefire, Ghani said. The Loya Jirga sought assurances that the released prisoners wouldn’t return to the battlefield and asked the U.S. and its allies to assist in working toward a lasting peace.

“Today the Loya Jirga has made history and the declaration reflects the views of the entire nation and the government,” Ghani said in a closing speech at the gathering. “We assure that on behalf of the government we will implement all the articles of this resolution.”

Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, who also chairs the Loya Jirga, on Saturday told reporters in Kabul that peace talks with the Taliban would start within three days of the release of the prisoners.

Since a February 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 Taliban has so far released about 800 government forces and over 200 civilians, according to Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council. The government has freed 4,600 Taliban and the remaining 400 are to be released within a day, Abdullah said. According to Faisal, these 400 are “the worst of the worst”; men convicted of crimes including murder, rape and drug trafficking.

“There are many bad apples,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. “And that’s why – along with surrendering government leverage over the Taliban – it’s risky for Kabul to release them.”