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Afghanistan prisoner swap delayed, complicating efforts to restart talks with Taliban

Australian Timothy Weeks, left, and American Kevin King, as shown in a 2017 Taliban video. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani said the country would release three high-ranking Taliban prisoners in exchange for Weeks and King.

SCREENSHOT

By SUSANNAH GEORGE | The Washington Post | Published: November 17, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan — A planned prisoner swap between the Afghan government and the Taliban intended to restart peace talks between the insurgent group and the U.S. has been delayed, according to Afghan and Taliban officials.

The emergence of significant snags early on highlights the difficulty of getting the two sides back to the negotiating table. The Taliban have long refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan government.

The swap would have freed two university professors in exchange for three high-profile militants linked to the Taliban. President Ashraf Ghani announced the deal on live television last week, saying it would help bring “peace and stability” to Afghanistan.

The professors, Kevin King, a U.S. citizen, and Timothy Weeks, an Australian, have been held by the Taliban since August 2016, when gunmen ambushed their vehicle in central Kabul and abducted them.

The militants who were set for release are Mali Khan, Hafiz Rashid and Anas Haqqani, a younger brother of the Taliban’s deputy leader and son of the Haqqani network’s founder. They are being held in a government detention center at Bagram air base. The Haqqani network is an insurgent group closely allied with the Taliban.

But days after Ghani’s announcement, none of the prisoners has been released and the government and Taliban officials are trading blame.

Sediq Seddiqi, a spokesman for Ghani, blamed the Taliban for the delay, saying the insurgents “failed to observe the conditions” of the swap and caused “the disruption of the exchange process,” according to a tweet Saturday. Seddiqi did not elaborate.

A spokesman for the Taliban said the U.S. was to blame. Zabiullah Mujahid said the agreement fell apart when the Taliban-linked militants were not transferred to a second location before they were to be flown out of Afghanistan to Qatar, where the Taliban has an office.

“The issue is pending. The Americans should be asked why they have not transferred our prisoners,” Mujahid said by phone from an undisclosed location.

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass declined to comment on the details of the proposed deal, but he tweeted his support for the delay and suggested it might be linked to recent attacks in Afghanistan that have killed civilians.

“We supported President Ghani’s announcement to release three #Taliban prisoners to promote #peace - and the decision to reassess their pending transfer following the attacks in #Logar and #Kabul on November 12 and 13,” Bass said in a tweet Sunday.

“Making #peace means making hard choices, but it also requires careful review of the conditions on the ground,” he added.

The exchange was long sought by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been shuttling between Pakistan and Afghanistan for weeks to restart peace talks with the Taliban. Khalilzad was leading informal discussions focused on identifying confidence-building measures such as the prisoner swap that would be used to bring the U.S. and the Taliban back to the negotiating table.

Despite nearly a year of U.S.-Taliban negotiations and indications that a deal was imminent, the two sides have struggled to resume talks since President Donald Trump declared them “dead” in September.

It is not clear whether talks moving forward would pick up where the negotiators left off or begin from scratch. A draft peace deal had included an agreement on the withdrawal of many American troops from Afghanistan in exchange for a Taliban pledge not to harbor terrorist groups.

King and Weeks were teaching English at the American University of Afghanistan, a private, nonprofit institution in Kabul, when they were kidnapped close to its campus. During the course of their captivity, concerns have mounted that their health is deteriorating. In October 2017, the Taliban issued a statement saying King suffered from heart and kidney disease and needed urgent medical attention.

The Washington Post’s Sharif Hassan and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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