Taliban says it’s walking away from talks with government over prisoner release
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 7, 2020
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s fragile peace process suffered a major blow Tuesday as the Taliban said it was breaking off talks with the government about a prisoner exchange, which is a key part of a deal the insurgents signed with the United States.
The release of prisoners by the insurgents and Kabul is one of several conditions spelled out in the U.S.-Taliban deal signed in late February, which must be met if all international forces are to withdraw from Afghanistan by next spring.
But after a week of face-to-face discussions with government negotiators, the Taliban said Tuesday they were walking away from the dialogue.
“Unfortunately, their release has been delayed under one pretext or another till now,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter, where he also said his side was pulling out.
The talks on the prisoner release faltered because the Taliban had insisted that 15 “high-level and dangerous commanders” be among those who would be freed, said Abdul Matin Bek, a member of the government’s negotiating team. Although Kabul refused that condition, it was prepared to release hundreds of other detainees with ties to the Taliban, he said.
The Taliban were demonstrating a “lack of seriousness about peace” by quitting the talks, which had reached an “important phase ahead of the release,” said Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Security Council, without providing details. The government, on the other hand, remained committed to the peace process, he said in a tweet.
The announcement by the Taliban that it was quitting the talks came two days after the group said repeated U.S. raids and “brutal drone attacks” across Afghanistan violated the deal the insurgents signed with the Americans on Feb. 29.
That deal, which spells out the conditions that must be met if international forces are to completely withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months, could be in jeopardy if the attacks continue, the Taliban said in a statement. One of the conditions was the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for up to 1,000 prisoners held by the insurgents; another was the convening of intra-Afghan talks immediately after the release.
United States Forces–Afghanistan described the Taliban’s accusations as “baseless.”
But, USFOR-A spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said in a tweet, “We will defend our ANDSF partners if attacked, in compliance with the agreement,” using an acronym for Afghanistan’s security forces.
Also causing the Afghan peace process to stumble is the failure of incumbent president Ashraf Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah to agree on which of the two of them won September’s presidential election.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month, after failing to resolve the impasse during a lightning visit to Afghanistan, that the U.S. would withhold at least $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan unless a solution is found.
The long row between the two men was eating away at international goodwill toward Afghanistan, the top American diplomat for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, said this week.
“As the world gets slammed by COVID-19, with devastating economic consequences for all, donors are frustrated and fed up by personal agendas being advanced ahead of the welfare of the Afghan people,” Wells tweeted Monday.