Afghan Leader Rejects Prisoner Release in US-Taliban Deal

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Sunday his government has made no commitment to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners as part of a landmark peace deal the United States signed with the Islamist insurgent group Saturday.

Ghani told a news conference in Kabul the demand for the release of insurgent prisoners cannot be a prerequisite for opening intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban. He insisted the insurgent demand could be included in the agenda of the upcoming dialogue.

“The authority to release prisoners rests with the Afghan government and not the United States,” Ghani said, adding his government would not accept any pressure on the prisoner swap issue.

The U.S.-Taliban deal sealed Saturday in Qatar, witnessed by senior representatives of around 20 countries, requires Afghan parties to the conflict to open direct negotiations on or around March 10 to agree on a nationwide permanent cease-fire and future power-sharing.

However, some of the steps required to be taken in the run-up to the dialogue include the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails and of 1,000 government security forces, who are held by the insurgents.

“The United States is committed to start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence-building measure with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides,” reads the text of the pact.

Senior Taliban leaders, while speaking to reporters at the deal-signing ceremony in the Qatari capital of Doha, said Washington has committed to facilitate the prisoner swap, insisting intra-Afghan talks will begin only after Taliban prisoners are freed.

The Afghan president stopped short of criticizing the U.S.-Taliban deal, saying “an agreement that is signed behind closed doors” faces fundamental problems in its implementation. The Ghani government was kept out of the 18-month U.S.-Taliban peace talks and was not part of the Doha accord.

US troops to come home

Under the pact with the Taliban, Washington has committed bringing American troops home from Afghanistan in 14 months, with first reduction, down to 8,600 from 13,000, to take place in the first 135 days. The deal binds the insurgent group to deny sanctuary to transnational terrorist organizations and fight Islamic State militants on Afghan soil.

President Donald Trump has defended the deal, saying it fulfilled one of his campaign promises to end America’s longest war.

Trump told reporters at the White House on Saturday he believed the Taliban would deliver on its counterterrorism pledges, but the president went on to warn that “if bad things happen” U.S. troops would swiftly return to Afghanistan.

“I will be meeting personally with the Taliban leaders in the not too distant future and we will be very much hoping that they will be doing what they say they are going to be doing; they will be killing terrorists, they will keep that fight going,” Trump stressed.

The initial seven-day reduction in violence truce in Afghanistan that culminated in the signing of Saturday’s landmark deal in Qatar is expected to continue until intra-Afghan negotiations start with a goal of turning it into a nationwide cease-fire.

The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan nearly 19 years ago to punish the Taliban rulers at the time for harboring al-Qaida leaders blamed for the September 2001 terrorist strikes against America.

The war has since killed more than 150,000 people and caused more than 100,000 Afghan civilian casualties in the last 10 years alone. The military intervention has cost Washington around $1 trillion and the lives of 2,400 U.S. military personnel.

Critics of the deal

Some in Washington are critical of Trump for striking the deal with the Taliban, but he defended the agreement: “I am surprised that anybody would be against something where we’re trying to end a 19-year-old war,” he said.

“We’ve had tremendous success in Afghanistan in the killing of terrorists but it’s time after all these years to go and bring our people back home. We want to bring our people back home.”

John Bolton, a former assistant to the U.S. president for National Security Affairs, was among those who slammed the pact.

“Signing this agreement with Taliban is an unacceptable risk to America’s civilian population. This is an Obama-style deal. Legitimizing Taliban sends the wrong signal to ISIS and al Qaeda terrorists, and to America’s enemies generally,” Bolton tweeted.