US Presses for Afghan Prisoner Swap Amid Coronavirus Fears

The United States is calling on warring sides in Afghanistan to start a prisoner swap without further delay, citing urgency in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. reconciliation envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in a series of tweets Wednesday appeared frustrated at the delay in the next steps outlined in Washington’s peace-building agreement with the Taliban insurgency.

“No prisoners have been released to date despite the commitment to do so expressed by both sides,” said Khalilzad, who negotiated and signed the Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban pact in Qatar.

“The time has come to move forward on prisoner releases,” he stressed.

The accord required Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 detainees, mostly government security forces, in insurgent custody. The swap had to take place by March 10, when Afghan parties to the war were scheduled to open direct peace talks.

The delay is largely blamed on the Afghan government that was not part of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations and the eventual agreement.

Conditional prisoner swap

Last week, Ghani allowed for a conditional release of 1,500 prisoners, saying the remaining inmates would be freed in batches, subject to a reduction in Taliban violence and opening of the peace talks. He also sought assurances the released men would not return to the battlefield.

But the Taliban rejected the plan as a violation of its agreement with Washington, saying all the insurgent detainees were to be released at once, unconditionally, before the start of intra-Afghan negotiations.

The differences prompted Kabul to halt the release process altogether while sticking to its stance.

A spokesman for the Afghan national security adviser, however, has rejected Khalilzad’s call for the prisoner swap, saying there is no change in Kabul’s stance.

“The Taliban will have to stop killing Afghans and provide guarantees that those getting released shall not be returning to war. Time for them to end violence and commit to a dignified peace,” said spokesman Javid Faisal in a video message.

Khalilzad said the U.S. was obligated to its commitments under the pact to help both sides in reaching an understanding to move the Afghan peace process forward.

“The Taliban commit that released prisoners will abide by the commitments made in the peace agreement and not return to the battlefield. A violation will undermine the peace process,” the U.S. envoy noted.

Washington last week began a “conditions-based” drawdown of U.S. forces from the country under the agreement to bring the troop level to 8,600 from the roughly 13,000 stationed in Afghanistan.

The Trump administration has agreed to withdraw all American and allied forces within 14 months. In return, the Islamist Taliban has pledged not to harbor on Afghan soil terrorist groups that seek to target the U.S.

Coronavirus outbreak

Wednesday’s statement by Khalilzad came as war-ravaged Afghanistan has confirmed around two dozen coronavirus cases in the country, blaming them on returnees from neighboring Iran, where the virus has killed hundreds and infected thousands.

“Coronavirus makes prisoner releases urgent; time is of the essence,” Khalilzad stressed in his tweets. He went on to note that the pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions likely would require “virtual engagement for now” between rival Afghan parties to work together “to begin prisoner releases as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. military Wednesday dismissed reports that the coronavirus has disrupted the troop drawdown process.

“Protecting the force is our top priority,” tweeted Col. Sonny Leggett, who speaks for the mission in Afghanistan.

“We continue to execute the ordered drawdown to 8600,” he wrote.

‘Decree of Allah’

Afghan officials and politicians fear the number of coronavirus infections could be much higher, citing extremely limited testing and capacity issues facing the deteriorated national public health care system thanks to years of conflict.

On Monday, 38 patients fled a hospital in western Herat province with the help of relatives. Afghan health officials said one of them had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The radical Taliban in a statement issued Wednesday said Afghans to must consider COVID-19 as a “decree of Allah (God).” It said the disease has been sent by Allah “because of the disobedience and sins of mankind or other reasons.”

The insurgent group advocated a religious approach to dealing with the coronavirus and offered a safe passage to international relief organizations in Taliban-controlled areas to send medical aid, equipment and medicine.

The Taliban controls or contests nearly half of Afghan territory.

“The safety guidelines issued by health organizations, doctors and other health experts must be observed and all safety precautions followed to the best of one’s abilities,” the Taliban statement said. It also warned Afghan businessmen to refrain from “unlawful profit, price hikes and hoarding.”

Political crisis

But prisoner release is not the only issue holding up the Afghan peace process, critics say.

A lingering dispute over Afghanistan’s contentious Sept. 28 presidential election has crippled the governance in Kabul.

The election commission late last month declared incumbent Ghani the winner, but his rival Abdullah Abdullah rejected the outcome as fraudulent, and both held competing presidential inaugurations last week

The political rivalry has blocked efforts to put together a united Afghan team of negotiators to engage in talks with the Taliban. Khalilzad urged Ghani and Abdullah to end the impasse, warning the political crisis is undermining security in Afghanistan.

“It is time for Afghans to compromise and put their differences aside to resolve the political crisis resulting from elections and dual inaugurations,” the U.S. envoy said in subsequent tweets.