U.S., Taliban officials meet to discuss prisoner release dispute: Taliban spokesman

The chief U.S. negotiator and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan held talks on Monday with Taliban officials in Doha on a prisoner release dispute that helped stall U.S.-led peace-making efforts, a Taliban spokesman said.

The discussions, held despite the global coronavirus pandemic, followed some movement on prisoner releases, with Kabul freeing some 300 insurgent detainees and the Taliban releasing a first batch of government prisoners.

The dispute over the size and pace of the releases, an increase in Taliban violence and other issues have stalled the U.S.-led effort to end America’s longest war and decades of strife in Afghanistan.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban office in Doha, said on Twitter that U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and U.S. Army General Scott Miller met with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the insurgent movement and its chief negotiator.

The sides discussed the “complete implementation” of a Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban deal for a phased U.S. troop withdrawal “as well as delay in the release of prisoners,” Shaheen said.

He added that “violations of the agreement and other issues and ways of their solutions were also discussed.”

Shaheen did not elaborate. The Taliban last week accused the United States of violating the accord by supporting Afghan security operations in some parts of the country, and warned that such support could jeopardize the Feb. 29 deal.

It was the second time Miller, commander of a U.S.-led international force, met the Taliban officials since Friday.

The State Department had no immediate comment. Earlier Monday, it announced that Khalilzad was to meet with Taliban officials “to discuss current challenges in implementing the U.S.-Taliban Agreement.”

The Feb. 29 deal called for the freeing of up to 5,000 Taliban detainees and up to 1,000 government prisoners as a prelude to a March 10 opening of peace negotiations between the Taliban and an Afghan delegation including officials from Kabul.

The Taliban, however, demanded the release all 5,000 detainees before they would attend the talks, a demand rejected by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose government was not a party to the deal.

Ghani ordered a phased release of 1,500 Taliban prisoners, of whom some 300 have been freed since Wednesday.

On Sunday, the insurgents announced that they turned 20 government prisoners over to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kandahar. The head of the ICRC’s Afghanistan office confirmed the releases on Twitter.