US, Taliban Urge Afghan Leaders to Complete Prisoner Swap

The United States is calling on leaders in Afghanistan to conclude an ongoing prisoner swap and launch a peace dialogue with the Taliban insurgency without delay.

In a series of tweets Sunday, acting U.S. ambassador to Kabul Ross Wilson also stressed the need for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival-turned-coalition partner, Abdullah Abdullah, to implement a power-sharing deal which the two signed in May.

“We urge this country’s leaders promptly to establish the new government, create the High Council for National Reconciliation, complete the exchange of prisoners, and move to the opening of intra-Afghan negotiations,” said the American charge d’affairs.

Under his power-sharing deal with Ghani, Abdullah has been appointed as the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, which is tasked to lead a team of Afghan negotiators in still-unscheduled talks with the Taliban.

The proposed negotiations, however, hinge on the prisoner swap, in which Kabul is required to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in return for around 1,000 Afghan security force captives held by the insurgent group.

Afghan officials have said that about 4,400 prisoners have been freed. But the government has refused to release the last batch of around 600 inmates, describing them as “too dangerous” and insisting some foreign governments also want them to remain in jails.

“The Afghan people have made clear their impatience. Start intra-Afghan negotiations now so that discussions on a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire can begin,” said the ambassador, underscoring Washington’s apparent frustration at Kabul’s refusal to move forward with more prisoner releases.

The prisoner exchange was agreed to in a landmark deal signed by Washington and the Taliban in February to end the nearly 19-year-old Afghan war, America’s longest.

The Taliban says it has already released 845 Afghan security force captives from its custody and is working to free the remainder. However, insurgent officials have ruled out participation in peace talks until all 5,000 Taliban prisoners are set free.

On Sunday, the Taliban criticized Kabul for “creating hurdles” in the way of intra-Afghan talks by not releasing the remaining prisoners. The insurgent group’s statement dismissed as “lame excuses” the claim by Afghan officials that foreign governments opposed the prisoner releases. It noted that the U.S.-Taliban agreement has been endorsed not only by the United Nations but also by a number of countries.

The completion of the prisoner exchange process was “one of the most fundamental issues” of the Afghan peace process, the Taliban said.

“If the Kabul administration officials truly seek intra-Afghan negotiations then they must execute their responsibilities related to completion of the prisoner exchange process,” the group said.

Under its deal with the Taliban, the Trump administration has committed to withdraw all American and allied troops from Afghanistan by July 2021.

In return, the insurgents have pledged to prevent al-Qaida and other terrorist groups from using Afghan soil for international attacks, and promised to seek reconciliation with other Afghan groups through a dialogue process.

The Taliban also pledged in its deal with the U.S. to cease all attacks on international forces in the country. But insurgent battlefield raids against Afghan security forces have spiked in recent weeks, killing scores of government personnel and civilians.

The May 17 power-sharing deal gave Abdullah the right to appoint half of the cabinet. But the political situation in Kabul remains tense.

The Ghani-Abdullah deal grew out of last September’s fraud-marred presidential election, which both leaders claimed to have won. The two formed parallel governments in March before reaching the deal, mainly under pressure from the United States and other international partners of Afghanistan.