Taliban representatives and the Afghan government are negotiating the release of more than 100 prisoners. The US-Taliban peace agreement called for thousands of prisoners to be released within days of signing, but the Afghan government quickly objected to the timetable, citing logistical constraints.
Liberation was already several weeks out of schedule, and when the two sides finally met in Kabul, negotiators quickly reached obstacles. Taliban representatives want their senior leaders to be included in the first round of liberation, while the Afghan government strongly refuses to release anyone who has helped organize a massive attack.
Repeated delays at the start of formal talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government threaten to cancel it fragile US-Taliban peace agreement. Since it was signed at the end of February, violence in Afghanistan has escalated and the struggle for power over the Afghan president has deepened.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday dismissed the impasse over the release of prisoners as an “attitude” and said the United States expected problems to arise when the two sides moved toward formal talks.
“There is no doubt that there will be a step forward and a step back,” Pompeo said at a press conference, adding that some progress had been made since the agreement was signed last month. “But we saw them posing in the media.”
Pompeo traveled to Kabul on March 23 to mediate an agreement between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. Ghani was declared the winner of the September election with a narrow margin; Abdullah denounced the results as fraud and threatened to form a parallel government. After Pompeo’s visit failed to resolve the crisis, he threatened to cut $ 1 billion in the U.S. help to the country.
Statements from senior Pompeo diplomats indicate that the Trump administration has increased pressure on Afghan leaders in recent days.
“Donors are frustrated and fed up with the personal agenda being advanced ahead of the welfare of the people of Afghanistan,” Alice Wells, the State Department’s top official for South and Central Asia, said in a statement posted to Twitter on Monday.
Afghanistan needs billions of foreign aid every year to provide basic services to its citizens, and expert projection estimates the country will continue to depend on aid for years to come. That dependency is expected to be exacerbated if coronavirus the plague in Afghanistan got worse. Afghanistan has more than 400 confirmed corona virus cases and 14 deaths, but officials warn that the actual number could be much higher, because testing has been limited.
Expectations are high when the Taliban delegation arrived in Kabul last week. The visit came after Ghani announced the formation of a negotiating team and Abdullah issued a statement expressing its support for its members. The Afghan government and the Taliban have also agreed to a compromise: Release of prisoners will occur in groups smaller than all at once.
A peace agreement signed by the United States and the Taliban calls for 5,000 Taliban prisoners to be freed in exchange for 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces and government employees in Taliban custody.
But after several days of talks, the Taliban issued a statement Tuesday announcing that the group would no longer participate in “futile meetings” and accused the Afghan government of “wasting time.” Hours later, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen announced in a tweet that the Taliban delegation will return to Doha, Qatar, where the group has a political office.
The Afghan government says the Taliban move “shows a lack of seriousness about peace,” according to a statement from Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the office of the Afghan national security adviser.
Faisal said the discussion “had entered an important phase” before Taliban officials stepped down. However, he added that the Afghan government remained open to continuing talks.
But because peace talks with the Taliban have been postponed repeatedly, violence in Afghanistan has escalated. On Sunday, the Taliban accused the United States of violating the terms of the peace agreement by carrying out attacks on Taliban fighters and carrying out drone strikes against Afghan civilians.
The Taliban statement warned that ongoing violations would “create an atmosphere of mistrust that would not only damage the agreement, but also force the Resistance to the same response and would increase the level of fighting.”
U.S. military spokesman Colonel Sonny Leggett refute Taliban accusations, said that U.S. forces in Afghanistan upholds the terms of the agreement and that “every statement to the contrary is baseless.”
Leggett said that the US military would continue to come to help Afghan forces and that the Taliban must reduce violence.
The US military continues to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, as mandated by a peace agreement with the Taliban. The United States began reducing about 12,000 US troops in Afghanistan in March and was on track to reduce the number to 8,600 in early July, within a period of 135 days determined by the peace agreement.
George reports from London. Carol Morello in Washington and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
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