Afghan Council Frees Taliban Prisoners 08/09 10:24
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- A traditional Afghan council concluded Sunday
with hundreds of delegates agreeing to free 400 Taliban members, paving the way
for an early start to negotiations between Afghanistan's warring sides.
The declaration calls for an immediate start to negotiations and a
cease-fire. The move looks to bring the United States a little closer to
bringing home its troops and ending its longest military engagement.
No date has been set for the release, but negotiations between Kabul's
political leadership and the Taliban are expected to begin as early as next
week, and will most likely be held in the Mideast state of Qatar, where the
Taliban maintain a political office.
These Afghan negotiations were laid out in a peace deal signed by the U.S.
and the Taliban in February. At the time of its signing it was touted as
Afghanistan's best chance at ending decades of war.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani praised delegates for their decision, urged
the Taliban to stop fighting.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the decision "was a good
step, a positive step." He said negotiations could start within one week of
their prisoners being freed.
As for a cease-fire, Shaheen said the Taliban were committed to the deal it
struck with the U.S., and according to that deal "the cease-fire will be one of
the items to be discussed during the intra-Afghan negotiations."
Later Sunday afternoon, an explosive devise hidden in a cart killed two
people in Kabul. The spokesman for the capital's police, Firdus Faramarz, said
policemen were trying to remove the device when it exploded. Five police were
A recent spike in violence in Afghanistan has been mostly attributed to the
Islamic State affiliate, whom the Taliban are fighting, as are the Afghan
government and U.S. forces. Previously, a U.S. Defense Department official who
spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject said Washington
considered IS its biggest threat in Afghanistan, and wanted a deal that would
recruit the Taliban in a coordinated fight against it.
The council's decision to free the Taliban prisoners did not come as a
surprise, as delegates were urged by the U.S. at the start of the council, or
jirga, on Friday to take "this difficult action" so negotiations could begin to
bring an end to the war.
The U.S.-Taliban deal in February called for the government to free 5,000
prisoners and for the Taliban to free 1,000 government and military personnel
in its custody as a goodwill gesture ahead of the start of negotiations.
Kabul balked at the release, but eventually freed all but the last 400.
President Ghani said he was not authorized to free these because of the
seriousness of their crimes, and asked for the council to decide instead. He
did not detail what the 400 were accused of.
Delegates were therefore given the stark choice of either freeing the
prisoners or seeing a war that has killed tens of thousands continue. The
delegates said they wanted international guarantees that the Taliban would not
return to the battlefield.
Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad spent more than a year and a half
negotiating the deal with the Taliban to provide for the withdrawal of American
soldiers after more than 19 years in Afghanistan.
The withdrawal began earlier this year, but roughly 8,600 U.S. soldiers
remain in Afghanistan. Their return will depend on the Taliban honoring its
commitment to fight against other terrorist groups and ensure Afghanistan is
not again used to attack America or its allies.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper on Saturday said Washington will bring
home another 3,600 soldiers by November, leaving less than 5,000 in Afghanistan.
"We think that we can do all the core missions, first and foremost being
ensured the United States is not threatened by terrorists coming out of
Afghanistan. We can do those at a lower level," Esper told the Fox News
Channel's "Justice with Judge Jeanine" program.
The withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops is not dependent on the success of
negotiations between Kabul's political leadership and the Taliban. But U.S.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made it clear that Washington wants a
negotiated end to the conflict, including a cease-fire.
An attack against a military compound on Saturday killed seven military
personnel and injured another 16, and served as a reminder that Afghanistan's
war won't be over easily. No one took responsibility for the attack, but both
the Taliban and Islamic State affiliate are active in the area.