By Ayaz Gul
Voice of America
ISLAMABAD – Afghanistan’s Taliban has dismissed as “illogical” escalating domestic and foreign calls for the insurgent group to cease hostilities before the commencement of intra-Afghan peace negotiations.
The long-delayed dialogue is stipulated in a landmark deal the United States and the Taliban sealed in February aimed at ending nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan, America’s longest. The peace talks are tied, however, to a successful conclusion of an ongoing controversial prisoner swap between the Afghan government and the insurgents.
A spokesman for the Islamist Taliban insisted Sunday that implementation of the agreement and start of intra-Afghan negotiations are necessary to de-escalate and end the war.
“A demand for us to stop the fighting and then start the negotiations is illogical. War is raging precisely because we have yet to find an alternative,” Zabihullah Mujahid said in a media release.
“The prisoner exchange process must be completed and intra-Afghan talks must begin immediately. This is the real and logical path toward resolving the problem,” Mujahid stressed.
Direct peace negotiations between Afghan parties to the war were originally scheduled to commence in March but were pushed back due to disagreements over the prisoner swap.
The Afghan government says it has so far released just over 4,000 Taliban prisoners out of the promised 5,000. In exchange, the insurgent group says it has freed about 770 out of the promised 1,000 Afghan security personnel, although Afghan officials dispute those figures and say about half of the freed men are civilians.
The rise in Taliban attacks
An escalation in Taliban battlefield attacks and bomb attacks has killed hundreds of government forces and civilians in recent weeks, prompting President Ashraf Ghani to link the release of remaining prisoners to a reduction in insurgent violence.
Afghan officials also have refused to free hundreds of Taliban prisoners they say are involved in “serious crimes”, including killing innocent Afghan civilians.
Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi again urged the Taliban on Sunday to renounce violence and join the peace process.
He tweeted that the rise in insurgent violence in Afghan cities and bomb attacks on security forces as well as government employees “have hurt the hopes of and expectations of the people and the international community for making peace through negotiation.”
The U.S.-Taliban agreement requires American and allied troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by July 2021 in return for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban and commitments to negotiate a permanent cease-fire as well as a power-sharing arrangement with all Afghan groups, including the government and civil society representatives.
Taliban Deny Prisoner Release Progress
ISLAMABAD – The Taliban denied news reports Thursday that they have agreed to an alternative list of prisoners to break a deadlock over prisoner exchange which is holding back the start of negotiations to reach a political settlement.
“This is not true. The prisoner commission has told me no such decision has been taken so far. . . . I think these are also delaying tactics. So far, we have not given an alternative list,” Suhail Shaheen, a Doha based Taliban spokesman, told VOA.
Earlier in the day, an Afghan government source had told multiple news outlets, including the VOA, that the deadlock over prisoners was over and that the Taliban had handed over an alternative list of 592 prisoners who would be released.
Delay in the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners is holding back the start of what are being termed intra-Afghan negotiations, with Taliban on one side and the government and other Afghan stake holders on the other. These are supposed to lead to a political settlement that ends decades of war in the country.
The Taliban have categorically said they would not start until their entire list of prisoners is out of Afghan prisons.
On Monday, the Afghan government announced that 600 of the prisoners could not be released due to their criminal background and participation in activities like armed robberies, murder, and drug smuggling.
Sediq Sediqi, the spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said these particular prisoners were arrested due to their involvement in various criminal activities and not due to their affiliation with Taliban.
Shaheen denied that saying the government has “not provided any proof of these claims.”
The number, up to 5000 prisoners, was agreed to in a ground-breaking deal in February between the Taliban and the United States which led to the Taliban halting all attacks on foreign troops.
That deal specified that the Taliban prisoners would be released in exchange for up to 1000 Afghan security forces personnel in Taliban custody.
The Afghan government, which was not party to the February deal, was hesitant to acquiesce to the biggest Taliban demand before its own negotiations with the militant group had even started.
It wanted the militants to announce a nationwide cease-fire in return for what it considered was a big concession. The Taliban refused, saying their deal with the Americans stipulates that the cease-fire would be discussed during the intra-Afghan negotiations.
However, the group has publicly pledged that it would sit down for the start of the negotiations as soon as the prisoner release is complete.
The group has faced severe criticism for continuing attacks on Afghan forces that inevitably kill civilians as well.
Meanwhile, President Ashraf Ghani hosted the last of three video conferences on the peace process with the representatives of 20 donor countries, the European Union, the United Nations, and NATO Thursday afternoon.
Gran Hewad, a spokesman for Afghan Foreign Ministry told journalists that the prisoner release, peace talks, reduction in violence, and permanent cease-fire were discussed with the aim of building a consensus.
Two conferences were held this week on Monday and Tuesday with representatives of the neighboring and regional countries, and other stake holders.