Prisoner swap collapses threatening to upend US-Taliban peace deal
Kabul: The Taliban has halted prisoner swap negotiations with the Afghan government after accusing leaders in Kabul of refusing to comply with a key part of the US peace deal – a major setback to what many hoped would be start of formal talks between the two Afghan sides.
Representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government were negotiating the release of more than 100 prisoners. The US-Taliban peace deal called for thousands of prisoners to be released within days of its signing, but the Afghan government quickly objected to that timeline, citing logistical constraints.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes questions from reporters on Tuesday.Credit:AP
The release was already weeks behind schedule, and when the two sides finally met in Kabul, negotiators quickly hit a snag. Taliban representatives wanted their senior leaders included in the first round of releases, while the Afghan government balked at releasing anyone who had helped orchestrate large-scale attacks.
The repeated delays to the start of formal talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are threatening to upend the fragile US-Taliban peace deal. Since it was signed in late February, violence in Afghanistan has escalated and a power struggle over the Afghan presidency has deepened.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday dismissed the impasse over the prisoner releases as "posturing" and said the United States expected issues to arise as the two sides move toward formal talks.
"There was no doubt that there would be steps forward and steps backward," Pompeo said in a news conference, adding that some progress had been made since the agreement was signed last month. "But we see them posturing in the media."
US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group’s top political leader shake hands after signing a peace agreement in Doha, Qatar, in February.Credit:AP
Pompeo travelled to Kabul on March 23 to broker a deal between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. Ghani was declared the winner of the September election by a slim margin; Abdullah decried the result as fraudulent, held his own inauguration ceremony and has threatened to set up a parallel government. After his visit failed to resolve the crisis, Pompeo threatened to cut $US1 billion ($1.6 billion) in aid to the country.
Statements from Pompeo's senior diplomats suggest the Trump administration has increased pressure on Afghan leaders in recent days.
"Donors are frustrated and fed up by personal agendas being advanced ahead of the welfare of the Afghan people," said Alice Wells, the State Department's top official for South and Central Asia, in a statement posted to Twitter.
Afghanistan needs billions in foreign aid every year to provide its citizens with basic services, and expert projections estimate the country will remain dependent on aid for years to come. That dependence is expected to be exacerbated if the coronavirus outbreak in Afghanistan worsens. Afghanistan has more than 400 confirmed coronavirus cases and 14 deaths, but the officials warn the true number could be much higher, as testing has been limited.
Hopes were high when a Taliban delegation arrived in Kabul last week. The visit came after Ghani announced the creation of a negotiating team and a subsequent statement from Abdullah expressing his support for the team. The Afghan government and the Taliban had also agreed on a compromise: the prisoner releases would occur in smaller batches rather than all at once.
The peace deal signed by the United States and the Taliban called for up to 5000 Taliban prisoners to be released in exchange for 1000 members of the Afghan security forces and government employees in Taliban custody.
But after days of talks, the Taliban issued a statement on Tuesday, Kabul time, announcing the group would no longer participate in "fruitless meetings" and accused the Afghan government of "just wasting time". Hours later, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen announced in a tweet that the Taliban delegation would return to Doha, where the group has a political office.
The Afghan government said the Taliban's move "indicates a lack of seriousness about peace," according to a statement from Javid Faisal, spokesman for the Afghan national security adviser's office.
Faisal said discussions "had entered an important phase" before Taliban officials backed out. Regardless, he added that the Afghan government remains open to continuing talks.
But as peace talks with the Taliban are repeatedly delayed, violence in Afghanistan has spiked. On Sunday, the Taliban accused the United States of violating the terms of the peace deal by carrying out attacks on Taliban fighters and drone strikes on Afghan civilians.
The Taliban statement warned that continued violations would "create an atmosphere of mistrust that will not only damage the agreements, but also force mujahideen to a similar response and will increase the level of fighting."
US military spokesman Colonel Sonny Leggett denied the Taliban allegation, saying US forces in Afghanistan were upholding the terms of the agreement and that "any assertion otherwise is baseless".
Leggett said the US military would continue to come to the aid of Afghan forces and said the Taliban must reduce violence.
The US military is continuing to draw down its forces from Afghanistan, as mandated by the peace deal with the Taliban. It began reducing the roughly 12,000 US troops in March and is on track to bring down the number to 8600 by early July, within the 135-day time period stipulated by the peace deal.
The Washington Post
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