By Baber Khan Sahel
Kabul, Aug 10 (efe-epa).- Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was on Monday set to sign a decree that would allow the release of 400 Taliban prisoners, potentially removing the last obstacle in the way of peace negotiations which have been surrounded by doubt and skepticism due to the long-standing mistrust between Kabul and the rebels.
“Related authorities and organs have been working to complete administrative and legal procedures of the decree,” a senior government officials told EFE on the condition of anonymity.
The lack of trust has been reflected in the slow and painful prisoner swap process, that includes the release of 1,000 government personnel by the Taliban in exchange for 5,000 militants being freed by the militants as per the Doha agreement, signed between the rebels and the United States in February 2019.
The delay in the exchange has led to the intra-Afghan negotiations being postponed by over five months from their scheduled start on Mar. 10.
The Taliban completed their part of the agreement on July 30, while the government, which had by then released 4,600 of the 5,000 prisoners as per the pact, had resisted freeing the remaining 400 detainees due to their criminal record that included charges such as rape and murder.
Ghani, who said he did not have the authority to free these prisoners due to them being accused of serious crimes, summoned a Loya Jirga – a traditional grand assembly of tribal elders, community leaders, and politicians – to resolve the issue.
The Jirga had on Sunday approved the release to “remove the obstacles” in the path of the peace process.
Although the government has not specified when the release would take place, Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesperson in Qatar – where the intra-Afghan talks are set to take place – told EFE that the rebels were ready to kick off negotiations within days.
“If our remaining prisoners are released, we are ready to start intra-Afghan talks within a week,” Shaheen said.
“We welcome the Afghan Loya Jirga’s declaration and President Ghani’s decision to sign the decree ordering the release of the remaining prisoners,” tweeted Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation.
However, analysts have expressed doubts over the discussions starting so soon and the willingness of both sides to reach an agreement, with some even warning of the possibility of the war intensifying.
“The prisoner release has remained the biggest obstacle, (but) the Taliban don’t accept the government as the legitimate side in talks, while the government insists on leading the talks as the representative of the nation,” Abdul Baqi Amin, the general director of the Qased Strategic Research Center in Kabul, told EFE.
He added that “the government negotiation team’s authorities are still unknown, and the formation of the High Council for National Reconciliation is still incomplete. (…) So these problems will further delay the start of intra-Afghan talks.”
Amin said that Afghanistan’s political stability was “still very much in ambiguity.”
“In absence of a peace deal and American troops, the conflict will intensify and could spark a civil war with a risk of the government’s collapse.”
He was referring to the departure of international troops from Afghanistan, scheduled for spring 2021 as per the US-Taliban agreement.
The agreement set a period of 14 months for the US and allies’ troops leaving the country, a process which has already begun with the departure of 8,600 soldiers and the removal of five bases within 35 days of signing the agreement.
Ali Akbar Jamshidi, a member of the parliament’s Defense Committee, shares the same concern as Amin.
He said that he was “very concerned” over the possibility of the “Americans once again leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of Pakistan,” which could “encourage the Taliban to go for a military win.”