Sat, 19 Sep 2020

Thousands of prominent Afghans have supported the release of about 400 Taliban prisoners on August 9, including many who had been involved in attacks that killed Afghans and foreigners.

The resolution recommending the release of the Taliban prisoners could potentially clear the way for intra-Afghan peace talks to begin between the Taliban, representatives of the Afghan government, and other stakeholders in Afghan society.

It was passed at the end of a three-day Loya Jirga in Kabul -- a traditional meeting of Afghan tribal elders and other stakeholders convened to decide on controversial national issues.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called for the gathering, declaring that he did not have the authority under Afghanistan's constitution to release the 400 prisoners from Afghan jails as part of a prisoner swap because they'd committed violent crimes.

'In order to remove the hurdles for the start of peace talks, stopping bloodshed, and for the good of the public, the Loya Jirga approves the release of 400 prisoners as demanded by the Taliban,' Loya Jirga member Atefa Tayeb announced at the gathering in Kabul on August 9.

Both the Afghan government and the Taliban have committed to completing a prisoner exchange before the intra-Afghan talks can begin.

Ghani was expected to make a final decision on the basis of the Loya Jirga's recommendation.

Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Loya Jirga, said on August 8 that all 50 committees of the assembly had supported the release of the prisoners, who have been convicted of involvement in high-profile attacks in the country.

The release of the prisoners is the last hurdle to opening peace talks between the internationally backed government in Kabul and the Taliban under a peace deal between the militants and the United States.

Abdullah, who is also head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, said that intra-Afghan peace talks can begin three days after a potential prisoner release.

The Loya Jirga committees also asked both sides of the conflict to observe an unconditional cease-fire ahead of intra-Afghan peace talks.

Kabul has already released 4,600 Taliban inmates out of the 5,000 pledged in a landmark agreement signed in February by the United States and the Taliban, but authorities have balked at freeing the remaining prisoners demanded by the Taliban.

Afghan officials have described the remaining prisoners as dangerous. About 200 of them are accused by the Afghan government of masterminding attacks on embassies, public squares, and government offices, killing thousands of civilians in recent years.

The Taliban says it has freed all 1,000 government prisoners it had pledged in the agreement with the United States and insists on its demand for the release of the remaining 400 prisoners on its list.

In addition to a gradual withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops the U.S.-Taliban deal calls on the Taliban to guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks on the United States or its allies.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in an interview on August 8 that the United States plans to cut its troop levels in Afghanistan to 'a number less than 5,000' by the end of November.

Esper's comments on Fox News came after President Donald Trump said earlier in the week that the United States first plans to reduce the existing 8,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 8,000 "in a very short period." He said the number would then drop to 4,000.

Despite the U.S.-Taliban deal, Taliban attacks since February have killed 3,560 Afghan security personnel, according to the government.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented more than 1,280 Afghan civilian deaths during the first half of 2020 -- mainly as a result of fighting between Afghan government forces and Taliban militants.

With reporting by AP, dpa, Fox News, and Axios

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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