Less than 24 hours after the United States signed a landmark agreement with the Afghan Taliban in Doha, its implementation has already hit its first speedbump.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced in Kabul Sunday that his government has made no commitment to release thousands of Taliban prisoners, a precondition to the start of talks between Taliban and other Afghan factions.
“The release of prisoners is not the United States authority, but it is the authority of the government of Afghanistan,” Ghani said.
The U.S.-Taliban deal sealed on Saturday requires Afghan parties to the conflict to open direct negotiations on or around March 10 to agree on a nationwide permanent cease-fire and future power-sharing.
However, some of the steps required to be taken in the run-up to the dialogue include the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails and of 1,000 government security forces, who are held by the insurgents.
The Taliban have so far refused to acknowledge the Ghani administration as a legitimate government or to engage with it directly. As far they are concerned, they say they have settled the prisoner release issue with the Americans.
“We have decided the issue of our 5,000 prisoners with the Americans. They have promised in the agreement that those prisoners will be released before the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations. For us, this issue is settled,” said Khairullah Khairkhwah, a senior member of the Taliban negotiation team.
An Afghan delegation from Kabul arrived in Doha ahead of the signing ceremony to discuss prisoner releases and other issues with the Taliban but members of the insurgent group refused to meet them.
“We have not decided yet whether we are going to meet them,” Khairkhwah said after the deal signing Saturday. “We don’t know yet who they are and why they are here.”
Meanwhile, officials of the host country Qatar say they could facilitate the discussion without the two sides having to sit together.
“Negotiation sometimes does not mean you interact directly and face to face. There’s something which is called shuttle diplomacy. So, we can do this, as an option, to facilitate these talks without physically. . . facing, seeing, watching, and touching each other. Maybe this is something to start with,” said Mutlaq bin Majed Al-Qahtani, Special Envoy of the Qatari Foreign Minister for Counter Terrorism and Mediation of Conflict Resolution.
The deal, signed Saturday in Doha by chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban political office head Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was a culmination of 18 months of back and forth diplomatic efforts that stalled several times and almost broke off last September.
After President Donald Trump called off the negotiations following several deadly attacks that killed an American soldier, the Qatari government, which has hosted the Taliban political team since 2011 to facilitate negotiations, tried to save the process by negotiating incentives for the two sides to come to the table again.
“We thought about two things. Number one, to do a kind of hostage release or swap and the second one to work on reduction in violence,” Mutlaq said.
In November 2019, two hostages, an American and an Australian, held by Taliban for a few years, were released in exchange for three Taliban leaders, including Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Taliban deputy chief and the head of Haqqani network Sirajuddin Haqqani. Soon after, negotiations between Khalilzad’s team and Taliban started again.
Mutlaq said along the way Qatar managed to establish two channels with the Taliban, one to facilitate the prisoner exchange and the other, a military channel, to monitor any violation of the agreement.
“Our military is involved in this as part of the discussions in Doha,” he said.
The agreement promises the drawdown of U.S. forces to 8,600 from the current 13,000 in the first 135 days. The rest of them will be withdrawn within 14 months conditional to Taliban compliance of the deal.
Taliban have to break ties with al-Qaida or any other militant group, fight Islamic State, and prevent territories under their control from being used for terrorist activity. They have to also negotiate with other Afghan factions on the future roadmap of Afghanistan, starting with negotiations on a permanent and comprehensive cease fire.
The Taliban promises to respect women’s rights and human rights granted under Islam, but many activists worry that under its severe interpretation of Islam, the group would try to limit their freedoms.
President Trump told reporters at the White House on Saturday he believed the Taliban would deliver on its counterterrorism pledges, but he warned that “if bad things happen” U.S. troops would swiftly return to Afghanistan
Meanwhile, partisan bickering and a post-election dispute in Kabul between Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah has made the formation of a representative team of Afghans more difficult. Many observers doubt the intra-Afghan negotiation would start within two weeks as scheduled.
Ayaz Gul contributed to this report.