WASHINGTON - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a televised speech to the nation earlier this week, announced that his government would release three prominent Taliban members in exchange for two Westerners abducted by the Taliban as a confidence-building measure with the insurgent group.
“We have decided to conditionally release three Taliban prisoners who have been detained outside of Afghanistan with the help and coordination of our international partners and have been kept in Bagram prison [north of Kabul] in Afghanistan for some time,” Ghani said.
The Western hostages are American Kevin King and Australian Timothy John Weeks who have been in Taliban’s captivity since 2016 when they were abducted from the capital, Kabul. Both were professors at the American University of Afghanistan.
Since Ghani’s announcement of the deal Tuesday, there have been several conflicting reports about the whereabouts of the three inmates, with no comments from the Afghan government.
Some reports say the inmates have been transferred to Qatar where the Taliban has a political office, while other reports allege they are still in Afghanistan.
However, a spokesperson for the Afghan Taliban told VOA Friday that the inmates have not left the prison, and he blamed the U.S. for the failure of the swap.
“As per the deal with the Americans, our prisoners were to be taken to the mutually agreed safe location and freed there. We would have then released and handed the American (and his colleague) over to them,” Zabihullah Mujahid explained in a Pashto-language audio message he sent to VOA, implying that the talks were with the U.S. not the Afghan government.
U.S. officials have not immediately reacted to the Taliban claim.
The Afghan Ministry of Defense declined to comment on the issue or the whereabouts of the inmates. An Afghan diplomat Wednesday confirmed to Reuters, on condition of anonymity, that the deal has fallen apart.
In announcing the decision, Ghani said while it was not “easy,” it was “necessary.”
“I have said this several times that enduring and dignified peace requires us to, one day, pay its bitter price. But this price would not come at the expense of the republic,” Ghani added.
Reactions among Afghans were mixed, with some hoping that it would lead to the beginning of direct dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, who have refused so far to talk to the Afghan government, calling it a “puppet” regime. Others viewed it as an insult to the victims of the terror attacks carried out by the militants in Afghanistan over the years.
Who are the inmates?
The three prisoners are prominent Taliban leaders, including Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of the Taliban’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who leads the Haqqani Network, a U.S.-designated terror group. The others are Mali Khan, a senior member of the Haqqani Network who has family relations to the founder of the terror group, and Qari Abdul Rashid Omari, who was in charge of southeastern Afghanistan for the Haqqani Network before his arrest.
Mali Khan was arrested in 2011 in a U.S. forces raid in Afghanistan’s Paktika province. Omari and Anas Haqqani were arrested in 2014 while traveling in the Persian Gulf, according to Long War Journal, a think tank following developments related to the Afghan war.
“Khan, Rasheed, and Anas are three dangerous Taliban commanders, and the Taliban has been seeking their release since their capture,” Bill Roggio, founder of Long War Journal and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VOA.
“Khan has served just about every position within the Haqqani Network, including its operations commander for eastern Afghanistan. Rasheed served as the Haqqani’s military commander in eastern Afghanistan. And Anas is a key propagandist, fundraiser and ambassador for the Haqqanis,” Roggio added.
Of the three, Mali Khan is viewed by experts as the most influential member of the Haqqani network, both because of his age and his close family ties to the founders of the network. He has alleged family ties to both Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani. Khan’s sister is Sirajuddin Haqqani’s mother, and Jalaluddin Haqqani’s sister is married to Khan’s uncle.
There are concerns among some analysts that, if released, the three members of the Taliban would return to the battlefield.
“I have no doubt that the three will return to the fight in some capacity. For instance, Anas can resume his role even if confined to Qatar or another country,” analyst Roggio said.
“All three provide the Taliban a key propaganda victory, and will, at the minimum, aid the group in fundraising,” he added.
Michael Semple, a longtime expert on Afghanistan, however, believes that risks associated with their release are not so much about their return to battlefield.
“Now I personally think that the risks associated with releasing them are more about propaganda and morale rather than as operational,” Semple told VOA. “All three of them have long been replaced in roles they had.”
While Ghani sees the prisoner release as a confidence building measure, analyst Semple believes the Taliban don't. They rather see it as a matter of prestige that they “look after their own,” he said.
“I do not believe that the leaders of the Taliban movement entered into this deal as a confidence building measure to bring peace about,” Semple said.
Sher Jan Ahmadzai, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, believes that these goodwill gestures have to be part of a larger mechanism.
“Prisoners exchange, talks, meetings and cease-fire should result in a permanent peace not in the release of prisoners with no permanent peace guarantees,” he said.
Jason H. Campbell, a policy researcher at Washington-based Rand Corp, echoes Ahmadzai’s concerns.
“The question I still have is whether this exchange is a first step of something larger or just a one-off attempt to build some degree of trust,” he said.
“If it is the former, Ghani is taking a big political risk as the Taliban understand that if nothing else materializes, it can have a negative impact on the political unity in Kabul,” he added.
Refusing to talk to the Afghan government, the Taliban have held nine rounds of direct talks with the U.S. in Qatar’s capital city, Doha, with both sides closing in on a deal, before President Donald Trump called off the talks in September, citing increased violence in Afghanistan perpetrated by the militants in an attempt to gain more leverage at the negotiation table.
VOA’s Ayaz Gul contributed to this story from Islamabad.