Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani Sunday announced the release of a last batch of 400 Taliban prisoners, clearing the way for an early start to a U.S.-brokered peace dialogue with the Islamist insurgency.
Ghani’s decision came after a government-sponsored grand public assembly, known as a Loya Jirga, advised him to free the prisoners as part of the landmark deal between the Taliban and the United States aimed at ending two decades of deadly Afghan war.
The February 29 pact called for the release of 5,000 insurgent prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan security personnel that the Taliban was holding captive.
The insurgents have already freed all the prisoners they were to release in a phased process. Ghani released all but 400 Taliban detainees and convened the three-day Loya Jirga Friday to seek its advice, saying he was legally not empowered to pardon the prisoners because they have been convicted of “serious crimes."
At the end of their deliberations Sunday, the Afghan public assembly of more than 3,000 delegates urged Ghani to release the prisoners in a 25-point declaration.
“In order to remove an obstacle, allow the start of the peace process and an end of bloodshed, the Loya Jirga approves the release of 400 Taliban,” the declaration said.
The Afghan president later thanked the assembly, saying, “Today, I will sign the release order of these 400 prisoners.”
“[The] Taliban have promised that within three days of the release of these 400 prisoners they will begin direct negotiations with the government and agreeing on a permanent cease-fire will top the agenda of these negotiations,” Ghani had told the inaugural session of the Loya Jirga.
No official date has been announced but an opening round of the proposed intra-Afghan talks is expected to be held in Doha, the capital of the gulf state of Qatar, which hosted the signing of the February 29 U.S.-Taliban deal. Doha is where the insurgent group maintains its political office.
Taliban leaders have repeatedly stated in recent weeks that, if their prisoners are released, they would immediately open peace talks with other Afghan groups to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a political settlement to the deadly conflict.
“The United States intends to hold the Taliban to these commitments,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement he issued before the Afghan Loya Jirga meeting.
“We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular. But this difficult action will lead to… reduction of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war,” Pompeo said.
The U.S. has already begun a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan under its part of the deal with the Taliban, bringing the U.S. military level to about 8,600 personnel from about 13,000 at the time of the signing of the agreement. The accord requires all American and coalition forces to exit the country by next July.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Fox News on Saturday American troops in Afghanistan will be reduced to “a number less than 5,000” by the end of November.
Earlier last week, President Donald Trump said in an interview with Axios that ahead of November U.S. elections, there would be “between 4,000 and 5,000” troops left in Afghanistan.