ISLAMABAD - Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani issued a decree late Tuesday setting in motion the process of releasing thousands of Taliban prisoners as the U.S. military begins a troop drawdown in the country — steps outlined in a deal with the Islamist insurgent group aimed at ending the nearly 19-year-old war.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement sealed in Qatar 10 days ago requires all American and coalition forces to leave the country in the next 14 months, subject to insurgent counterterrorism assurances and commitments the Taliban would seek a political reconciliation with other Afghan stakeholders.
"U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) has begun its conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days," said U.S. military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett. There are about 13,000 troops stationed in the country.
Leggett underscored the drawdown would ensure the U.S. military retains necessary means and capabilities to provide support to Afghan security forces and conduct counterterrorism operations.
The crucial next step of opening peace negotiations between Afghan parties to the conflict requires the release of up to 5,000 insurgent prisoners from Afghan jails in exchange for 1,000 detainees, mostly government security forces, in Taliban custody.
"President Ghani has signed the decree that would facilitate the release of the Taliban prisoners in accordance with an accepted framework for the start of negotiation between the Taliban and the Afghan government," chief presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said in a late night tweet.
The proposed intra-Afghan talks, originally scheduled for March 10 as stated in the U.S.-Taliban deal, could not take place due to reluctance by Ghani to allow the prisoner swap. That has been coupled with a deepening political crisis stemming from the long-running controversy over the legitimate winner of the contentious Afghan presidential vote.
The national election commission last month declared incumbent Ghani the winner of the disputed September 28 polls. But his main rival and governing partner in the outgoing government, Abdullah Abdullah, rejected the outcome as "fraudulent" and vowed to establish his own government.
On Monday, both Ghani and Abdullah took part in parallel swearing-in ceremonies, fueling the political crisis and posing a serious challenge to the U.S.-led peace initiative to end decades of hostilities in Afghanistan.
The divisions have raised questions about whether Afghan political forces and civil society would be able to form an inclusive team to engage in peace talks with the Taliban.
Monday's unprecedented political development is troubling for Washington and the rest of the international community, though most of the diplomatic missions in Kabul, including the U.S. embassy, attended Ghani's inauguration.