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Afghan Grand Assembly OKs Release of 400 ‘Hard-Core’ Taliban Prisoners

Islamist group says will talk peace with government after its men are freed

[Islamabad] The Loya Jirga – the Afghan grand assembly − on Sunday unanimously approved the release of 400 high-profile Taliban prisoners, the last of 5,000 promised in a deal reached between the Islamist group and the US, pacing the way for direct peace talks between the radical movement and the Afghan government.

More than 3,000 prominent political leaders, women’s representatives, religious scholars and tribal elders deliberated for three days, amid tight security in Kabul’s red zone, before approving the release of the 400.

An Afghan intelligence official told The Media Line on condition of anonymity that “to avoid any mishap, only US troops were deployed for security purposes, and General Austin Scott Miller, the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and United States Forces [in Afghanistan], was directly supervising the security measures.”

According to the Doha preliminary peace accord reached between the US and the Afghan Taliban in February, “before starting intra-Afghan dialogue, [as a goodwill gesture] the Afghan government will release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the Taliban will release 1,000 Afghan security officials from captivity.”

The Afghan government has already released 4,600 Taliban prisoners, but it was reluctant to release the remaining 400, saying, “They were involved in heinous crimes and human rights violations.”

The Taliban had released 1,000 Afghan security personnel and were insisting on the release of the 400 prisoners, saying that until that happened, intra-Afghan talks were impossible and the insurgents would continue their war against the Afghan security forces.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in his speech opening the Loya Jirga, said that “under the constitution, I am not authorized to set the Taliban prisoners free on my own, so I decided to call a grand assembly for a nationwide consultation.”

Speaking at the ceremony closing the grand assembly, Ghani said he “would sign a decree to release 400 Taliban prisoners.” He promised to free them on August 19, Afghan Independence Day.

The Loya Jirga is a centuries-old traditional gathering of religious, ethnic and political representatives from across the country sometimes held to decide on controversial issues.

Muhammad Yasir Bilal, a Kabul-based senior legal expert, told The Media Line that “according to the Afghan constitution, whenever such a controversial situation arises, the president is authorized to convene the grand assembly or Loya Jirga, and then its decision gets constitutional status.”

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said in a press statement, “We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular, but this difficult action will lead to an important result long sought by Afghans and Afghanistan’s friend: reduction of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war.”

Suhail Shaheen, a Doha-based Afghan Taliban spokesperson, told The Media Line that “once the remaining prisoners are released, we will start direct negotiations in the next few days.”

Shaheen expressed satisfaction with the grand assembly’s decision but also said that the “present Loya Jirga has no legal status because it does not truly represent the people of Afghanistan.

“We don’t accept the legitimacy of the grand assembly; our prisoners should be released under the Doha peace agreement,” Shaheen told The Media Line.

Afghan state TV channel RTA claimed on Monday that the intra-Afghan talks between the government’s negotiating teams and the Taliban would begin on August 16.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director and South Asia senior associate at the Wilson Center in Washington, told The Media Line that “with the remaining Taliban prisoners about to be freed, Afghanistan is now closer than ever before to launching peace talks to end the war. But it will be a very long road ahead. These negotiations will be long and complex.”

He noted that “a fractious political class may complicate efforts for the Afghan government to present a common front in talks.”

Replying a question to The Media Line, Kugelman said that “with the US forces continuing their withdrawal, the Taliban may have little incentive to negotiate a power-sharing deal if it thinks it can simply go back to the battlefield and try to seize total power by force.

“The trick is to set up an incentive structure that makes the Taliban believe its interests are better served by staying at the negotiating table then by returning to the battlefront.

“It won’t be easy to make this case to the Taliban, but at least Afghanistan and its partners will now have a real opportunity to try to make the case,” Kugelman said.

Neighboring Pakistan welcomed the grand assembly’s decision to release the Taliban prisoners.

“A major hurdle in the way of intra-Afghan negotiations will be removed with the implementation of this recommendation,” Muhammad Sadiq, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative for Afghanistan, said in a tweet.

Pakistan’s leading defense analysts, speaking to The Media Line, expressed a range of views on the developments in Afghanistan.

Tahir Aziz, a Peshawer-based former intelligence chief and an Afghan expert, told The Media Line that “the Afghan grand assembly decision is a very positive development for taking forward the nascent Afghan peace process.”

“Backing it up with the Loya Jirga (grand assembly) indicates on one hand that there is much needed political support [for the releases] and on the other hand stands Ashraf Ghani in good stead,” Aziz said.

“However, the Afghan and other stakeholders will be keen to know the impact of the upcoming US elections,” he continued. “If [President Donald] Trump wins a second term or solid and irreversible progress can be achieved in the [peace] process before [the American] elections, it would be very good.”

Muhammed Ijaz Khattak, a Rawalpindi-based defense analyst and a retired army colonel, told The Media Line that the chances for “peace and stability in war-torn Afghanistan still look to be far from optimal.

“One of the major factors not permitting the Afghan situation to calm down is the existence of multiple stakeholders playing their respective roles, serving their vested interests,” he continued.

“It is worth noting that the linchpin role of Pakistan in taking the peace initiative forward, though on a bumpy track in the present scenario, is no less than an uphill task,” he added.

“The bumpy talks between the Taliban and the Afghan administration may bear little fruit in the absence of an effective mediator. … The peace process is not going to run smoothly like a finely oiled machine,” Khattak said.

Adeeb Z. Safavi, a Karachi-based senior defense analyst, told The Media Line, “Apparently, the obstacle has been removed by the grand assembly’s decision, but it does not mean that all stakeholders can now set their sails for smooth sailing.

“American policymakers are well aware that the geo-strategic situation in the region has changed and that China, an opponent of the United States, has emerged as a strong economic, political and military power,” he continued. “It has been easy for the US while sitting in Afghanistan to monitor China and Central Asian countries and to protect the US interests in the region.

“The Taliban’s single-point agenda, that there be no foreign troops on Afghan soil, will never be executed by the US. Hence, this peace process may have a road map but no destination. The rapidly changing geostrategic situation in South Asia poses new challenges for declining US control,” Safavi said.

“The analysis shows that both sides remain engaged in the pursuit of their objectives and on the ground reality dictates neither side leaves the battleground,” he continued.

“An Afghan is only at peace when at war,” Safvi said, paraphrasing Winston Churchill.

Irfan Ullah, a Kabul-based political analyst, told The Media Line that “after 19 years [since the US-led invasion to remove the Taliban from power], the aspirations for peace in Afghanistan have resurfaced.”

Ullah praised Pakistan’s role in ensuring peace talks and said that it “has played a pivotal and commendable back-door diplomacy role in initiating a peace and stability process in a war-torn country.”

“The Afghan government and US officials must take all stakeholders into their confidence, including Pakistan,” he continued. “As we head to a final round of peace talks in the country, all ambiguities should be eliminated and the level of confidence must be improved between both countries [Afghanistan and Pakistan].

“Pakistan will play an important role in the final stage,” Ullah said.

Anisa Selani, a member of the grand assembly based in Afghanistan’s central Maidan Wardak Province, a politician and a women’s rights activist, told The Media Line that “we have agreed to release Taliban prisoners for the greater cause of our future generations.

“We do not want any more bloodshed in our country. Our women can no longer wail over the bodies of their loved ones,” she said.

Qazi Noor Ul Amin Balkhi, a senior official from a pro-Taliban “media cell,” told The Media Line that this “will be the first round of direct talks between the two main stakeholders, the Taliban and Afghan officials, so the talks will be held without any mediator. In the meantime, if the need arises then ‘well-wishers’ may be asked [to mediate], but with mutual consultation.”

He declined to discuss the agenda of the first round of talks.

In response to The Media Line’s question, he said that “there is no change in the Taliban negotiating team and [Sher Muhammad] Abbas Stankzai, the Doha-based political head of the Taliban, will lead the Taliban side. Stankzai also led the Taliban’s team while negotiating with the US.”

The Afghan government had finalized a 21-member team, including five women, which will negotiate with the Taliban in upcoming direct talks. Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, a former head of the National Directorate of Security, will lead the government’s negotiators.

Meanwhile, an Afghan Pashto-language news website, nunn.asia, reported on Monday that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has asked Trump to prevent the release of a Taliban prisoner, Hekmatullah, an Afghan soldier who carried out an insider attack and killed three Australian soldiers.

“Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a press conference that the Australian government would do everything in its power to detain Hekmatullah and prevent his release,” nunn.asia further reported.

“Hekmatullah was convicted of murdering three Australian soldiers at a patrol base north of Tarinkot in 2012,” the website said.

He is among the 400 prisoners to be freed once Ghani signs a decree to that effect.

“After the assassination of the Australian soldiers, Hekmatullah fled to Pakistan. He was arrested by the country’s premier intelligence agency, ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], and handed over to Afghan officials in 2013. Hekmatullah has been detained in the Bagram prison [Afghanistan’s main military prison, situated next to Bagram Air Base] for the last seven years, nunn.asia reported.