Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are expected to start in Qatar within a week once the final batch of Taliban prisoners was released, the US special envoy and Afghan government sources said on Monday.
The government accepted the advice of a Loya Jirga, a grand assembly of elders sometimes held to decide on controversial issues, on Sunday to release 400 Taliban prisoners, paving the way for the so-called intra-Afghan talks aimed at ending a war that has ground on since Taliban government was removed from power in US-led invasion in 2001.
The prisoner release was part of a US-Taliban agreement signed in February. The Afghan government, which was not party to the deal, was expected to release a total of 5,000 prisoners to kickstart the talks.
“Our stance is clear, if the prisoner release is completed, then we are ready for the intra-Afghan talks within a week,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP news agency, adding that the first round of talks will be held in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
The intra-Afghan talks, which were initially slated to be held in March, were delayed as the Afghan government was reluctant to release all the Taliban prisoners.
The resolution to release the last batch of prisoners, which was proving to be of particular concern to Kabul, was passed at the end of a three-day Loya Jirga.
“In order to remove the hurdles for the start of peace talks, stopping bloodshed, and for the good of the public, the Jirga approves the release of 400 prisoners as demanded by the Taliban,” Jirga member Atefa Tayeb announced on Sunday.
According to an official list seen by AFP, many of the 400 inmates stand accused of serious offences, including many involved in attacks that killed scores of Afghans and foreigners, with more than 150 of them on death row.
The Jirga urged the government to give assurances to the population that the released prisoners would be monitored and would not be allowed to return to the battlefield, adding that foreign fighters should be sent back to their respective countries.
It also demanded a “serious, immediate and lasting ceasefire” in the country.
“The decision of the Loya Jirga has removed the last excuse and obstacles on the way to peace talks. We are on the verge of peace talks,” said Abdullah Abdullah, who is leading the government’s peace process and has been appointed head of the Loya Jirga.
A government source told Reuters that President Ashraf Ghani would likely sign the decree to release the prisoners later on Monday.
“Everyone is waiting for Ghani to sign on the decree. The original plan is to travel to Doha on Wednesday, and the talks will begin on Sunday,” the source said.
US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said after the prisoner releases “in the next few days”, he expects negotiating teams to travel to Doha “and from there the immediate start of intra-Afghan negotiations”.
Former president Hamid Karzai told the Jirga he understood that the talks “would begin within two to three days” after the prisoners are released.
The Afghan government has released about 4,500 Taliban inmates, but authorities had baulked at freeing the final prisoners demanded by the Taliban.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed for the release of the detainees, while recognising the decision would be “unpopular”.
The prisoners include 44 fighters of particular concern to the US and other countries for their role in “high-profile” attacks.
Five are linked to the 2018 attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul that killed 40 people, including 14 foreigners.
A Taliban fighter involved in the massive May 2017 truck bombing near the German embassy in Kabul is also on the list, as well as a former Afghan army officer who killed five French soldiers in an insider attack.
The family of French aid worker Bettina Goislard, who was murdered in Afghanistan in 2003, said they would not accept the release of her killers, who are on the list.
“Such a decision to free (them) made on the basis of horse-trading would be, to us, her family, inconceivable,” Bettina’s family said in a statement to AFP before the decision was announced.
On the first day of the gathering, Belquis Roshan, a member of the Afghan parliament and prominent women’s rights activist, protested against the release of the prisoners, unfurling a banner that read: “Redeeming Taliban is national treason”.
The intra-Afghan talks were slated under a US-Taliban deal agreed in February, in which Washington said it would withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by mid-2021 in return for security guarantees.
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told Fox News on Saturday said the US would reduce the number of American troops in the country to less than 5,000 by the end of November, but added that the move would be “conditions-based”.
President Donald Trump, up for re-election in November, has said repeatedly that he wants to end America’s longest war, which began nearly 20 years ago when Washington ousted the Taliban following the September 11 attacks.