The Taliban have broken off talks with the Afghan government on a prisoner exchange, a main step in peace talks being brokered by the United States after it agreed on a troop withdrawal pact with the armed group.
In a tweet first sent in Pashto around midnight on Tuesday (19:30 GMT Monday), the Taliban’s political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said its technical team would not participate in “fruitless meetings”, and the release of their prisoners was being “delayed under one pretext or another”.
“Therefore, our technical team will not participate in fruitless meetings with relevant sides starting from tomorrow,” Shaheen, who is based in Doha, said in a subsequent tweet in English.
Washington signed a deal with the Taliban in late February that required the Afghan government – which was not a signatory to the accord – to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and for the armed group to release 1,000 pro-government captives in return.
The pact between the United States and the Taliban, under which US-led international forces will withdraw in exchange for Taliban security guarantees, is seen as the best chance yet of ending the 18-year war.
But peace hinges on talks between the US-backed Afghan government and the armed group. A prisoner exchange is meant to build confidence on both sides for those talks.
Taliban and Afghan government representatives have been holding talks in Kabul since last week to try to finalise the prisoner swap that was originally supposed to have happened by March 10.
But, unfortunately, their release has been delayed under one pretext or another till now. Therefore, our technical team will not participate in fruitless meetings with relevant sides starting from tomorrow.
— Suhail Shaheen (@suhailshaheen1) April 6, 2020
Matin Bek, a member of the government’s negotiating team, said the release had been delayed because the Taliban are demanding the release of 15 “top commanders”.
“We cannot release the killers of our people,” Bek told reporters on Monday. “We don’t want them to go back to the battlefield and capture a whole province.”
Bek added that the government was ready to release up to 400 low-threat Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture in return for a “considerable” reduction in violence, but the Taliban rejected that offer.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Pompeo last month travelled to Kabul and the Qatari capital of Doha in a bid to nudge the prisoner exchange process forward.
On Sunday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced his new cabinet even as he squabbles with his main political challenger over last year’s election results.
Ghani’s move came as Afghan mediators – including former President Hamid Karzai – shuttled between the president and his opponent, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who has also declared himself Afghanistan’s president.
The country’s Independent Election Commission has declared Ghani a winner, but Abdullah and the Elections Complaint Commission have charged widespread irregularities.
Attempts to negotiate an end to the political turmoil roiling Kabul have made little progress, frustrating the US and potentially derailing the next stage in the Afghan peace process.
Washington has threatened to withhold $1bn in aid this year if Ghani and Abdullah can’t reach a compromise.