Afghanistan to release 400 ‘hard-core’ Taliban prisoners in bid to start peace talks

The Afghan Government has agreed to release 400 “hard-core” Taliban prisoners, paving the way for peace talks aimed at ending more than 19 years of war.

Under election-year pressure from US President Donald Trump for a deal allowing him to bring home American troops, the war-torn country’s grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, approved the release, a controversial condition raised by the Taliban militants to join peace talks.

“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 assembly said in a resolution.

Atefa Tayeb, a council secretary who read out the final declaration at the conclusion, said it was a way to “stop the bloodshed”.

Minutes later, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said: “Today, I will sign the release order of these 400 prisoners.”

Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the decision “was a good step, a positive step”.

He said negotiations could start within one week of their prisoners being freed.

As for a cease fire, Mr Shaheen said the Taliban was committed to the deal it struck with the United States and, according to that deal, “the ceasefire will be one of the items to be discussed during the intra-Afghan negotiations”.

Last week, Mr Ghani invited some 3,200 Afghan community leaders and politicians to Kabul amid tight security and concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic to advise the Government on whether the prisoners should be freed.

With the release, the Afghan Government will fulfil its pledge to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

Talks between the warring Taliban and Government will start in Doha this week, Western diplomats said.

Mr Ghani appealed to the hard-line Islamist group to pledge to a complete ceasefire ahead of the talks.

Trump administration keen to withdraw troops

Deliberation over the release of last batch of Taliban prisoners, accused of conducting some of the bloodiest attacks across Afghanistan, had triggered outrage among civilians and rights groups who questioned the morality of the peace process.

In 2019 alone, more than 10,000 civilians were killed or injured in the conflict in Afghanistan, putting total casualties in the past decade over 100,000, a United Nations report said last year.

An Afghan security officer carries a baby after gunmen attacked a maternity hospital.
An Afghan security officer carries a baby after gunmen attacked a maternity hospital in Kabul in May.(AP: Rahmat Gul)

Ahead of the Loya Jirga, Human Rights Watch cautioned that many of the Taliban prisoners had been jailed under “overly broad terrorism laws that provide for indefinite preventive detention”.

Ahead of the November US elections, Mr Trump is determined to fulfil a major campaign promise to end the United States’ longest war.

The US withdraw will bring the nation’s troops there to “a number less than 5,000” by the end of November, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said.

Roughly 8,600 American soldiers remain in Afghanistan and their return will depend on the Taliban honouring its commitment to fight against other terrorist groups and ensure Afghanistan is not again used to attack the US or its allies.

In a February pact allowing for the withdrawal of US troops, Washington and the Taliban agreed on the release of the Taliban prisoners as a condition for the talks with Kabul.