Following weeks of delays, the Afghan government on Wednesday announced the release of 100 Taliban prisoners, a move expected to be a step closer to intra-Afghan talks.
The Office of the National Security Council in a statement confirmed the release of the prisoners, saying it was the fulfillment of a recent decree made by President Ashraf Ghani.
“Pursuant to President Ghani’s decree of March 11, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan released 100 Taliban prisoners today based on their health condition, age and length of remaining sentence as part of our efforts for peace and containment of COVID-19,” the Office of National Security Council said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The 100 prisoners were on the broader list that the Taliban technical team shared and discussed during meetings with the technical team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Kabul,” said the statement by the Office of the National Security Council.
"The National Directorate of Security and the Attorney General’s Office thoroughly vetted the prisoners, who have taken an oath never to return to the battlefield. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has received the same assurance from the group’s leadership in Doha," according to the statement.
This comes a day after Waheed Omar, a top advisor to President Ghani, had said that the release of Taliban prisoners is a time-consuming process and there is no need to panic.
He said that the Afghan government remains committed to the prisoner swap with the Taliban, but in order to make this happen, there is a need for good intentions from both sides about the issue.
“This process is a lengthy process, there is no need to be hasty. Of course, no prisoner will be released unconditionally within the span of ten days, as we stated before. Our position regarding this issue is very clear-- on how to do this job and under what conditions,” said Omar.
This comes a few days after a three-member delegation from the Taliban arrived in Kabul to discuss the issue of the Taliban’s prisoners.
But the Taliban's spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted on Tuesday that the “technical team will not participate in fruitless meetings with relevant sides starting from tomorrow.”
“We sent a technical team of the prisoner’s commission to Kabul for verification and identification of our prisoners as release of prisoners was to start as per the signed agreement and the promise made (to us),” Shaheed tweeted.
The prisoner release is a step outlined in the US-Taliban deal signed in Doha on February 29 that is intended to be a confidence-building measure to pave the way for the intra-Afghan talks.
“Up to 5,000 prisoners of (the Taliban) and up to one thousand (1,000) prisoners of the other side will be released by March 10, 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations, which corresponds to Rajab 15, 1441 on the Hijri Lunar calendar and Hoot 20, 1398 on the Hijri Solar calendar,” part of the agreement reads.
On March 1, President Ghani said his government had not pledged to free Taliban prisoners, as stated in the deal between the US and the militants. The Afghan government had not been included in the deal.
“There is no commitment on the release of the 5,000 prisoners” of the Taliban,” Ghani said at the time.
But on March 11, President Ashraf Ghani signed an order to pardon and release Taliban prisoners in order for the peace talks between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban to start. However, he said the release would be gradual, and would have conditions.
“These prisoners are not dangerous compared to Anas Haqqani, Mali Khan and Rashid Omari, who were the government's red line. This excuse violates the agreement and prolongs the war,” said Salim Sapai, President of the Afghan Peace Institute.
Meanwhile, former President Hamid Karzai has issued a statement expressing concern over obstacles ahead of the release of Taliban prisoners and the Afghan government, urging both sides to work together to ensure lasting peace in the country.
While the Afghan government insists that the release of Taliban prisoners should significantly reduce Taliban attacks on government forces, some politicians accuse the government of being politically motivated in their delays to release the prisoners, a charge denied by the Presidential Palace.
“The Afghan government should make political excuses, but should act honestly on behalf of the Afghan people to resolve this issue,” said Abdul Zahir Tamim, member of parliament.
National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib in a video conference on Wednesday with ambassadors of troop-contributing nations, said the country is prepared to "move forward on prisoners and peace,” adding that technical teams had "made progress on difficult issues.”
The Office of National Security Council also tweeted:
"ONSC has sought AIHRC's input" on the prisoner list and release process, and approved watchdog group's recommendations about "the rights of the victims of Taliban attacks," and NSA Hamdullah Mohib said that "rights of victims – Afghan or otherwise – are important to Afghanistan."