The National Security Advisor's office on Wednesday said there would be no Taliban prisoners released prior to the start of the intra-Afghan talks, saying the issue of prisoners will be discussed duing the talks.
According to the Afghan government’s numbers, there are 10,000 to 15,000 Taliban prisoners in the country’s jails, including some foreigners who were arrested because of their involvement with the Taliban.
“The Afghan government will raise the prison release issue in the (intra-Afghan) peace talks, as part of a proposed package including the Taliban’s relations with Pakistan, the Taliban’s involvement in drug smuggling, and the terms of a ceasefire,” said Jawed Faisal, spokesman for the Office of the National Security Advisor.
Meanwhile, Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, on Wednesday said that the Taliban’s continued demand for the release of their prisoners could push the peace process into jeopardy.
“It is not reasonable or logical to release five thousand prisoners before the Taliban agrees to the Afghan people's demand for a ceasefire,” said Sediqqi.
The US-Taliban peace agreement signed on Saturday says that the US will "start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence building measure with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides." 5,000 Taliban prisoners from the government side and 1,000 from the Taliban's side "will be released by March 10, 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations."
The Afghan government was not a party to the US-Taliban deal, and President Ghani during a press conference after the signing said that the government had "made no commitment" to release the prisoners. In an interview with Fox News, Ghani said that President Trump had not asked him to sign the deal, and he went on to say that there was neither a consensus within the Afghan government to pull it off, nor was there the practical possibility of vetting 5,000 Taliban prisoners in a matter of days.
The Afghan government was, however, collaborative in the joint US-Afghan declaration, which mentioned the prisoner exchange, but in very open terms:
"To create the conditions for reaching a political settlement and achieving a permanent, sustainable ceasefire, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will participate in a U.S.-facilitated discussion with Taliban representatives on confidence building measures, to include determining the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides. The United States and Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will seek the assistance of the ICRC to support this discussion."
On Monday, following Ghani's statements about the prisoner release, the Taliban issued an order to their fighters to resume attacks on government forces, but to avoid attacking US troops. Also on Monday, Zabiullah Muhjahid, a Taliban spokesman, tweeted an image of the US-Taliban agreement with the text of the prisoner release outlined.
Ghani maintains that the wording of the agreement is that the US will "facilitate" the prisoner release, and that the Afghan government is not bound to.
Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, former head of the High Peace Council's secretariat, said :“The most important thing is to start this process [of releasing prisoners]. When the process starts, it may start with a few hundred and have a set amount every day to achieve the same basic goal,” said
An added consideration in the prisoner exchange issue was raised by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in a letter to the US, the Taliban and Afghan government that raised concerns over the release of Taliban prisoners.
In the letter, the human rights commission called on the US, the Taliban and the Afghan government not to undermine the demands of families of war victims for justice, nor to deny rights to the prisoners, and finally not to be irresponsible about keeping track of prisoners after they were released.
“The key point is that the 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government--their names have not been shared with the Independent Human Rights Commission,” said Zabiullah Farhang, head of the media department of AIHRC.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) called on the US, Taliban and Afghan govt to address three issues with prisoner exchange: "First, victims' access to justice. Second, due process of prisoners. Third, verification of prisoners' identities, monitoring and post-release plans."
The Taliban so far have not said anything about the number of their prisoners in the jails. However, the Afghan Ministry of Defense recently said that the number of Afghan troops taken hostage by the Taliban is less than 1,000 soldiers.
Similar issues about the 5,000 released Taliban fighters were raised on Tuesday in Washington by US Representative Liz Cheney at a congressional hearing with State Department officials. She reiterated her criticism of the US-Taliban deal, saying she had "serious concerns about the Afghanistan agreement as it was released, including the extent to which we are making a number of concessions...committing to the release by the Afghan government of thousands of Taliban fighters, committing to help to work to lift sanctions on terrorists, committing to withdraw our forces."