Sat, 19 Sep 2020

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is expected on August 9 to make a final decision on a proposal to 400 Taliban prisoners at a traditional Afghan council meeting in Kabul.

Ahead of Ghani's decision the council is expected to back a proposal for the government to release the prisoners, a move that potentially paves the way for intra-Afghan peace talks.

Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Loya Jirga, a gathering of Afghan politicians and community leaders, said August 8 that all 50 committees of the assembly supported the release of the prisoners, who have been convicted of involvement in high-profile attacks in the country.

"I congratulate all Jirga members divided into 50 working committees for promptly ending their free deliberations," Abdullah said on Twitter. "I welcome their input and recommendations as part of this important consultative exercise as we compile & announce the outcome tomorrow."

The release of the prisoners is the last hurdle to opening peace talks between the internationally backed government in Kabul and the Taliban under a peace deal between the militants and the United States.

Abdullah, who is also head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, said that intra-Afghan peace talks can begin three days after a potential prisoner release.

The Loya Jirga committees also asked both sides of the conflict to observe an unconditional cease-fire ahead of intra-Afghan peace talks.

Kabul has released 4,600 Taliban inmates out of the 5,000 pledged in a landmark agreement signed in February by the United States and the Taliban, but authorities have balked at freeing the remaining prisoners demanded by the Taliban.

Afghan officials have described the remaining prisoners as dangerous. About 200 of them are accused by the Afghan government of masterminding attacks on embassies, public squares, and government offices, killing thousands of civilians in recent years.

The Taliban says it has freed all 1,000 government prisoners it had pledged in the agreement with the United States and insists on its demand for the release of the remaining 400 prisoners on its list.

Ghani has said that he could not release the last batch of Taliban prisoners without the approval of the 3,200 delegates in the Loya Jirga, a traditional gathering of ethnic, religious, and political leaders who decide on matters of national importance.

A survey circulated at the Loya Jirga said the choice was between freeing the Taliban prisoners so that talks could begin, or refusing and the war would continue.

In addition to a gradual withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops the U.S.-Taliban deal calls on the Taliban to guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks on the United States or its allies.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in an interview on August 8 that the United States plans to cut its troop levels in Afghanistan to 'a number less than 5,000' by the end of November.

Esper's comments on Fox News come after President Donald Trump's statement earlier in the in an interview with Axios that the United States first plans to reduce the existing 8,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 8,000 "in a very short period." He said the number would then drop to 4,000.

The United States has reportedly proposed the Taliban prisoners be transferred from Afghan jails to a location where they would be under both Taliban and Afghan government surveillance.

Despite the U.S.-Taliban deal, the Taliban attacks since February have killed 3,560 Afghan security personnel, according to the government.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented more than 1,280 Afghan civilian deaths during the first half of 2020 -- mainly as a result of fighting between Afghan government forces and Taliban militants.

With reporting by AP, dpa, Fox News, and Axios

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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