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Taliban Reject Afghan Gov’t Conditional Prisoner Release Order

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KABUL – The conditional prisoner release order announced by Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani is against the US-Taliban agreement signed in Doha last month, a spokesman for the Taliban armed group said on Wednesday.

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“It is properly explained in the peace accord that first 5,000 prisoners would be freed and then the Afghan dialogue would be initiated,” Suhail Shaheen, Spokesman for the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, stated, Al-Jazeera reported.

“We never agreed to any conditional release of the prisoners. If someone claims this, it will be against the peace accord that we signed on February 29,” he added.

The Taliban reaction comes after Ghani issued a decree ordering the release of 1,500 Taliban fighters, which Presidential Spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said was the first of two phases of releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Sediqqi wrote on Twitter that the initial release was a goodwill gesture to kick-start peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Another 3,500 are to be freed after negotiations begin, on the condition that there is a tangible reduction in violence, according to the four-article pardon decree. However, amid a public feud between Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, it is not clear who would represent Kabul in intra-Afghan talks, even if the Taliban agree to start negotiations.

Ghani’s presidency has been challenged by Abdullah, who has also sworn himself in as the country’s president. Since the US-Taliban deal was signed in the Qatari capital on February 29, nearly 40 people have been killed in attacks, with 32 killed on Monday in a gun attack claimed by the ISIL (ISIS or Daesh).

The US State Department issued a statement on Tuesday saying that the level of violence in Afghanistan is “unacceptable”, and that, while the Taliban have stopped attacks against the US-led coalition forces and in Afghan cities, the violence in the countryside remains too high.

Despite the political turmoil in Kabul and increased violence on the battlefield, the US has started withdrawing its troops in keeping with the Doha deal. In the first phase, the US will reduce its presence to 8,600 soldiers, down from the current 13,000. If the Taliban adhere to their commitments to deny safe havens to armed groups in Afghanistan, the US will withdraw the rest of its troops over 14 months.

At the time of its signing, the US-Taliban deal was touted as Afghanistan’s best chance at peace after 40 years of relentless war while offering the US an exit after nearly 19 years of fighting in the country – its longest war. President Donald Trump has expressed increasing frustration with the Afghan government and its security forces’ inability to police and manage their own affairs.

The deal has faced hurdles from the outset, despite efforts by Washington’s Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to bring the divided Afghan leadership together. The US and other international players seem to have backed Ghani’s leadership. Still, Abdullah, with his significant support base, cannot be ignored, analysts say.

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