In an escalation of a war of words amid rising violence before scheduled peace talks between the warring sides, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has called on the Taliban to abandon their sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan before beginning negotiations with his government.
“When are you going to abandon Pakistan?” he asked the Taliban during a speech in the eastern city of Jalalabad on March 3. “If you want to talk to us about prisoners and want to have it as a precondition [before talks with the Afghan government], then we too have prerequisites.”
Ghani was referring to longstanding Afghan and Western claims that view the Taliban as Pakistani proxies with the insurgents’ leadership and cadres dependent on sanctuaries in the country. His remarks come amid a controversy over the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in return for some 1,000 Afghan soldiers and government employees currently held by the insurgents before intra-Afghan talks are set to begin on March 10.
While the Taliban claim that the release is a done deal stipulated by their agreement with the United States on February 29, Ghani said on March 1 that “there is no commitment to releasing 5,000 prisoners," because any prisoner release was "not in the authority of the U.S., it is in the authority of the Afghan government."
Ghani’s March 3 speech suggested Kabul expects much more than what is outlined in the insurgents’ agreement with Washington.
“What is the meaning of jihad after you have accepted to conclude peace with the foreigners?” he asked. “Killing Afghans is a crime. The Taliban are Afghans, and they should not humiliate other Afghans.”
But Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman in the Qatari capital, Doha, said they have not met with an Afghan government delegation that reportedly traveled to Doha to hold initial talks about the prisoner release with the Taliban.
“Before the beginning of the intra-Afghan negotiations our officials in charge of prison affairs are going to meet their counterparts in the Kabul administration so we can free 6,000 prisoners before the talks,” he tweeted on March 3.
Meanwhile, at least six civilians were killed and 14 injured in 33 attacks across 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces on March 3, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry.
The spike in violence comes after the Taliban ordered its fighters to resume attacks on Afghan forces on March 2 because the weeklong reduction in violence before the February 29 agreement was over. Violence decreased dramatically during the previous week when the Afghan government, the United States, and the Taliban committed to a partial truce.