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Afghan President, Taliban At Impasse Over Prisoner Release

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during his inauguration as president in Kabul on March 9.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during his inauguration as president in Kabul on March 9.

The Afghan government has offered to release 1,500 Taliban prisoners, saying it is "impossible" to release more, as demanded by the Taliban to start peace talks envisaged under a deal with the United States.

Sediq Sediqqi, the spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, told a news conference on March 11 that another 3,500 would be set free as certain conditions are met.

"The Taliban want all 5,000 prisoners released at once, which is impossible," Sediqqi said, adding the release could begin on March 14.

The prisoner release is intended to build trust between the Western-backed government in Kabul and kick off direct talks to end the 18-year war in the country.

But Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban in Doha, said the peace accord signed with Washington last month stipulated that "first 5,000 prisoners would be freed and then the Afghan dialogue would be initiated."

Shaheen said in a tweet that the Taliban would only accept an agreement for all prisoners named on a list it gave to the Afghan government.

"Our very condition is that the detainees are acceptable if verified by our team," he tweeted.

"Also, they must be those detainees whose names are included in the list," he wrote in a separate tweet.

Further muddling the path toward talks, the Tolo News agency reported on March 11 that the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) considered it illegal to release inmates who are accused of being involved in war crimes or crimes against humanity.

"According to the national and international laws, the president does not have the authority to release those individuals who are accused of being involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity," Tolo quoted Naeem Nazari, the deputy head of the AIHRC, as saying.

Under its deal with the United States, endorsed by the UN Security Council on March 10, the Taliban must continue its reduction in violence and bar extremist groups from operating in areas under their control.

Despite the agreement, fighting has continued in various parts of the country.

"The Taliban will be responsible, not the Afghan government, if this process fails," Sediqqi said.

The United States also agreed to reduce its troops from about 12,000 to 8,600 within 135 days.

The long-term plan is for the United States and its NATO allies to withdraw all troops within 14 months.

The United States early this week began pulling out troops, but the U.S. State Department on March 10 said the current level of violence by the Taliban is “unacceptable” to advancing the peace process.

"We acknowledge the Taliban have taken steps to stop attacks against the coalition and in cities. But they are killing too many Afghans in the countryside. This must change," spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

Fresh political instability has also threatened the prospect of talks between all sides.

Two separate swearing-in ceremonies took place in Kabul on March 9 for Ghani and his main rival, former Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, after a disputed presidential election in September.

Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission says Ghani narrowly won the vote, but Abdullah alleges the result is fraudulent.

In an apparent show of support for Ghani's presidency, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on March 9 said that Washington opposes "any action to establish a parallel government."

With reporting by Reuters, the BBC, Tolo News, and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan

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