LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- In a confidence-building gesture with the government, Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban movement has released 10 Afghan soldiers days after freeing two Western professors in exchange for three high-profile Taliban detainees.
“I am happy to be free from Taliban captivity after two years and seven months,” Islam Uddin, one of the released soldiers, told Radio Free Afghanistan. They were freed late on November 21 in the southern province of Helmand, where the Taliban control most of the countryside.
Uddin says his time in Taliban captivity was horrendous. “Some of our Taliban captors appeared pious, but they treated us very badly.”
Another freed Afghan soldier, who did not give his name, said the insurgents captured him during a three-day cease-fire between the Taliban and government forces in June 2018. He was captured while trying to visit his family in Helmand’s Sangin district, which is largely controlled by the Taliban.
“I want to thank the Afghan government for making our freedom possible,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
The Taliban, however, have denied mistreating prisoners. Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, told Radio Free Afghanistan that they consider any atrocities against their prisoners a “major failing” and have always refrained from such practices.
Helmand Governor Mohammad Yaseen Khan hopes the step will contribute to building trust between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents.
“Today’s release of our 10 soldiers is a welcome development,” he told journalists. “Efforts are also underway to ensure the safe release of many civilians from the Taliban’s custody.”
The Taliban are believed to be still holding some 16 Afghan soldiers in Helmand, while the Afghan authorities have imprisoned thousands of Taliban fighters and sympathizers across the country.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, welcomed the release.
“Hopeful these steps lead to a reduction in violence and rapid progress towards a political settlement involving the Afghan government, the Taliban, and other Afghan leaders,” he wrote on Twitter. “The Afghan people yearn for peace and security, and we stand with them.”
On November 19, the Taliban released two professors at the American University of Kabul in exchange for the release of three high-profile members of the Taliban’s military wing, the Haqqani network. American Keven King, 60, and Timothy Weeks, a 48-year-old Australian, were freed in exchange for Anas Haqqani, Hafiz Rashid Omari, and Haji Milli Khan.
“We join families of Kevin King & Tim Weeks in celebrating their release from Taliban captivity,” U.S President Donald Trump tweeted on November 20. “Let’s hope this leads to more good things on the peace front like a ceasefire that will help end this long war.”
The Taliban kidnapped King and Weeks from Kabul in August 2016. Anas Haqqani is the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy Taliban leader and leader of the Haqqani clan. He and Omri were arrested in 2014, while Khan was detained in 2011.
The Afghan government is pushing for a cease-fire before beginning peace talks with the Taliban. The insurgents, however, have so far resisted engaging in direct talks with Kabul and have instead insisted on informal talks with representatives of Afghan society.
Talks between Washington and the Taliban broke down in September. The two sides were reportedly on the cusp of an agreement after more than a year of negotiations in the Qatari capital, Doha.