The historic U.S.-Taliban agreement aimed at ending the long war in Afghanistan is only a few days old, but the deal is already threatening to unravel over disputes about key issues.
The United States and the Taliban signed a deal on February 29 that will trigger the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in exchange for security commitments from the extremist militant group.
Part of the deal is the launch of direct negotiations between Afghans and the Taliban over a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement. But those intra-Afghan talks have been thrown into doubt because of disagreement over two key tenets of the deal.
The Taliban has demanded that the Afghan government free 5,000 of its captured fighters, a claim rejected by Kabul.
Meanwhile, the militants have refuted the government’s claim that violence nationwide must remain low during intra-Afghan talks.
'Very Difficult Issue'
The disputes have been fueled by the United States using different language in separate documents it agreed with the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The text of the U.S.-Taliban agreement said Washington was committed to the release of "up to 5,000" Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government and "up to 1,000...prisoners of the other side will be released” by March 10, when intra-Afghan meetings are slated to begin.
But a joint U.S.-Afghan declaration signed on February 29 only said the Kabul government will take part in discussions on the "feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides" and did not mention a specific number of prisoners to be released or a time frame.
Kabul, which was not a signatory to the bilateral U.S.-Taliban deal, said it had not committed to a prisoner swap.
President Ashraf Ghani said the prisoner swap could be “included in the agenda of the intra-Afghan talks but cannot be a prerequisite for talks."
But the Taliban said on March 2 that it would not take part in intra-Afghan talks before some 5,000 of its fighters were freed.
Omar Samad, a former Afghan diplomat who is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, said the issue had become a stumbling block instead of a confidence-building measure.
"At this stage, political pressure is needed to resolve this issue with a formula that all sides can agree with," said Samad. "One option is to agree to a gradual and staggered release before and after intra-Afghan talks."
A senior U.S. administration official on March 2 signaled that Washington expected a compromise from the Taliban and the Afghan government on the issue.
"There are aspirational numbers and timelines in the agreement," said the unidentified official at a special briefing at the State Department. "This is a very difficult issue. Both parties have strongly held views and we are going to try and help broker a positive outcome."
“There is a lot of ambiguity [in the text of the U.S.-Taliban deal], even when it comes to very particular points,” said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group. “This ambiguity can be a good thing; it allows for flexibility.”
There are fears that the release of thousands of Taliban fighters could deprive the Kabul government of a key amount of leverage and undercut the peace process by strengthening the Taliban’s position on the battlefield.
There are an estimated 10,000 Taliban prisoners being held in Afghanistan.
“Prisoner releases can be leverage to secure other gains, but the Afghan government’s leverage in talks will come from the support of the international community, the Afghan people, and their political leaders,” said Watkins.
There have been several high-profile prisoner swaps and releases of insurgents since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime.
The most recent was in November, when two Western hostages were released from Taliban custody in exchange for three senior Taliban prisoners, including Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, a powerful Taliban faction.
Reduction In Violence
The Afghan government and the Taliban are also locked in a dispute about allowable levels of violence and attacks during intra-Afghan talks, which are expected to be complex and protracted.
The Taliban ordered its fighters on March 2 to resume operations against Afghan forces as the militants said the weeklong partial truce between the Taliban, U.S., and Afghan forces that preceded the February 29 agreement was "over."
The Taliban has since carried out deadly attacks across Afghanistan, including an attack on an Afghan military base in Logar Province on March 3 that killed at least five soldiers.
Ghani said on March 1 that the reduction in violence would be extended and eventually transformed into a cease-fire.
He said if the Taliban “backs away from” an extended reduction of violence, it would be “openly violating the condition set for them.”
The text of the U.S.-Taliban deal made no mention of a Taliban commitment to reduce violence during intra-Afghan talks.
But U.S. General Scott Miller, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said on March 2 that the United States expected that “violence must remain low” during negotiations among the Afghan parties.
Samad said that with the weeklong reduction of violence period over, the rules and procedures were not clear and were open to interpretation.
“Reduction of violence has to be treated as a confidence-building measure, but, in negotiations, it's also used as leverage tied to give-and-take,” he said. “At this stage, with other stumbling blocks and possible concession-seeking tactics being used by Ghani, the Taliban will most likely use the reduction of violence as a pressure point.”
Ghani sent a government delegation to Qatar to open what the government said were “initial contacts” with the militants, with experts saying that this could open communication lines between the warring sides over the levels of violence and what each side expected if the deal was to hold.
But the Taliban said on March 3 that it would not meet Kabul's representatives in Qatar except to discuss the release of their prisoners.
“I suspect that there will be some sort of middle ground, where the Taliban attempt to demonstrate to their own fighters as well as the Afghan government that it will continue to fight for ‘an Islamic system’ by resuming some combat operations but also keeping them confined or reduced in certain ways,” Watkins said.