Taliban rule out taking part in talks with Afghan government until prisoners freed
In Washington, U.S. Defence Secretary says plan is to reduce American troops to 8,600 within 135 days
Taliban militants will not take part in intra-Afghan talks until about 5,000 of their prisoners are released, a spokesperson said on Monday, presenting a major possible barrier to ending the war. The statement came as a reduction of violence period came to an end, and the Taliban said a resumption of operations against Afghan government forces could now take place.
Under an accord between the United States and the Islamist Taliban signed on Saturday, the two sides are committed to working toward the release of combat and political prisoners as a confidence-building measure.
The agreement calls for up to 5,000 jailed Taliban prisoners to be released in exchange for up to 1,000 Afghan government captives by March 10. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, not involved in the talks, has rejected that demand.
"We are fully ready for the intra-Afghan talks, but we are waiting for the release of our 5,000 prisoners," Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by phone.
"If our 5,000 prisoners — 100 or 200 more or less does not matter — do not get released, there will be no intra-Afghan talks."
U.S.-led forces ousted the hardline Islamist militants from power in 2001 but the United States has said that after more than 18 years of war, it hopes negotiations toward a permanent political settlement and ceasefire can start in coming days, but Western diplomats and analysts see stark challenges ahead.
The Pentagon on Monday laid out plans for the initial withdrawal of troops.
U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said he had given the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller, the authority to begin the initial withdrawal, which would happen within 10 days.
"My instruction to the commander was, 'Let's get moving, let's show our full faith and effort to do that,'" Esper said.
He added that the United States would reduce its forces to 8,600 within 135 days and then reassess the situation.
Underlining the difficulties in keeping a lid on violence while peacemaking proceeds, an explosion at a football field in Afghanistan's southeastern province of Khost killed at least three civilians and injured 11 on Monday, the interior ministry said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
In the same Pentagon briefing with Esper, the top U.S. general said it was unlikely that violence in Afghanistan would go down to zero.
"It is probably not going to zero … to think it is going to go down to zero immediately, that is probably not going to be the case," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said.
Period of reduced violence over
Ghani said on Sunday U.S. President Donald Trump had not asked for the release of the prisoners and that the issue of releases should be tackled as part of a comprehensive peace deal.
"The Afghan government has not made any commitment to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before the start of any potential negotiation," Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesperson for Ghani, said in response to the Taliban's statements on Monday.
He added that the prisoner release "cannot be a requisite for talks," and instead should be part of the negotiations.
A joint U.S.-Afghan government statement says the Kabul government will take part in discussions on the "feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides" but does not mention the specific number or time frame.
Zabihullah said the majority of prisoners on the list of 5,000 had been captured by American forces and were held in Afghan government prisons and that they had prioritized sick and older prisoners.
Zabihullah said a deal on a reduction in violence in the seven days leading up to Saturday's pact in Doha had formally ended.
"As we are receiving reports that people are enjoying the reduction in violence, we don't want to spoil their happiness, but it does not mean that we will not take our normal military activities back to the level that we were before," he said.
"It could be any time; it could be after an hour, tonight, tomorrow or the day after."
Miller said the United States expected the Taliban to "be very serious" about their obligations.
"The reduction in violence was a confidence builder … the United States has been very clear about our expectations – the violence must remain low," he said in a tweet.
The Afghan war has been in stalemate for more than 18 years, with Taliban forces controlling or contesting more territory yet unable to capture and hold major urban centres.
A full withdrawal of all U.S. and coalition forces would occur within 14 months, a joint statement said. The withdrawal depends on security guarantees by the Taliban.