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Taliban, Afghan government to discuss prisoner release

Development could remove the deadlock holding up negotiations between the armed group and the Afghan government.

Officials from the Afghan government will meet with Taliban members to discuss an initial release of prisoners, Afghanistan’s National Security Council (NSC) said.

Wednesday’s announcement came after the two sides met earlier via video conference.

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  • US envoy urges Kabul, Taliban to begin prisoner releases

  • Taliban rejects Afghan government’s phased release of prisoners

  • Afghanistan-Taliban talks at risk as unrest continues

“To carry out these further discussions, a Taliban team will meet with the government face-to-face in Afghanistan in the coming days,” the NSC said on Twitter.

The Taliban said on Wednesday that the release of prisoners by the Afghan government would begin by the end of March.

The development could remove a key factor in the deadlock holding up negotiations between the armed group and the Afghan government under a US-brokered peace process.

“The meeting decided that the release of the prisoners will practically start by the end of March,” Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, said on Twitter, referring to a virtual meeting that included Taliban and Afghan government officials.

Also at the gathering were American and Qatari officials and members of the International Red Cross, Shaheen said, adding the Taliban would send a team to the Bagram detention centre where many of its prisoners were held.

The two sides have differed on prisoner releases, with the Afghan government seeking a phased and conditional release and the Taliban wanting all prisoners freed in one go, as envisaged in a deal signed with the United States in Doha last month.

It was not immediately clear how many prisoners would be released. The Taliban have demanded 5,000 as a precondition to talks, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the government would release 1,500 initially.

The impasse threatened to derail a carefully negotiated peace process outlined in the agreement, including a pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan after more than 18 years of fighting.

The two sides have been speaking in recent days over Skype, officials have said, as the coronavirus pandemic has curbed international travel.

The decision on prisoners came just days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Kabul and Doha to try to salvage the peace process set in motion by February’s American troop withdrawal agreement.

The deal was supposed to lead to negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government for a peace arrangement. But it has suffered setbacks because of the prisoner disagreement, and a political feud between rival Afghan politicians that has held up the appointment of a negotiation team. 


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US-Taliban deal: Can peace finally come to Afghanistan?

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Pompeo meets Afghan political rivals during visit to Kabul

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the Afghan capital on Monday on a previously unannounced visit to try to salvage a historic deal between Washington and the Taliban, struck in February but marred by a political feud.

Pompeo visited Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at his palace before meeting his political rival Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom say they are Afghanistan’s rightful leader following a disputed election in September.

Their standoff has stalled the selection of a negotiating team to represent the Afghan government in planned talks with the Taliban.

A senior State Department official said the purpose of Pompeo’s visit was to try to mediate a solution between the two men. He is scheduled to hold meetings later with both together.

“The fear is that unless this crisis gets resolved…soon, that could affect the peace process… Our agreement with the Talibs could be put at risk,” the official said, adding it was unclear whether a resolution would be found during the one-day visit.

The Afghan government was not a party to the U.S.-Taliban deal, signed in Doha on Feb. 29. But the agreement aimed to pave the way for the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government and included a pact to withdraw foreign troops that would effectively end the United States’ longest war.

The Afghan government and the Taliban have not begun formal negotiations as planned, hampered by disagreement over the release of prisoners and the feud between Ghani and Abdullah.

U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who has spent much of his time in Kabul since the deal signing, made a plea to both sides last week to act fast on the release of prisoners, a condition the Taliban have set for the talks.

Khalilzad said the coronavirus pandemic added urgency for the release.

With 40 infections in Afghanistan, fears are growing that the thousands returning home from neighboring Iran every day might fuel the outbreak in a nation with a public health network devastated by years of war.

The Taliban and the Afghan government held a “virtual” meeting on prisoner releases on Sunday, officials said.

In February, Afghanistan’s Electoral Commission announced incumbent Ghani as the winner of the presidential election, but Abdullah said he and his allies had won and insisted that he would form a government.

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US conducts first air strike against Taliban since peace deal

US carries out attack in Helmand province days after the two sides signed a deal aimed at ending war in Afghanistan.

The United States has carried out an air raid against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, a US forces spokesman said a day after President Donald Trump spoke to a senior Taliban leader by phone.

“The US conducted an air strike on March 4 against Taliban fighters in Nahr-e Saraj, Helmand, who were actively attacking an ANDSF [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces] checkpoint,” said Colonel Sonny Leggett in a tweet on Wednesday, adding that it was a “defensive strike”.

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The raid, the first against the Taliban in 11 days, comes days after the US and Taliban signed a deal aimed at ending the nearly 19-year-old war in Afghanistan – the US’s longest.

The Taliban leadership promised the international community it would reduce violence, Leggett said, referring to the deal signed in the Qatari capital, Doha, on February 29.

He said, however, the US was committed to peace but called on the Taliban to stop “needless attacks” and uphold their commitments.

According to Leggett, Taliban fighters had carried out 43 attacks on checkpoints in Helmand on Tuesday.

“In the past two days we have witnessed the most intense Taliban attacks in Helmand,” Provincial police spokesman Mohammad Zaman Hamdard told AFP news agency:

“They have attacked several districts and many military bases,” he added.

The Taliban had, earlier on Wednesday, killed at least 20 Afghan soldiers and policemen in a string of overnight attacks, government officials told AFP news agency.

“Taliban fighters attacked at least three army outposts in Imam Sahib district of Kunduz last night, killing at least 10 soldiers and four police,” a member of the provincial council, Safiullah Amiri, said.

The Taliban also attacked police in central Uruzgan province on Tuesday night.

The violence has cast a pall on the nascent Afghan peace process, with the armed group clashing with Kabul over a prisoner exchange dispute before talks that are due to begin on March 10.

‘Very good talk’

The agreement in Doha, which was finalised after more than a year and a half of negotiations, paves the way for the withdrawal of all US and NATO troops from Afghanistan and a commitment by the Taliban that Afghan territory will not be used to launch attacks on other countries.

President Trump on Tuesday said he held a “very good talk” with a Taliban leader in what may be the first direct discussion between a US leader and a senior Taliban official.

Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and Trump held a 35-minute telephone call, a Taliban spokesman said, with Trump later confirming the call to reporters at the White House.

In an emailed statement later, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Trump told Baradar that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would soon speak to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani “so that the barriers against the inter-Afghan talks get removed”.

At least three people were killed on Monday in a football stadium blast in Khost province after President Ghani rejected prisoner swap deal that would see the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

The Taliban has said it will not begin talks with the Afghan government as envisaged in the agreement until the prisoner release takes place.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission expressed concern about the prisoner release in a letter to US officials, the Taliban and the Afghan government.

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'Hard to trust': Afghans sceptical of US-Taliban agreement

As the US and the Taliban reach an agreement, questions loom over fate of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Moments after United States and Taliban negotiators struck a deal to end America’s longest war fought in Afghanistan, Marwa Khan, a Kabul resident, called his mother and said: “They have signed the deal, the war is over.”

“This war has brought so much sorrow. I cry looking at people who lost their loved ones. This is a step forward for us,” Khan told Al Jazeera.

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  • Afghanistan’s Taliban, US sign agreement aimed at ending war

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On Saturday, the two sides signed a deal in Qatar’s capital, Doha, that outlines the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

It also includes a Taliban guarantee that Afghan soil will not be used by foreign armed groups that would threaten the security of the US and its allies.

The deal promises peace in the country but Maryam Hussaini, 27, is still mourning the loss of her sister, Najiba.

In 2017, the Taliban attacked a bus in Kabul carrying government employees. The attack killed 23 people, mainly workers of the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum. Among those killed was Najiba.

“I will never forget what the Taliban have done to my family. Peace cannot come overnight by just signing a paper. This peace deal disrespects the one I lost, my sister,” Hussaini told Al Jazeera.

Najiba was 28 when she was killed. She had won a scholarship to study computer science in India and then earned her Master’s degree in Japan.

Upon her return to Afghanistan, she was offered a job at the database unit in Afghanistan’s mining ministry. Almost a year into her job, she was killed.

“The Taliban have not shown regret for killing hundreds of innocent people,” Hussaini said.

In a report released in February, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said the number of civilian casualties surpassed 100,000 after more than a decade of documenting the impact of war.

“Almost no civilian in Afghanistan has escaped being personally affected in some way by the ongoing violence,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan and UNAMA head said last week.

‘Victory’

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban cofounder and political chief, Abdul Ghani Baradar, shared the stage in Doha against a backdrop that said “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”.

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan celebrated the signing, hailing a “victory” as the Taliban statement released soon after called the deal a “termination of the foreign occupation”.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Taliban to focus its attention on achieving peace in the country.

“I know there will be a temptation to declare victory, but victory for Afghans will only be achieved when they can live in peace and prosper,” Pompeo said in Doha.

It took 18 months for the deal to reach an agreement on both sides.

US officials and Taliban representatives have long wrangled over the US demand for a ceasefire before the signing of the final peace agreement which took 18 months to reach.

The agreement has four points: A 14-month timeline for withdrawal of all US and NATO troops from Afghanistan; a Taliban guarantee that Afghan soil will not be used as a launchpad that would threaten the security of the US; the launch of intra-Afghan negotiations by March 10; and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.

‘Restrictions on women’

When the Taliban was in power in 1996, women were banned from working or studying in the country. After the toppling of the Taliban five years later, three million girls returned to school, according to the Afghan education ministry.

But while the agreement was signed in Doha, women remained apprehensive.

“They committed many mistakes during their time in power. I hope they give women their rights, they were not following Islam either in order to give women their rights,” Bibi Saadat, 55, told Al Jazeera.

In earlier statements, the Taliban has said it was committed to guaranteeing women their rights under Islamic law “in a way that neither their legitimate rights are violated nor their human dignity and Afghan values are threatened”. 

At the intra-Afghan talks scheduled for March 10, Afghan leaders and activists, including women, will sit face-to-face with the Taliban and decide the future of the country, including key issues related to women rights, governance and rights of minorities.

But Hussaini remains sceptical and echoes the concerns about the education of women and their empowerment in the country

“If the Taliban come back, Afghan women lose everything: Their 18 years of achievement and even their identities,” she said.

“The Afghan women will be the main victims if the Taliban have not changed their mentality from when they were in power.” 

 

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