The final obstacle prior to peace talks within Afghanistan has been the release of 400 Taliban prisoners classified as particularly dangerous. This obstacle has now been overcome – for better or for worse.

The Prisoner Release is Approved

In Afghanistan, a large council assembly approved the controversial release of imprisoned Taliban members, thereby fulfilling the essential prerequisite for intra-Afghan peace talks. The process is now on the precipice of finalizing peace negotiations, said the chairman of the Council for Reconciliation and leader of the assembly, Abdullah, after reading the final declaration. 

The release of 400 Taliban, classified as particularly dangerous, is considered the last demand made by the militant Islamists before peace negotiations can be initiated.

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani convened the Loya Jirga council meeting a week ago after the Taliban and government agreed on a three-day ceasefire for Eid al-Adha or the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice. Around 3,400 political and religious representatives discussed the central issue of the release of prisoners over the weekend. Speaking to the delegates, Ghani stated that the Afghan Loya Jirga had made history. He will now sign the decree to release the 400 prisoners. The Taliban have not yet issued a statement.

Is This Peace Process Morally Right?

The conflict in the country has continued brutally despite ceasefire negotiations. Although the Taliban had not killed any NATO soldiers since their agreement with the US, they intensified terror against the Afghan armed forces. As a result, thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians have been killed in the bitter conflict since the end of February.

The general legacy of the Taliban in Afghanistan has resulted in more than 100,000 fatalities, which is why the decision to release the prisoners was also criticized by some civilians and rights groups, who questioned the morality of the peace process.

The Release Includes 156 Death Row Inmates

In the past, Ghani emphasized that the prisoners could not be released due to legal reasons and the correlating serious crimes they are responsible for. Among them are 156 prisoners sentenced to death, according to a list from the National Security Council. Suspected masterminds of attacks such as the one on the German embassy in 2017 are also said to be among the dangerous criminals, according to Afghan security source statements made in April.

The convening of the council meeting was not without controversy. There is reason to believe that President Ghani did not want to make the unpopular decision to release prisoners himself and attach his political career to a potentially grave mistake. Afghanistan’s parliamentary speaker Rahman Rahmani even criticized that the convening of a Loya Jirga was not covered by Afghan law. Many parliamentarians felt betrayed and also described the meeting as illegal.

The US-Taliban Deal

Sunday’s decision caps almost half a year of talks after Washington and the Taliban agreed on the release of the Taliban prisoners as a condition for the talks with the Afghan government. The United States signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha on February 29 that provides for the withdrawal of international troops. In return, the Taliban promised to end their relations with other terrorist organizations. At the same time, the agreement is intended to pave the way for intra-Afghan peace talks: an exchange of prisoners was agreed on as a confidence-building measure. Up to 5,000 imprisoned Taliban were to be released in exchange for 1,000 government prisoners held by the extremists according to the agreement.

US officials encouraged the Loya Jirga in recent days to support the release of the prisoners despite the drawbacks, in order to get the peace process moving. With November elections on the horizon and the White House being behind in the polls, US President Donald Trump needs progress in his 2016 campaign promise to end America’s longest war. 

The Coming US Troop Reduction in Afghanistan

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently reiterated that the number of US troops in Afghanistan would be reduced to less than 5,000 – which is a decrease of only 3600, however.  The Taliban were in power in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 before US-led international military intervention put an end to their oppressive regime following the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States.

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