WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s nascent deal to end the war in Afghanistan faced its first stumbling block Sunday, the day after it was signed, over whether the Afghan government must release Taliban prisoners as part of the continuing negotiations.
The confusion threatened to inflame tensions between the Afghan government and the Taliban, just days before both sides were scheduled to sit down in direct talks to foster peace and protect the country’s fledgling civil liberties after more than a generation of conflict.
The Trump administration’s blueprint for the peace talks included a provision that up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners “will be released” by the time the next round of negotiations, with the Afghan government, begin on March 10. Any remaining prisoners could be released over the following three months, according to the document.
“The United States commits to completing this goal,” the document stated.
The first snags in the process were apparent less than 24 hours later.
In Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said Sunday that it was up to his government, not the U.S., to decide when Taliban prisoners would be released.
In Washington, lawmakers questioned whether they were misled by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month, when they said he assured them that prisoner releases would not be part of the American deal with the Taliban.
“He was categorical that prisoner releases weren’t part of the agreement,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a former assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration. A spokeswoman for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said he attended the same briefing with Pompeo at the Munich Security Conference, and he confirmed Malinowski’s account.
And across Afghanistan, people were grappling with whether the deal would be a first step toward a lasting peace or a plunge back into a chapter where extremists could again dominate society and governing, as happened during the Taliban’s rule in the late 1990s.
“It is unclear how the Taliban, who fought for 18 years for their own ideology, can suddenly give up their anti-democracy and anti-women’s-rights values,” said Marzia Rustami, a women’s rights activist in Kunduz province, in northern Afghanistan. “We do not want to go back to what we were doing during the Taliban regime.”