KABUL, Afghanistan — President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan on Wednesday ordered the phased release of thousands of imprisoned Taliban fighters, caving in on an earlier refusal that was threatening to derail the next steps of the American negotiated peace plan for the country.
Ghani’s government was furious when — as part of the deal signed last month between the United States and the Taliban laying out the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan — the Americans had agreed to push for the release of as many as 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
Officials for Ghani repeatedly said that the Afghan government had the sole authority to release the prisoners, and that it would not agree to such a risky move as a precondition for the next step in the peace process: direct talks between the Taliban and Afghan leaders over the political future of the country.
In a series of tweets after midnight Wednesday, Sediq Sediqqi, Ghani’s spokesman, said 1,500 Taliban prisoners would be released starting on Saturday, at a rate of 100 a day. The remaining 3,500 will be released in batches of 500 every two weeks after the start of direct talks between the Taliban and a negotiating team appointed by the Afghan government. Those releases would be conditioned on a concrete reduction in violence, he said.
“The prisoners who will be released through this decree are all required to provide a written pledge not to return to fighting,” the presidential decree says, according to Sediqqi.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Taliban, who have insisted on the release of all the prisoners before beginning direct talks, will find the compromise good enough for the process to move forward.
The shift in Ghani’s position appeared to be a negotiated face-saving for all three sides, and not unrelated to Ghani’s attempts at sealing a second term in office after being stuck in a messy election dispute. Ghani got a longer timeline for the release of prisoners (the United States had agreed with the Taliban that a release would happen in 10 days). The Taliban get their prisoners released, even if not as swiftly as they wanted. And the United States will keep its peace plan intact.
The change of mind happened during a tense week in Kabul, as American diplomats shuttled between Ghani and his rival in the recent presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah, to prevent a split in the country’s government. Those efforts failed, with Abdullah claiming to have won the election and taking his own oath of office on Monday — right next door to Ghani, who was being sworn in for his second five-year term.
Ghani signaled a compromise on the prisoner issue in his inauguration speech, with Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy mediating between the two candidates, and Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of American and NATO forces, seated in the front row.
Their presence — as well as Ghani’s mention in his speech that he had agreed to a conditional prisoner release — suggested that the United States had used the release as a bargaining chip with Ghani to recognize his victory fully, something American officials had refused to do for weeks after election results were announced.
Soon after Ghani’s inauguration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement welcoming Ghani’s announcement. The statement urged unity for Afghanistan’s leaders and made clear that the United States was focused on a single priority: rolling out its peace plan, which gives it an exit from Afghanistan.
Taliban officials had repeatedly said that they were ready for the next step of the peace process — scheduled to begin on March 10 but now facing an unclear delay — but that they would not sit across the table from other Afghans until their prisoners were released.
“We have given the American delegation a detailed list and no one can commit fraud in that list,” said Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s negotiating team based in Qatar. “Our one condition was that they either submit the prisoners to us in a desert or in the prisons, and they will only be accepted after our representatives confirm.”
The agreement the United States signed with the Taliban has faced strong criticism from lawmakers in Washington. Opponents say the American withdrawal, which officially began on Monday, will embolden the Taliban and leave the Afghan government vulnerable.
American officials, including Pompeo, have emphasized that the withdrawal of American troops is conditions-based, but lawmakers who have seen the classified annexes of the agreement say the Taliban has given only vague assurances that it will comply with U.S. demands.
The agreement has also required round-the-clock diplomacy to keep its pieces together and moving forward. Khalilzad, the envoy leading the effort, has remained on the road for the past four months and hasn’t returned home to Washington since Thanksgiving. The political crisis in Kabul, where essentially two governments have declared themselves in power, makes the next steps that much more difficult.
In addition to releasing the prisoners, Ghani has promised to assemble an inclusive negotiating team to sit across the table from the Taliban. Months of work on the team had not resulted in a consensus among all the different factions. Now that the election has split open the political elite, it’s uncertain whether Abdullah’s faction will cooperate on negotiations led by Ghani, or boycott them and announce their own effort.
Former President Hamid Karzai, who was part of the efforts to resolve the political feud between Ghani and Abdullah, lashed out at the United States in a harsh statement on Tuesday. He said the United States had been “dishonest and untransparent” in how it has dealt with the election.
“If the U.S. had really wanted to resolve the crisis, it could have taken constructive and timely action before the inauguration to prevent the divisions and political instability born of it,” Karzai said. “The current concerning situation in the country is because of the degrading and divisive policy and action of the United States.”