Afghanistan freed 100 Taliban jihadists on Wednesday as the first step in a peace process with the terrorist group, despite the Taliban’s suspension of talks over a planned prisoner exchange crucial to moving toward a formal peace agreement.
“The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan released 100 Taliban prisoners today based on their health condition, age, and length of remaining sentence, as part of our efforts for peace,” said Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council, which has been negotiating with the Taliban.
The goodwill gesture comes shortly after the Taliban suspended peace talks on a prisoner exchange process with the Afghan government on Tuesday. At the time, a Taliban spokesman said, “The intentional delays in the release of our prisoners violated the peace agreement, therefore we call back our technical team [negotiators] from Kabul.”
The Taliban called the talks “fruitless meetings.” The architects of the talks insist they are crucial to progress from the U.S. agreement to withdraw from the country this year after a series of trust-building measures that have yet to materialize.
In February, the U.S. proposed this pact, which would result in an American withdrawal from the country in phases in exchange for Taliban security guarantees. With a truce hinging on talks between the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the militants, a prisoner exchange was proposed as a way to build confidence on both sides for peace talks.
The Taliban’s decision to withdraw from the talks represented the latest setback for the U.S.-led effort to end decades of conflict in Afghanistan, which has been hindered by a leadership feud between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival.
Despite this week’s issues over the prisoner releases, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that “progress” had been made since March 23, when he visited President Ghani in Kabul and also met Taliban officials in Qatar in an attempt to sort out their leadership differences.
The Taliban refuses to recognize Ghani’s government, deeming it a U.S. proxy. It considers itself the only legitimate government of Afghanistan.
“We’ve made some progress, but we see them posturing in the media, we see statements that come out,” Pompeo told a State Department news conference on Tuesday.
“I’m confident in the days ahead we’ll have things that look like steps backward, but I’m also hopeful that all the parties are sincere and wanting what’s good for the Afghan people,” Pompeo said. The Secretary of State added that all of the Afghan sides must begin negotiations on a political settlement in order to work toward peace.