Afghan President Vows to Release Another 2,000 Taliban Prisoners

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai
AP/File

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday issued a statement that he will respond to a ceasefire “gesture of goodwill” from the Taliban by expediting the release of 2,000 Taliban prisoners.

He asked the Taliban to reciprocate by releasing some of the prisoners it is holding.

The Taliban on Saturday announced a three-day ceasefire in honor of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which began on Sunday in Afghanistan. The ceasefire followed months of escalating violence from Taliban forces and counter-attacks by the Afghan military. The Taliban did not take credit for the most savage attack during that period, last week’s gun rampage at a maternity ward that killed some two dozen women and children, but many Afghan officials held them responsible for the atrocity.

The Afghan government announced it would also observe a ceasefire over the Eid holiday, earning praise from U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who called it a “momentous opportunity that should not be missed” for a more durable peace.

President Ghani originally criticized provisions in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal that required his government to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the Taliban was supposed to release 1,000. Ghani has released about 1,000 prisoners so far but hesitated to release any more until the Taliban reciprocates.

On Sunday, Ghani said he would release another 2,000 Taliban prisoners as a “goodwill gesture” to “ensure the success of the peace process.” He added that his government is ready to talk if the Taliban wants to keep that process moving forward and once again called on the fundamentalist insurgency to release some of the prisoners it holds.

“As a responsible government we take one more step forward – I announce that I will expedite the Taliban prisoner releases,” Ghani said during his Eid address from the presidential palace on Sunday.

Ghani added that he received a congratulatory telephone call from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who restated America’s hopes for a longer ceasefire and the beginning of direct negotiations between Ghani’s government and the Taliban.

“We worked hard to achieve this moment, and I hope that this respite from conflict gives Afghan people the space and security they deserve to celebrate Eid, while allowing the Taliban and the government the opportunity to take additional steps toward a peaceful future for their country,” Pompeo said in a statement on Sunday.

Pompeo said the United States remains committed to implementing its peace agreement with the Taliban and expressed hope that progress can be made now that a power-sharing agreement has been reached between Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah to settle the crisis from a disputed presidential election.

“I expect the Taliban to adhere to their commitment not to allow released prisoners to return to the battlefield. Finally, I expect both leaders of the Afghan government and the Taliban not to escalate violence after Eid. This violence is counterproductive, deepens grievances, and prolongs the suffering of the Afghan people,” he said.

As of Monday morning, both the government and Taliban forces appeared to be respecting the Eid ceasefire. A successful Eid al-Fitr ceasefire was also arranged in 2018, but violence eventually resumed. According to the Afghan intelligence service, at least 146 civilians were killed and 430 wounded by Taliban attacks during the Ramadan holiday season.

“The ceasefire is holding. There have been no reports of any violation so far. We hope this will eventually lead to a lasting peace that the people of Afghanistan so much desire and deserve,” a spokesman for Ghani’s National Security Council said on Monday.

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