According to news reports from Afghanistan, the Taliban released 20 Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) personnel on April 12 after the Afghan government freed hundreds of Taliban prisoners. The exchange was originally to be held on April 10.
Red Cross sources say 300 ‘low-risk’ Taliban fighters were released who promised not to rejoin militancy, and were released based on other factors including health, age and length of remaining sentence. Zalmay Khalizad, US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, welcomed the initial prisoner swap as an important step towards peace, adding, “Both sides should accelerate efforts to meet targets specified in the US-Taliban agreement as soon as possible.”
The Taliban told media that their decision to release a group of prisoners was “a goodwill step to accelerate the prisoner exchange process”.
On April 7, Taliban had called off talks with the Afghan government on the subject of prisoner swap, an issue which has been simmering ever since the US-Taliban deal was signed on February 29. Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for Taliban’s political office in Qatar, tweeted that Taliban’s technical team would not participate in “fruitless meetings” and the release of their prisoners was being “delayed under one pretext or another”.
Responding to Taliban, Javid Faisal, spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Security Council said, “We ask the Taliban to not sabotage the process by making excuses now.”
A three-member Taliban team had arrived in Kabul last month from Qatar to begin the prisoner exchange process. Consequent to Taliban’s threat to call off talks the Afghan Government announced on April 8 that they would commence releasing 100 Taliban prisoners who were sick or over the age of 50. Media had then reported that the Taliban in exchange were expected to free 20 members of the ANSF and ultimately both sides would aim to release the 6,000 prisoners they are holding – 5000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1000 of Afghan security forces. Presumably pressure from the US must have forced the Afghan government to free 300 Taliban prisoners instead of 100 in the first exchange.
Apprehensions of the Afghan government are justified because not only is the prisoner exchange heavily tilted in favour of Taliban, Afghan officials say that the Taliban are demanding release of senior commanders involved in some of the most violent attacks in recent years; Taliban want 15 of their ‘top commanders’ to be released. Not only did numerical imbalance in the prisoner swap agreed to in the US-Taliban deal come as a surprise to Afghan government, but specific names now being given by Taliban.
The consequences after their release in terms of further spike in violence is cause for grave concern. Taliban probably listed their prisoners and priority of release in consultation Pakistan. Ironically, Taliban has the upper hand and US couldn’t care less.
At the same time, it is unlikely Taliban would agree for talks until all 5000 prisoners are released, or at best all its senior commanders are released.
On April 9, five rockets had hit America’s Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, which was claimed by ISKP. There were no casualties but one wonders whether US truly understands its import. ISKP is not just ISIS/ISIL fighters that US transported from Iraq-Syria to Afghanistan for checkmating Chinese and Russian influence in the region.
The ISKP includes cadres from Afghan Taliban and TTP, Pakistan’s ISI, regulars and Mujahids, plus elements of Pakistan-based terror organizations like LeT. Having installed Sirajuddin Haqqani as number two in Afghan Taliban and being the initiator of ISKP, Pakistan is linked to both Taliban and ISKP.
The Bagram Air Base attack was to pressurise US on behest of China-Pakistan to hasten US withdrawal. More attacks will continue to be deflected on ISKP. Efforts are also likely to inject Coronavirus into America’s ‘green zone’ in Kabul and other US bases.
Afghanistan today is perhaps in the worst possible situation ever. In addition to escalating violence and Taliban, Coronavirus is spreading in the country like wildfire. Herat’s Governor Abdul Quayom Rahimi calls Herat the “Wuhan of Afghanistan” with virus casualties surging; on an average about 2,000 Afghans are crossing over from Iran daily through the open border, and Herat has just 10 ventilators. Afghanistan’s Minister of Health predicts the virus could “finally” infect up to 80% of the country and kill at least 110,000 Afghans.
Afghanistan requires $2 billion to fight the virus but has been able budget only $25 million. Simultaneously the US has threatened to cut off $1 billion aid to Afghanistan although Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh recently told media that the US has not elaborated exactly what would be the cut, leaving the country in financial limbo as it braces for the pandemic.
An interesting development has been Taliban launching a campaign to fight Coronavirus. Taliban members dressed in white medical gear and masks, holding disinfectant sprays and weapons, holding workshops for preventing spread of the virus.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health has welcomed the move and said, “We noticed photos circulating on social media that show the Taliban’s campaign, and regardless of their intention, we appreciate the cooperation from anyone or any group that supports the fight against Coronavirus.” Taliban have offered safe passage to health workers and international organizations working to prevent spread of the virus, saying, “We are willing to allow and support government health workers or NGOs who can help the villagers in our areas. All they have to do is ask for our permission before coming so we can assess them, and we will let them work here.”
The Taliban flag and insignia were also visible in the photos. Printed material, issued by Taliban’s ‘General Commission for Public Health’ listed precautions that people should take, regular prayers, eating halal, medical advice, and vegetables that contain high amounts of vitamin C to boost immunity.
But all this does not change Taliban’s original demand – that they will not hold any talks until all the 5000 Taliban fighters as agreed to in the US-Taliban deal are released. The Afghan government on the other hand insists on releasing them in phases along with intra-Afghan talks and a ceasefire in place. Here lies the catch because the Taliban never agreed to a ceasefire in the first place. But even when the 5000 Taliban prisoners are released, the process of intra-Afghan dialogue is unlikely to run smoothly.
On March 28, the Afghan government announced a 21-member committee under former intelligence chief Mohammed Masoum Stanekzai to kick start talks with the Taliban, following which Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted, “I want to congratulate Afghan government, political and civil society leaders for coming together. They’ve forged an inclusive negotiating team for talks with the Taliban. The Islamic Republic delegation reflects the true tapestry of the nation and the instrumental role of women”.
However, the very next day the Taliban announced they would not hold talks with a 21-member peace delegation, saying, “We shall only sit for talks with a negotiation team that conforms with our agreements”. Afghanistan’s National Security Council has responded by saying, “The peace committee formed by the government is inclusive and represents influential segments of the society.
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s peace delegation is complete now. There are no changes possible”. Therefore, when the intra-Afghan talks will begin, what shape it would take and how long and successful these would be remains a question mark.
According to official sources, there are 12,000-15,000 inmates, including foreigners from Pakistan, Central Asia and Gulf countries, in different prisons across Afghanistan. At some stage, Taliban may demand their release too since most of them were fighting in support of Taliban.
Taliban do not believe in Afghanistan’s Constitution and want absolute power which they have conveyed in the past – an Islamic Emirate ruled by the Taliban chief as the Emir.
Taliban are in no hurry as US is readying to hand over Afghanistan to a China-Pakistan supported Taliban, instead of consolidating its only toe hold it has in South Asia – Afghanistan. It needs no intelligence to visualize that the collusive anti-American forces in the region would like to teach a lesson to the
US in Afghanistan while US is battling Coronavirus and consequential downturn in economy. US exit is unlikely to be smooth.