KABUL – A traditional Afghan council concluded Sunday with hundreds of delegates agreeing to free 400 Taliban members, paving the way for an early start to negotiations between Afghanistan's warring sides.
The declaration calls for an immediate start to negotiations and a cease-fire. The move looks to bring the United States a little closer to bringing home its troops and ending its longest military engagement.
No date has been set for the release, but negotiations between Kabul’s political leadership and the Taliban are expected to begin as early as next week, and will most likely be held in the Mideast state of Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office.
These Afghan negotiations were laid out in a peace deal signed by the U.S. and the Taliban in February. At the time of its signing it was touted as Afghanistan’s best chance at ending decades of war.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani praised delegates for their decision, urged the Taliban to stop fighting.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the decision “was a good step, a positive step.” He said negotiations could start within one week of their prisoners being freed.
As for a cease-fire, Shaheen said the Taliban were committed to the deal it struck with the U.S., and according to that deal “the cease-fire will be one of the items to be discussed during the intra-Afghan negotiations."
Later Sunday afternoon, an explosive devise hidden in a cart killed two people in Kabul. The spokesman for the capital's police, Firdus Faramarz, said policemen were trying to remove the device when it exploded. Five police were injured.
A recent spike in violence in Afghanistan has been mostly attributed to the Islamic State affiliate, whom the Taliban are fighting, as are the Afghan government and U.S. forces. Previously, a U.S. Defense Department official who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject said Washington considered IS its biggest threat in Afghanistan, and wanted a deal that would recruit the Taliban in a coordinated fight against it.
The council's decision to free the Taliban prisoners did not come as a surprise, as delegates were urged by the U.S. at the start of the council, or jirga, on Friday to take “this difficult action” so negotiations could begin to bring an end to the war.
The U.S.-Taliban deal in February called for the government to free 5,000 prisoners and for the Taliban to free 1,000 government and military personnel in its custody as a goodwill gesture ahead of the start of negotiations.
Kabul balked at the release, but eventually freed all but the last 400. President Ghani said he was not authorized to free these because of the seriousness of their crimes, and asked for the council to decide instead. He did not detail what the 400 were accused of.
Delegates were therefore given the stark choice of either freeing the prisoners or seeing a war that has killed tens of thousands continue. The delegates said they wanted international guarantees that the Taliban would not return to the battlefield.
Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad spent more than a year and a half negotiating the deal with the Taliban to provide for the withdrawal of American soldiers after more than 19 years in Afghanistan.
The withdrawal began earlier this year, but roughly 8,600 U.S. soldiers remain in Afghanistan. Their return will depend on the Taliban honoring its commitment to fight against other terrorist groups and ensure Afghanistan is not again used to attack America or its allies.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper on Saturday said Washington will bring home another 3,600 soldiers by November, leaving less than 5,000 in Afghanistan.
“We think that we can do all the core missions, first and foremost being ensured the United States is not threatened by terrorists coming out of Afghanistan. We can do those at a lower level,” Esper told the Fox News Channel’s “Justice with Judge Jeanine” program.
The withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops is not dependent on the success of negotiations between Kabul's political leadership and the Taliban. But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made it clear that Washington wants a negotiated end to the conflict, including a cease-fire.
An attack against a military compound on Saturday killed seven military personnel and injured another 16, and served as a reminder that Afghanistan's war won't be over easily. No one took responsibility for the attack, but both the Taliban and Islamic State affiliate are active in the area.
Gannon reported from Islamabad.