Prospective peace talks in peril as Taliban reject Afghan government prisoner release

Saphora Smith and Ahmed Mengli and Mushtaq Yusufzai

An Afghan government announcement that it freed 100 Taliban prisoners Wednesday has been rejected by the militant group, putting the prospect of peace talks between the two parties in further peril.

The announcement came a day after the Taliban said it was pulling out of talks aimed at facilitating a larger swap of thousands of prisoners.

Announcing the release of the 100 prisoners, Javid Faisal, a spokesperson for Afghanistan’s National Security Council said in a statement Wednesday: "The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan remains open [to] continuing joint technical work with the Taliban in order to advance the peace process."

But the Taliban rebuffed the overture saying they were unable to verify which, if any, prisoners had been released, adding that as far as they were concerned the prisoner exchange negotiations were still suspended.

“We don’t know who these 100 people are who the Afghan government claims to have freed today,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told NBC News.

The prisoner exchange was part of the deal signed between the United States and the Taliban in the Qatari capital of Doha in February, under which America agreed to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan within 14 months. The deal called for the release of thousands of prisoners ahead of peace talks between the Taliban and an Afghan delegation, which includes government officials.

The swap was meant to build confidence between the two sides but instead has become an obstacle in the path toward peace for Afghanistan. As a result, it threatens to undermine the success of the Trump administration's landmark deal that endeavors to bring an end to America's longest war.

The Afghan government was not involved with the U.S.-Taliban deal and has been reluctant to agree to release the 5,000 Taliban prisoners that Washington said it would work to secure under the agreement. In exchange, the Taliban had agreed to release 1,000 of its prisoners.

Meanwhile, a political crisis in Kabul, with President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, attempting to stand up parallel governments, has made it more difficult to get peace negotiations with the Taliban off the ground.

This led to a warning from the White House.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the Afghan capital two weeks ago to deliver a message to the feuding Afghan leadership, telling them they should resolve their differences and broker a deal with the Taliban or President Donald Trump could not only cut $1 billion in financial aid to Afghanistan but could also pull all U.S. troops out of the country, according to two current senior officials, one former senior official and a foreign diplomat.

Image: A newly freed Taliban prisoner (Reuters)

The Afghan government had agreed last month to a staggered and conditions-based release of prisoners. So the Taliban said they sent a three-member team to Kabul to identify and verify the 5,000 connected to them.

But on Tuesday, the Taliban said it had recalled this team and suspended prisoner exchange talks, claiming that the government refused to release 15 prisoners it had earmarked to help verify other inmates in the jail. The Afghan government said the 15 prisoners were Taliban commanders accused of carrying out attacks.

"The Afghan government proved that it is not sincere in the peace process and created hurdles for our team to identify our prisoners,” Suhail Shaheen, another senior Taliban spokesman, told NBC News on Wednesday.

In an apparent bid to salvage the prisoner exchange, the Afghan government later said it had released the 100 prisoners.

It remains unclear what these obstacles on Afghanistan’s path to peace will mean for America, beyond its potential to undermine Trump’s ability to tout the U.S.-Taliban deal as a resounding success on the campaign trail.

Despite political chaos in Kabul, the U.S. military has pushed ahead with its troop withdrawal. America has had boots on the ground in Afghanistan for 18 years since its invasion in 2001 when it toppled the Taliban regime after it sheltered Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.