Hopes are rising for the resumption of the abandoned Taliban and US peace talks after eleven senior Taliban members were freed from prison in an exchange with three kidnapped Indian engineers.
Among those freed are two former provincial governors of the Taliban and Abdul Rashid Baluch, a notorious regional leader sentenced to 18 years imprisonment for trafficking opium.
The men were being held near Bagram air base outside Kabul.
It is believed American authorities must have given permission for the swap as Baluch was previously on their ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’ list.
Last month, Donald Trump cancelled over a year’s worth of on-going peace negotiations with the Taliban after the group claimed a Kabul bomb attack that killed 11 people, including an American soldier.
However, relations appear to be thawing again after Zalmay Khalilzad, the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the State Department, met senior Taliban leaders on Friday for clandestine talks in Islamabad.
It is unclear whether the exchange of the Taliban leaders was discussed during the meeting.
While the Afghan authorities do intermittently release prisoners early as gestures of goodwill it is rare to see such high-profile members of the Taliban freed.
Abdul Rashid Baluch was a regional official for the group in the southwestern province of Nimroz when he was apprehended while personally escorting an almost one-tonne consignment of opium in 2014.
Baluch’s arrest was trumpeted by the U.S-Afghan authorities as proof of Taliban involvement in the international drug trade. Officials said Sheikh Abdur Rahim and Mawlawi Abdur Rashid – provincial governors in the Taliban administration when it was defeated by U.S-led forces in 2001 – were also released.
The three Indians set free were working as engineers in the northern Afghan province of Baghlan when they were kidnapped in May 2018, along with four other colleagues. One man was released in March but the whereabouts of the three remaining Indians is unknown.