Possible impact of prisoner exchange deal on Afghan peace talks
The much-awaited prisoners’ swap between the Afghan government and the Taliban finally took place on November 19 after being delayed for a week.
As indicated by the US ambassador to Afghanistan, the delay was caused by two big militant attacks in Logar province and Kabul city on Nov. 12 and 13. The continued violence had angered the Afghan and US governments and both had questioned the Taliban's commitment to peace.
President Ashraf Ghani had announced on Nov. 12 that his government was releasing three Taliban prisoners in exchange for two Western hostages. He claimed that the Taliban had agreed to hold direct peace talks with the Afghan government as part of the prisoners' exchange deal.
Kabul has repeatedly offered talks to the Taliban to peacefully end the Afghan conflict, but the offer has yet to be taken up.
Neither the Taliban nor the US publicly confirmed President Ghani’s claim. Together with the Afghan government, they are the major stakeholders in the Afghan conflict.
Following Ghani’s announcement, Taliban prisoners were reportedly shifted from Bagram prison to Kabul to be flown to Qatar, where the Taliban Political Commission led by the group’s deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar is based. They were taken back to the jail in Bagram, which also houses the largest US military base in Afghanistan when it appeared that the deal had fallen through.
However, the prisoners’ swap has now been completed. Under the deal, the Western hostages were freed after the Taliban prisoners landed in Qatar.
The swapping of the three important Taliban prisoners for the two Western hostages could help revive Taliban-US peace talks and promote intra-Afghan dialogue.
Kevin King, the 63-year old American, and Australian citizen Timothy Weeks, 50, were teachers at the American University in Kabul when they were abducted by Taliban fighters in August 2016.
The Haqqani network, a powerful unit of the Taliban movement known for undertaking spectacular attacks, target killings, and kidnappings in Afghanistan, was involved in their kidnapping.
The Taliban prisoners also belong to the Haqqani network. Among them is Anas Haqqani, who was captured in Oct. 2014 and is the brother of Haqqani network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani.
The other two are Mali Khan Zadran, maternal uncle of Anas Haqqani, and Hafiz Abdul Rasheed, younger brother of Mohammad Nabi Omari, a Haqqani network commander who is currently a member of the Taliban negotiating team and had been released from Guantanamo Bay prison along with four other high-ranking Taliban members in June 2014 in exchange for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl.
Though the Taliban expressed surprise over the last-minute decision last week to cancel the exchange of prisoners and accused the US of going back on its word, the group must have realized that an increase in violence in Afghanistan will continue to stall progress on such confidence-building measures aimed at promoting the fragile peace process.
The US has time and again called for a permanent cease-fire by the Taliban for taking the peace process forward. President Donald Trump cited the rise in Taliban attacks as the main reason for scrapping Taliban-US peace talks on Sept. 8 despite the fact that an agreement had almost been reached.
The seven-point peace plan recently announced by President Ghani’s government also asked the Taliban to announce a cease-fire to show the group’s commitment to the peace process and also prove that it has a unity of command capable of enforcing a cease-fire.
An earlier prisoners’ swap in October, in which 11 Taliban prisoners were freed in exchange for three Indian engineers, created hope for securing more such deals. The swapping of the three important Taliban prisoners for the two Western hostages could help revive Taliban-US peace talks and promote intra-Afghan dialogue.
Desperate to secure the release of Anas Haqqani, who was sentenced to death by an Afghan court, the Taliban had even named the young man a member of the group’s negotiating team for talks with the US to save his life. The US, on the other hand, wanted in particular to obtain the release of the seriously ill Kevin King. These two releases together with others could create goodwill and give the Taliban and US tangible results achieved by negotiating rather than fighting. For the Afghan government, the Taliban’s willingness to engage in direct talks with it would let it become an active participant in peace negotiations.
One more hopeful sign is China’s decision to host an intra-Afghan meeting in the coming days. China has maintained relations with both the Afghan government and the Taliban and enjoys the required goodwill to undertake such a difficult mission. Though intra-Afghan meetings were held earlier in Moscow in February and in Doha in July, the Beijing dialogue could bring together more Afghan government officials and opposition politicians to engage in discussions with the Taliban.
*Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1