NEW DELHI: The Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe and U.S. pressure has broken the deadlock in the Afghan peace process. In a first, Taliban and Afghan government teams have met– even if only online– to discuss a prisoner swap that has been stalled by hardened negotiating stances on both sides.
U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad broke the news in a series of tweets on Sunday night, “The US and Qatar facilitated the first Afghan government to Taliban technical talks on prisoner releases, via Skype video conferencing. Prisoner releases by both sides is an important step in the peace process, as stated in the US-Taliban agreement. And critical for humanitarian reasons,” the tweets said adding that “The over two-hour technical discussion was important, serious, and detailed. My thanks to all sides. Everyone clearly understands the coronavirus threat makes prisoner releases that much more urgent. All sides conveyed their strong commitment to a reduction of violence, intra-Afghan negotiations, and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire. We have also agreed to a follow-on technical meeting in the next two days.”
The Taliban acknowledged the video conference but made it clear this is not the Intra-Afghan talks that were envisaged for March 10. Suhail Shaheen, spokesperson for the political office in Doha, Qatar tweeted, “A technical team of the Islamic Emirate for the release of prisoners talked with a technical team of the Kabul Administration in the presence of US and Qatari delegations via video conference. The talks solely centred on prisoners release for which the two teams are formed. Other issues will be dealt with during the Intra-Afghan negotiations.”
Those intra-Afghan talks (IAT) have not taken place for several reasons. The Taliban insists that the deal signed with the U.S. in Doha on February 29 requires a swap of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 government detainees in their custody, before the IAT. No announcement has also come of who will be on the Afghan government, opposition, civil society and women’s team for talks with the Taliban.
President Ashraf Ghani has proposed a phased, conditional release of prisoners over weeks, before and once talks start. The fear of a coronavirus outbreak in prisons is now playing its part in ironically breathing new life into the peace process. The COVID-19 virus has according to government figures, infected over three dozen Afghans, with one death officially reported as of Sunday night.
Ghani’s first Vice President, former spy chief Amrullah Saleh, also went on social media to say that “Measures and efforts are underway to thoroughly assess prisons, ensure safety of inmates against COVID-19 and release the low risk and vulnerable. The President awaits a technical report.” But he reiterated the government’s stand that, “People on death row, terrorists and high risk persons being a different issue.” The Presidential Palace in a statement also promised a planned draft for the release of prisoners and detainees on Monday.
Earlier, Tolo News quoted the head of prisoner affairs, Ahmad Rashid Totakhil as saying, “A number of inmates will be released because of the emergency situation. There should be categories in order to prevent a security problem to society. The Taliban and those who have committed crimes against national and international security are not included.”
The Taliban has stopped attacks on international forces as part of the peace deal signed with the U.S. But, government figures say 14 of the 34 provinces have witnessed heavy clashes between Afghan security forces and the Taliban over the last week.
With a stalled peace process, President Ghani in a televised address on Sunday called for unity in the face of the coronavirus. The Americans have also been pressing for a resolution of the political divide given that former Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah has proclaimed himself President. His aides say mediators are continuing efforts to break the political deadlock and his team has paused efforts to form an “inclusive” i.e. parallel government.