The Afghan government announced it would free 900 prisoners on Tuesday, its single largest prisoner release since the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal earlier this year that spells out an exchange of detainees between the warring sides.
The announcement came as a three-day ceasefire with the insurgents draws to an end. The Taliban had called for the truce during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
There are expectations that the prisoner release could lead to new reductions in violence, and Taliban officials say they are considering an extension of the ceasefire.
A senior Taliban figure confirmed this to the Associated Press.
“If these developments, like the announcement of prisoner release continues, it is possible to move forward with decisions like extending the brief ceasefire and to move in a positive direction with some minor issues,” the Taliban official said.
The prisoners were being released from Bagram prison, where the United States still maintains a major military base, north of Kabul, as well as from the infamous Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the eastern edge of the Afghan capital.
By late afternoon, the AP witnessed scores of men pouring out of the Bagram compound — presumably the released prisoners. It was not immediately possible to verify their numbers or whether they were all Taliban members.
The prisoner release is part of the U.S. deal with the Taliban, signed on February 29 to allow for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, bringing to an end the country’s protracted war and America’s longest military involvement.
When the deal was signed, it was touted as Afghanistan’s best chance for peace after decades of war, but political feuding in Kabul and delays in prisoner exchanges have slowed the deal’s progress toward intra-Afghan negotiations, considered the second and most critical phase of the accord.
Under the deal, Kabul is to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners while the insurgents are to free 1,000 captives they hold, mostly government officials and Afghan forces, before intra-Afghan negotiations can begin.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had welcomed the Taliban ceasefire announcement during the Muslim holiday.
Javid Faisal, a national security spokesman in Kabul, urged the Taliban to extend the ceasefire and said the government would release 900 prisoners on Tuesday.
That would bring to 2,000 the number of Taliban prisoners released so far under the U.S.-Taliban deal. The Taliban say they have released 240 of captives they held.
However, the Taliban have yet to confirm whether those released so far by the government were among the 5,000 names the insurgents had given U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the February 29 deal.
A second Taliban official told the AP that those released so far were in fact on the Taliban list of demands, including the uncle of Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada. Key in deciding which names would appear on the list was Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, a senior figure who had recently recovered from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Turabi was the much feared vice and virtue minister during the Taliban rule, known for beating men who were found listening to music or not attending the mosque. He once slapped a Taliban commander who spoke with a woman journalist.
Both Taliban officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Many Afghans have expressed frustration at the slow and often stalled peace process; many have known only conflict in their homeland for the past several decades.
“If both sides stop this war and sit at the negotiating table … maybe my youngest children will experience a good life, which we never experienced,” said Sayed Agha, a truck driver from eastern Logar province who was wounded in April, caught in the crossfire during a battle between the Taliban and Afghan soldiers.
“I have spent my whole life in war,” said Agha, 45.
By Kathy Gannon and Tameem Akhgar for the Associated Press.