The U.S.-backed Afghan government’s decision to free hundreds of Taliban prisoners this week has breathed new life into hopes for substantive peace talks with the militants, ending months of infighting as U.S. forces continued preparations to go home.
The release Tuesday of as many as 900 Taliban prisoners signaled a potentially major breakthrough in relations between the Taliban and the government in Kabul, which continued to trade violent blows after the Trump administration and Taliban leaders announced a deal in February.
After a three-day cease-fire to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, Taliban and U.S. officials suggested that the government’s round of prisoner releases was a sign that the peace process may be back on track.
Such confidence-building exchanges would be “incredibly encouraging” and significant steps on the road for reconciliation, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Tuesday.
“The future of Afghanistan is going to be best suited for peace when there is agreement between the inter-Afghan parties,” Mr. Hoffman told reporters at the Pentagon. “The best path to lasting peace is a political settlement.”
A senior Taliban official said the prisoner release could lead to an extension of the three-day Eid cease-fire.
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“If these developments … continue, it is possible to move forward with decisions like extending the brief cease-fire and to move in a positive direction with some minor issues,” the official told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
Officials in the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Kabul was also willing to extend the cease-fire.
While past Afghan talks have faltered and jihadi groups such as the Islamic State remain potent threats inside the country, the events of the past few days signaled a marked turnaround from just weeks ago, when bombings and other attacks by the Taliban and an extremist Islamic State branch threw the peace process into question.
Under an agreement with special U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on Feb. 29, the Taliban vowed to block ISIS and other outside terrorist groups and begin talks with Kabul in exchange for a Trump administration commitment to draw down the 13,000 American troops to about 8,600 over the coming months.
But the deal was also contingent on peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which were supposed to have started quickly with a major prisoner swap as a confidence-building measure.
The Afghan government, which was often sidelined by Mr. Khalilzad’s diplomacy, is to eventually release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. The Taliban are to free 1,000 captives, mostly Afghan government officials and Afghan security forces.
But the swap and the negotiations remained stalled through much of March and April. The lack of progress was blamed in part on continuing Taliban violence and in part on internal bickering between Mr. Ghani and his chief political rival, Abdullah Abdullah.
Both men claimed to be the country’s rightful president after a troubled national election last fall. They also disagreed on the best approach to the Taliban, which provided a sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks and oversaw a grinding insurgency against the Kabul government after they were ousted from power in an invasion by U.S. and allied forces in late 2001.
The Ghani-Abdullah infighting became so bad in late March that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced plans to cut $1 billion in U.S. assistance if the two didn’t “get their act together.”
The pressure from Mr. Pompeo, backed by Mr. Khalilzad’s shuttle diplomacy, appears to be having its intended effect.
Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani settled their internal political fight early this month and agreed to a power-sharing arrangement that appears to give Mr. Abdullah a lead role in initial talks with the Taliban.
Taliban prisoners were being released Tuesday from Bagram prison north of Kabul, where the U.S. maintains a major military base, and from Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the eastern edge of the Afghan capital.
By late afternoon, according to The Associated Press, scores of men were pouring out of the Bagram compound. It wasn’t immediately possible to verify their numbers or whether they were all Taliban members. They were transported on six buses parked outside the prison.
An official at Bagram told AP that 525 men were to be released from Bagram. No number was given for prisoner releases from Pul-e-Charkhi.
In a tweet late Tuesday, Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen in Doha said the militant group would be releasing “a remarkable number” of Afghan government prisoners to make “good progress.”
But uncertainty continues to swirl around the wider peace process and President Trump’s hope to fulfill a campaign promise of bringing American troops home from a U.S. occupation that began nearly two decades ago.
Once the prisoner swaps are complete, intra-Afghan talks are is slated to begin. U.S. officials said they hope the delicate negotiations will lead to a political settlement while U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.
There are big questions about how the process may unfold. Analysts have expressed concern that the Taliban, which already control vast territory around the Afghan countryside, may return to violence against the Kabul government once U.S. forces depart.
There are also concerns that a political solution will be reached in a way that benefits only warlords and corrupt political elites while leaving common Afghans without a viable and functioning state.
Many Afghans, who have known only conflict in their homeland for several decades, are expressing frustration at the lack of progress in the peace and negotiations process.
“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.
Mr. Agha, 45, was wounded in April, caught in crossfire during a battle between the Taliban and Afghan soldiers. “I have spent my whole life in war,” he said.
Some analysts say the whole Afghan government will need structural reforms to succeed.
Hadia Haqparast, a democracy and governance expert and Fulbright scholar, argues that there needs to be a “decentralization” of power in order for the Afghan government to succeed in the future.
In an analysis published this week by The Diplomat, Ms. Haqparast wrote that the current government structure “has led to a fight for power among the elites and influential leaders, increased corruption and violence, and brought about a culture of impunity among various political players.
“Given the diverse ethnic make-up of Afghanistan, the only reasonable form of government capable of providing security and development is a federal government.”
• Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.