Less than 72 hours after the signing of the US-Taliban agreement, questions about the Taliban’s commitment to reduce violence in Afghanistan and disagreements about the terms of the release of thousands of prisoners are threatening to upend the long-anticipated deal.
President Donald Trump on Monday said the US was “getting out” of Afghanistan, noting that “we have discussions to go, but we’ve made a lot of progress.”
The agreement signed Saturday could see the full withdrawal of US and allied forces from Afghanistan in just over a year, with an initial drawdown to 8,600 troops in the first 135 days. US officials have stressed that the withdrawal of troops would be “conditions-based.”
Reduction in violence
Questions remain about the Taliban’s continued commitment to a reduction in violence in Afghanistan. A blast in the Khost province of Afghanistan killed at least three people were killed and injured 11 others were injured on Monday. The Taliban has denied responsibility for the attack.
US officials have stressed their expectation that such a reduction continue throughout intra-Afghan negotiations. However, this condition is not explicitly written into the text of the agreement. It instead says that “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire will be an item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations.”
Speaking at a briefing at the Pentagon Monday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said, “I would caution everybody to think that there’s going to be an absolute cessation of violence in Afghanistan. That is probably not going to happen. It’s probably not going to go to zero.”
Taliban members are divided over whether to stick to an agreement with the US to a reduction of violence, a source close to the Taliban in Doha told CNN.
“Some of them said the government language is not peace language so we have to start fighting against them but some are saying, no we have to keep loyalty to the agreement,” the source said.
In remarks in Doha on Saturday, Pompeo warned that “if the Taliban do not uphold their commitments, President Trump and his team will not hesitate to do what we must do to protect American lives.”
An Afghan official who briefed reporters on Monday said that in their discussions with US and Afghan forces, those forces confirmed that “as soon as the Taliban are going to attack, they are ready to respond.”
That official also said it was their understanding that the Taliban was not united and leadership does “not have full control over all the branches and segments.”
The landmark deal signed Saturday is meant to pave the way for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations within a matter of weeks – on March 10, according to the text of the agreement.
Yet conflicting interpretations from the Afghan government and the Taliban of the commitments in the deal with regards to prisoner releases are already threatening to scuttle those talks. The agreement stipulates that the US “is committed to start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence building measure with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides.”
According to the text of the agreement, up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and up to 1,000 “prisoners of the other side will be released by March 10, 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations.”
Taliban negotiators have made clear that they expect all 5,000 prisoners to be released prior to the start of direct talks with the Afghan government. Asked in an interview with CNN’s Nic Robertson what would happen if such an action was delayed, Muhammad Suhail Shaheen responded, “If they want to delay, that means [they] want to delay the intra-Afghan negotiations.”
However, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Sunday that the government has made no commitment to release any prisoners.
“It is a sovereign Afghan decision,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “We will discuss the question of prisoners as part of a peace deal which is has to be comprehensive, which is to discussed.”
Ghani said he had made clear to US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad – the chief US negotiator during the Taliban talks – “that the political capital in the consensus in the country that would be necessary for such a major step does not exist today.”
“Just technically it’s not possible to release 5,000 prisoners,” Ghani added. “It’s a painstaking process. Each person needs to be checked. And in return for what? We need to understand that the Afghan people have to see continuous commitment, not a sense of false claims of victory, because all our forces and our government capabilities are intact.”
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to downplay Ghani’s concerns about the prisoner release.
“There’ll be lots of noise. Everyone is competing for attention and time in the media. What matters is the actions that we take, the discussions that we had,” Pompeo said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “There have been prisoner releases from both sides before. We have managed to figure our path forward. We’ll know who these people are.”
Annie Pforzheimer, the former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Kabul, told CNN that “the efforts to release this many prisoners this early seemed bigger than a gesture I was expecting and I also think the guarantees should have been much more extensive with respect to the intra-Afghan dialogue.”
A senior administration official who briefed reporters last week prior to the signing and publication of the deal acknowledged that “this is a very difficult issue.”
“Action on prisoners needs to come early, but like everything else, it’s all contingent upon Taliban performance,” they said.
CNN’s Jennifer Deaton, Kylie Atwood, Michael Conte, Ehsan Popalzai, Nic Robertson, and Nikki Carvajal contributed to this report.