(WASHINGTON) — Two days after a historic signing ceremony between the U.S. and the Taliban, a series of attacks across Afghanistan, a possible new command from the Taliban and a disagreement over releasing Taliban prisoners threaten to derail the peace process laid out by the agreement.
Still, President Donald Trump said Monday that the U.S. is “getting out” of Afghanistan after over 18 years of war, seemingly regardless of what comes next.
The agreement signed Saturday in Doha, Qatar, where chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad spent a year and a half negotiating with Taliban leaders, lays out a full U.S. withdrawal, if the Taliban meet certain commitments — to engage in national peace negotiations with other Afghans and to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven to terror groups, including al-Qaida, whose operatives were responsible for the Sept. 11th attacks and were harbored by the Taliban.
To kick that process off, the U.S. agreed to drawn down its forces from approximately 13,000 to 8,600 and close five military bases within 135 days, while the Taliban agreed to meet an Afghan national delegation for negotiations on March 10. The militant group does not recognize the government of President Ashraf Ghani, decrying it as a U.S. puppet, but members of the government will join civil society, tribal leaders and women to make up the Afghan national team.
The prospect of those talks seemed dimmer Monday after the Taliban’s spokesperson said they would not take part unless Ghani’s government released thousands of Taliban prisoners, which Ghani said he would not do ahead of negotiations. The deal itself says the U.S. is committed to facilitating the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the government and 1,000 prisoners from the “other side” held by the Taliban, but says they “will be released” by March 10, with the goal of releasing all prisoners three months after that.
“We have not made a commitment to release them. It’s a sovereign Afghan decision. We will discuss the question of prisoners as part of a peace deal, which has to be comprehensive,” Ghani told CNN on Sunday, one day after signing a joint statement with Defense Secretary Mark Esper that says his administration will discuss the “feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides,” but doesn’t commit to any number or time frame.
“Just technically, it’s not possible to release 5,000 prisoners. It’s a painstaking process. Each person needs to be checked. And in return for what?” Ghani added, saying the Taliban needs to prove a “continuous commitment” to the peace process first.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to dismiss Ghani’s comments as “noise … competing for attention and time in the media” during an interview on CBS Sunday, cautioning that it’s “going to be rocky and bumpy.”
But the militant group said Monday they will not participate in those peace negotiations unless the prisoner releases happen first.
“If our 5,000 prisoners — 100 or 200 more or less does not matter — do not get released, there will be no intra-Afghan talks,” Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters.
In addition to the dispute over prisoners, the peace process seemed threatened by a series of attacks across the country on Monday. In Zabul, a southeastern province bordering Pakistan, the Taliban attacked a police post, while an attack near a soccer game in Khost, an eastern province also bordering Pakistan, killed at least three people and wounded seven, according to local officials — although the Taliban specifically denied responsibility for that one.
The U.S. had demanded that the Taliban commit to reducing violence before signing any deal. It was a step short of the nationwide ceasefire Ghani’s government set as a precondition, but the reduction in violence held all last week, demonstrating the Taliban had “both the commitment and the capability to enforce” a potential ceasefire, according to a senior U.S. administration official.
But that official, who briefed reporters on the agreement last week, said the reduction would continue ahead of the March 10 negotiations and securing a nationwide ceasefire would be the immediate goal of those meetings.
That commitment to keep violence low is not explicit in the agreement, and instead, the Taliban spokesperson said Monday the reduction had officially ended and they would again attack Afghan security forces, albeit not U.S. forces.
“As we are receiving reports that people are enjoying the reduction in violence, we don’t want to spoil their happiness, but it does not mean that we will not take our normal military activities back to the level that we were before,” Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters. “It could be any time, it could be after an hour, tonight, tomorrow or the day after.”
At the Pentagon on Monday, Esper said the U.S. expects the levels of violence to remain reduced, but added that there will be incidents and each one will have to be assessed to see who is responsible.
“This is going to be a long, windy, bumpy road. There will be ups and downs, and fits and starts. That’s going to be the nature of this for the next days, weeks and months,” he told reporters.
A full U.S. withdrawal would depend on the conditions in Afghanistan.
“We’ll go to 8,600, and we’re going to stop, and we’re going to assess the situation,” he added. “Not just tactically on the ground, but, also are all the parties living up to their obligations and their commitments? Are they acting in good faith and efforts?”
Trump, however, sounded a much more forward-leaning note Monday in the Oval Office when he said, “We had good meetings with the Taliban, and we are going to be leaving, and we’re going to be bringing our soldiers back home.”
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