Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signs decree to release Taliban prisoners

Afghan alleged former Taliban fighters carry their weapons before handing them over as part of a government peace and reconciliation process at a ceremony in Jalalabad on February 24, 2016. More than a dozen former Taliban fighters from Nazyan district of Nangarhar province handed over their weapons as part of a peace reconciliation program. AFP PHOTO / Noorullah Shirzada (Photo by Noorullah Shirzada / AFP)

The Afghan government will gradually release 5,000 Taliban prisoners starting this week if the insurgents significantly reduce violence, President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman said early Wednesday, seeking to resolve a dispute that has delayed peace talks between the militants and Kabul.

The announcement came hours after the U.S. said its forces had stated pulling out of two bases in Afghanistan, in line with a deal signed between Washington and the Taliban in Doha last month aiming to end America’s longest war.

The government will “release 1,500 Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill” starting Saturday, with another 3,500 to be freed after negotiations begin, spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said on Twitter.

The agreement, which will initially see 100 prisoners freed each day, will depend on the Taliban’s willingness to significantly limit attacks in the country, he added.

The decision attempts to resolve one of the long-running spats that has stymied potential peace talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government.

Although the Taliban were due to start talks with Kabul on Tuesday, negotiations were delayed because the insurgents’ demanded as a prerequisite the prisoner release in exchange for 1,000 captives.

Ghani had refused but Wednesday’s decree signaled a softening of his stance, with the proviso that none of the released prisoners would return to the front lines.

According to the decree, after the first 1,500 captives are freed, a further “500 Taliban prisoners will be released every two weeks” once negotiations begin.

U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad welcomed the announcement and urged the Afghan government and the Taliban to meet “immediately” in Qatar to sort out prisoner details.

The State Department voiced confidence that Afghan peace talks would open soon, saying Ghani was speaking to rivals and would name a negotiating team “in the coming few days.”

The UN Security Council on Tuesday endorsed the U.S.-Taliban deal, urging the Afghan government “to advance the peace process, including by participating in intra-Afghan negotiations”.

Under the U.S.-Taliban deal, foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months. The U.S. was initially supposed to cut its troop presence from about 12,000 currently to 8,600 by mid-July, and close five of its roughly 20 bases across the country. Troops have started leaving one base in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the south, and another base in Herat in the west.