The prisoners' fate is a crucial hurdle in launching peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan govt.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a consultative grand assembly, known as Loya Jirga, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 7, 2020.
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a consultative grand assembly, known as Loya Jirga, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 7, 2020. (Afghan Presidential Palace via Reuters)

Thousands of prominent Afghans approve the release of about 400 death row Taliban prisoners.

The resolution recommending the release of the prisoners was passed on Sunday, at the end of a three-day loya jirga, a traditional Afghan meeting of tribal elders and other stakeholders sometimes held to decide on controversial issues.

"In order to remove the hurdles for the start of peace talks, stopping bloodshed, and for the good of the public, the jirga approves the release of 400 prisoners as demanded by the Taliban," jirga member Atefa Tayeb announced.

The prisoners' fate is a crucial hurdle in launching peace talks between the two warring sides in Afghanistan, which have committed to completing a prisoner exchange before the talks can begin.

The insurgent group welcomed the move and said it was ready to begin talks within 10 days of the release.

"Ceasefire is and will be an important part of the talks, which will be decided during talks (not before)," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Reuters on the phone from Doha on Sunday, where the group's political office is based.

The Afghan government has released almost 5,000 Taliban inmates, but authorities have balked at freeing the final prisoners demanded by the group.

According to an official list seen, many of the inmates are accused of serious offences, with most of them on death row.

The list also includes a group of 44 insurgents of particular concern to the US and other countries for their role in "high-profile" attacks.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday pushed for the release of the detainees, while recognising the decision would be "unpopular".

FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2018 file photo, U.S. Marines stand guard during the change of command ceremony at Task Force Southwest military field in Shorab military camp of Helmand province, Afghanistan.
FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2018 file photo, U.S. Marines stand guard during the change of command ceremony at Task Force Southwest military field in Shorab military camp of Helmand province, Afghanistan. (AP)

US to cut troop numbers by more than half

US plans to cut its troop levels in Afghanistan to a number less than 5,000 by the end of November.

US currently has about 8,600 troops in Afghanistan. 

Defence Secretary Mark Esper confirmed the move during an interview with Fox on Saturday, adding detail to drawdown plans US President Donald Trump announced earlier this week.

Trump said in an interview released Monday by Axios that the US planned to lower that number to about 4,000.

US peace deal

The peace deal agreed upon in February calls on the Taliban to guarantee Afghanistan will not be used as a staging arena by terrorist groups to attack the US or its allies. 

The withdrawal of US and NATO troops hinges on the Taliban meeting those commitments and not on a positive outcome to negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul's political leadership.

The intra-Afghan negotiations that Washington had hoped would begin in March have been delayed by the reluctance of Kabul to release the Taliban prisoners. 

The deal called on Kabul to free 5,000 Taliban and the insurgent group to free 1,000 government and military personnel.

President Ashraf Ghani eventually freed all but 400 of the prisoners while insisting on a council to decide whether they could be released, saying their crimes were too serious for him to decide on alone. 

Concern over Taliban

On Thursday, statement issued by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear that the 400 prisoners had to be released if peace talks with the Taliban were to move forward.

“We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular,” Pompeo said. “But this difficult action will lead to an important result long sought by Afghans and Afghanistan’s friends: a reduction of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war."

In his statement, Pompeo said the Taliban had agreed to reduce violence once talks begin.

“The Taliban have also committed to significantly reduce violence and casualties during the talks where the parties will decide on a political road map to end the long and brutal war and agree on a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” he said.

READ MORE: Why prisoner exchange is the main sticking point for Afghan peace deal

Since signing the agreement with Washington in February, the Taliban have not attacked US and NATO troops, but have continued to wage war with the Afghan National Security Forces. The US and NATO have also begun withdrawing some troops in line with the agreement.

While many Afghans see the peace effort as the best hope for ending the 19-year war with the Taliban, some question how committed the militants are to reconciliation, especially after the US completes its troop withdrawal.

Washington has been urgently trying to ease the deadlock over prisoners as it withdraws troops and President Donald Trump seeks to fulfill a major campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan.

READ MORE: Pentagon says Taliban maintains Al Qaeda ties, jeopardising US-Taliban deal

Source: TRTWorld and agencies