Differing U.S. documents helped fuel Afghan prisoner dispute

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States helped fuel a dispute between the Taliban and the Afghan government over prisoner releases that threatens U.S. peace efforts by using different language in documents it agreed with each side, sources familiar with the matter said on Monday.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper (L), NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (C) and Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (R) arrive for a joint news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan February 29, 2020.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo

The U.S.-Taliban deal says the Afghan government will free up to 5,000 Taliban detainees by March 10, while the U.S.-Afghan declaration commits the Kabul government only to taking part in U.S.-brokered talks on the “feasibility” of such a release.

The issue has emerged as a fresh impediment to peace talks between the insurgents and a yet-to-be-named Kabul delegation that are to begin on March 10 under the U.S.-Taliban agreement for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan signed on Saturday.

The Taliban on Monday said they would not participate in the so-called intra-Afghan peace talks until Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government releases about 5,000 military and political prisoners.

Ghani on Sunday said the issue cannot be a precondition to the peace talks and will have to be worked out in negotiations. “It is not in the authority of United States to decide, they are only a facilitator,” he said.

Sources familiar with the matter identified the discrepancy as a significant potential obstacle to the talks and, by extension, to U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.

“There is going to have to be a compromise,” said a former senior U.S. official familiar with the issue who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The question is whether (the Afghan sides) can do it themselves or America has to play the heavy.”

Asked about the discrepancy, a second source familiar with the matter said: “It’s clearly a problem.”

“I am sympathetic to Ghani. This is his leverage in the negotiation. For the U.S. to negotiate away his leverage before they even get to the negotiating table I imagine was somewhat galling,” the second source said on condition of anonymity.

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The Kabul government’s stance appears to be supported by the joint declaration Ghani and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued in Kabul shortly before Saturday’s signing of the U.S.-Taliban accord in the Qatari capital Doha.

That statement said the Afghan government will take part in a “U.S.-facilitated discussion with Taliban representatives on confidence-building, to include determining the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides.”

In contrast, the U.S.-Taliban agreement appears to commit Kabul to releasing up to 5,000 prisoners even though the Ghani government was excluded from the negotiations with the Taliban led by Zalmay Khalilzad, chief U.S. negotiator.

“Up to five thousand (5,000) prisoners of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be released,” while the insurgents would free up to 1,000 prisoners, the document says.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the discrepancy.

Asked in a Fox News interview about Ghani’s refusal to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the habits of old days are hard to break. And this will be a bumpy road going forward.”

The U.S.-Taliban pact could pave the way to ending the nearly 19-year U.S.-led international military presence in Afghanistan.

The United States said it was committed to cutting its troop levels to 8,600 from 13,000 within 135 days of signing the deal, and working with its allies to proportionally reduce the number of coalition forces in Afghanistan over that period, if the Taliban adhere to their commitments.

Richard Olson, a former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the prisoner dispute could delay the intra-Afghan talks and violence could rise after the Taliban’s announcement that it could resume operations against government forces but not U.S.-led international troops.

“That is one of the things that could begin driving a wedge between Afghan forces and U.S. forces,” Olson said.

Reporting By Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lincoln Feast.