Pentagon officials at the hearing acknowledged those concerns.
A peace plan signed in Doha on Feb. 29 by the U.S. and the Taliban — but not by the Afghan government — calls for up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners to be set free by the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations, which did not start on the appointed date on March 10 as specified in the peace accord.
“President Ghani issued a decree tonight to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners starting Saturday from a list provided by the Taliban,” U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad wrote early Wednesday on Twitter. “The Taliban had already agreed to release up to 1,000 prisoners from the Afghan government side.”
“The Taliban prisoners will not be released without a guarantee,” Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi was quoted as saying by Afghanistan’s online TOLO News agency. “We should be assured that these individuals do not return to the war to fuel Taliban’s war machine.”
In a decree touted as a good faith gesture to get talks started, Ghani has committed to releasing the first 1,500 Taliban prisoners in batches of 100 a day beginning March 14. The remaining 3,500 war prisoners would be freed at a rate of 500 every two weeks once direct talks begin with the Taliban, but only if there has been a major reduction in violent attacks.
“We want him back,” added Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich. “We want him back now, and we want him back in good shape.”
In Washington, Republicans on Capitol Hill sharply questioned the proposed prisoner release when the commander of U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, appeared Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee.
“This administration has been very, very focused on hostage releases and rescues,” Kathryn Wheelbarger, the acting assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, replied to Mitchell. “So it continues to be a priority, but I take your point.”
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, seen on Monday, has agreed to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before peace talks begin. Mohammad Ismail/Reuters hide caption
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani now says he will free 1,500 Taliban prisoners starting this week and 3,500 more during yet-to-start peace talks with the Taliban.