The fate of some 5,000 Taliban prisoners jailed in Afghanistan is threatening to turn into a major stumbling block in efforts to end the 19-year war in the country.
The Taliban is demanding the release of the detainees before the launch of direct negotiations between Afghans and the Taliban over a permanent cease-fire and a future power-sharing arrangement.
Those intra-Afghan talks, slated for mid-March, will begin after the United States and the Taliban sign a historic peace deal that will trigger the phased withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
Experts said the issue of Taliban prisoners could be a key obstacle in launching the country's peace talks or, conversely, be used as a bargaining chip to exact concessions from the militants.
There are fears that the release of thousands of Taliban fighters could deprive the Kabul government of a key amount of leverage and undercut the peace process by strengthening the Taliban's position on the battlefield.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on February 26 that Kabul will free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the release of 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces held by the militants.
Shaheen said the "trust-building measure" was a prerequisite for the launch of the intra-Afghan talks.
He added that the prisoner release was part of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, although Afghanistan is not a signatory to that bilateral agreement.
But the Taliban and the United States have not yet disclosed the contents of the deal.
The Kabul government has ruled out releasing the prisoners before the start of talks.
"When we, as the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, enter into negotiations with the Taliban and they demand the release of their prisoners, it will naturally be discussed, and will take into account the laws and interests of our people and [our decision] will be based on the consensus that will arise at that stage," said Sediq Sediqqi, President Ashraf Ghani's spokesman, on February 20.
'Quid Pro Quo'
Omar Samad, a former Afghan diplomat who is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, said the issue could be used as a "political stumbling block or a bargaining chip."
"Bargaining chip can mean quid pro quo," he said.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the Afghan government could offer the Taliban a major concession before intra-Afghan talks with the expectation that the militants will reciprocate.
Kugelman said that could mean the insurgents agreeing to reduce violence during the negotiations, which analysts expect to be complicated and protracted.
The United States and the Taliban agreed to a weeklong reduction of violence across Afghanistan before the signing of the peace deal. The partial truce has largely held, with a dramatic decrease in Taliban attacks from around 75 per day down to under 15.
The militants contest or control nearly half of the country.
A similar truce during intra-Afghan talks has been mooted, although the Taliban has not commented on the possibility.
But analysts warned that there was a risk in the government giving away one of its primary bargaining chips at such an early stage of the peace process.
"The Taliban has ample leverage because it's in no hurry to conclude a peace deal," said Kugelman. "If it receives a major concession it may hold out and demand more before giving something up in return."
10,000 Taliban Prisoners
There are an estimated 10,000 Taliban prisoners being held in Afghanistan. But the militants have said that some of those detained were accused of being sympathizers or members of the group, often to settle old scores, and are not actually combatants.
There have been several high-profile prisoner swaps and releases of insurgents since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime.
In November 2019, two Western hostages were released from Taliban custody in exchange for three senior Taliban prisoners, including Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, a powerful Taliban faction.
The prisoner swap was seen as an attempt to kick-start U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations after U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly ended the talks over rising Taliban attacks.
In 2014, five senior Taliban members were released from the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for a captured U.S. soldier, Bowe Bergdahl.
All five former Guantanamo Bay detainees are based in Qatar, where they have taken part in negotiations with U.S. officials.
In 2013, former President Hamid Karzai controversially released scores of Taliban prisoners from a formerly U.S.-run prison near Kabul as an attempt to convince the militants to open direct talks with Kabul.
The move failed to convince the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. Analysts said some of those freed returned to the Taliban, bolstered their ranks, and increased the insurgency's efficacy on the battlefield.
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