U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, posting on Twitter about the decree, said the freed Taliban members would include those on a list the insurgents presented Tuesday to the United States. Under the U.S. deal, the Taliban is to release up to 1,000 Afghan prisoners.
Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the releases were to precede the start of direct peace negotiations between the Taliban and the government, which were scheduled to begin Tuesday. But the day passed with no talks after Ghani, whose government was not part of the U.S.-Taliban deal, refused that condition.
The decree was finally issued after Khalilzad urged all sides to comply. On Twitter, he called on them to sit down together in Doha, Qatar — where more than a year of U.S.-Taliban negotiations, in which the government did not participate, hashed out last month’s deal — to negotiate final details of the prisoner releases.
In a document released Saturday, the Taliban had called on all Afghans to relinquish any support for what it has always called the “puppet” government under U.S. “occupation” in Kabul and support the movement as it retakes control of the country following its 2001 overthrow by U.S. and Afghan forces.
Beyond the prisoner disagreement, Ghani has still not announced the composition of the government negotiating team that is supposed to meet with the Taliban. He was sworn in for a new presidential term Monday despite a challenge to his authority from Abdullah Abdullah, a political rival who has also claimed victory in September’s election.
Abdullah announced the formation of his own government, even as Ghani said he would form a cabinet within the next two weeks.
Late Tuesday, the State Department issued a statement saying that “while preparations for intra-Afghan negotiations are underway,” they had been delayed by the “Presidential electoral crisis.” Ghani, it said, “has told us he is consulting” with Abdullah and others “and will announce an inclusive team in the coming few days.”
Under the U.S.-Taliban deal, the United States agreed to withdraw about a third of its 12,000 military forces in Afghanistan within 135 days of the signing, a process the U.S. command in Kabul announced Monday had begun. If the Taliban complies with its own obligations — not to attack U.S. or NATO troops and break ties with terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda — the rest of the U.S. and alliance force is to withdraw by May of next year.
U.S. officials have said that their withdrawal is “conditions-based” and includes an ongoing reduction of violence against foreign and Afghan forces. But the agreement does not specify an ongoing reduction in violence against Afghans, and Taliban fighters have continued to attack Afghan security forces.
Statements by both Khalilzad and the State Department called the current level of violence unacceptable. “We expect the Taliban to adhere to its commitments to reduce violence in order to allow for the release of prisoners to be implemented smoothly and the peace process to succeed,” Khalilzad tweeted.
Speaking to members of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, reiterated that withdrawals beyond the initial 135 days would depend on whether the Taliban lived up to what he said were requirements in the agreement and that no plans had yet been made for further force reductions.
Speaking alongside McKenzie, Katie Wheelbarger, a senior Pentagon policy official, described the 14-month timeline as “aspirational.”
McKenzie expressed skepticism about whether the Taliban would follow through with commitments to break with al-Qaeda and said his recommendations about future troop reductions would be linked to its compliance.
“We don’t need to like them,” McKenzie said. “We need to observe what they do.”
The general said that violence had fallen in the country but that lower-level attacks directed at Afghan forces created concerns about whether the Taliban would be a partner for peace.
Anticipating a possible full withdrawal from Afghanistan, McKenzie said the United States was looking at “over the horizon” options that would allow for certain counterterrorism activities that would be conducted from outside Afghanistan. “And none of them are particularly good,” he said.
Such an approach would be similar to what the Pentagon has adopted in recent years in places such as Libya, involving the use of surveillance and intelligence combined with occasional airstrikes, in coordination with local authorities.
But that kind of remote campaign has its drawbacks, including more limited visibility into militant activity.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman defended the Trump administration’s decision to withhold information contained in classified annexes to the U.S.-Taliban deal, which lawmakers who have read them say detail the military withdrawal. But Hoffman said there were “legitimate reasons” to keep them out of the public domain, including “operationally sensitive information regarding troop movements . . . that may be of interest to ISIS and al-Qaeda and other entities operating in Afghanistan.”
But numerous lawmakers have demanded the annexes be made public, arguing that the Taliban already has access to the information they contain.
Hoffman said, “It’s an agreement with the Taliban. It makes sense for them to read the documents.”
“There’s information that is necessary to be provided, and it’s perfectly normal to do that in a diplomatic negotiation,” he said.
George reported from Herat, Afghanistan. Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.