KABUL — The Afghan government objected Sunday to parts of the historic peace deal between the United States and the Taliban, showing the difficulties that lie ahead for the country as the 18-year conflict enters a new phase.
The U.S.-Taliban deal, the result of talks from which the Afghan government was excluded, charts a path for the full withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the country it invaded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It stipulates that talks between the Taliban and Ghani’s government must begin by March 10 — at which point the sides must have completed a prisoner exchange.
The Taliban has long demanded the release of 5,000 of its fighters held by the Afghan government. But officials in Kabul see the prisoners as a key piece of leverage to be used during their talks with the militants.
“Freeing Taliban prisoners is not [under] the authority of America but the authority of the Afghan government,” Ghani told reporters in Kabul on Sunday. “There has been no commitment for the release of 5,000 prisoners.” He said the prisoner swap could be discussed during talks with the Taliban, but could not be a precondition.
The text of the U.S.-Taliban deal released by the State Department states that the exchange of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 people held by the Taliban will occur “by March 10, 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations.”
The agreement has been a critical foreign policy goal for President Trump, who campaigned on ending the war. But it came under renewed criticism from his fellow Republicans back home.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said the deal included concessions “that could threaten the security of the United States.”
“Releasing thousands of Taliban fighters, lifting sanctions on international terrorists, and agreeing to withdraw all U.S. forces in exchange for promises from the Taliban, with no disclosed mechanism to verify Taliban compliance, would be reminiscent of the worst aspects of the Obama Iran nuclear deal,” she said in a statement Saturday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the deal Sunday.
“No one is under any illusion that this will be straightforward,” he told CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” “We have built an important base where we can begin to bring American soldiers home, reduce the risk of the loss of life of any American in Afghanistan, and hopefully set the conditions so the Afghan people can build out a peaceful resolution to their now, what for them, is a 40-year struggle.”
Asked about the Afghan government’s refusal to commit to releasing 5,000 prisoners before talks with the Taliban, Pompeo said “we will work with all relevant parties . . . to create confidence-building measures amongst all of the parties.”
Asked if releasing 5,000 Taliban fighters would jeopardize the prospects for peace, he said there have been prisoner exchanges in the past.
“We have managed to figure our path forward,” he said. “We’ll know who these people are.”
Outside the palace walls in Kabul, Afghans expressed apprehension and elation.
“I’m not optimistic,” said Qasima Khuram, a 22-year-old student working in a cafe in the Afghan capital. Khuram, who said she has dreams of being a business owner after completing her master’s degree, said she was most concerned about women’s rights if the Taliban assumes a formal role in any future Afghan government.
“We know their background, we know their history,” she said. “So looking back at this, we know what they would do in the future.”
Across the street, a 57-year-old man selling almonds said he would have danced when the peace deal was signed — “if I knew how to dance.”
“This government guides people to hell,” said the man, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. He lived through Taliban rule in Kabul, he said, and never witnessed the levels of corruption, petty theft and crime he has seen under the current administration.
“Hearing about the peace deal, it energized me,” he said.
What the peace deal signed in Doha on Saturday did not mention is the future of the period of reduced violence that preceded the deal’s signing. Following the signing ceremony, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the week-long period of reduced violence has “ended.”
Ghani said the reduction in violence would extend and eventually transform into a cease-fire.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan “has made it clear to the Taliban that this is part of the [peace] deal,” Ghani said. “If they back away from it, then [the Taliban are] openly violating the condition set for them.”
Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, responding to a question from The Washington Post, said “the expectation is Taliban violence continues to stay down and does not go back up.”
Pompeo said the Taliban has made “a detailed set of commitments . . . about the levels of violence that can occur, the nature of what’s got to take place.”
“We’ve asked everyone there to reduce the levels of violence,” he said.
Massoud Andarabi, Afghanistan’s acting interior minister, said the reduction of violence has mostly held.
But Andarabi said that he has received four reports of the Taliban abducting Afghan police officers within the past two days. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said he believes the new kidnappings are intended to bolster Taliban leverage in the upcoming prisoner exchange.
“Prisoners are going to matter going forward, and how those cards are played is going to matter,” the official said.
A deepening political crisis in Kabul also has the potential to complicate the next steps. Ghani’s main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, called the deal signing an “historic event” and expressed hope for “an inclusive, national and countrywide delegation to take part” in talks with the Taliban.
Abdullah, who lost the 2019 presidential election, recently declared the result invalid and has threatened to set up a parallel government. If these divisions persist, they could undermine Ghani’s ability to form a representative team to negotiate with the Taliban.
In the year leading up to the signing of the peace deal, the conflict here intensified, resulting in record-high civilian casualties. The conflict has cost more than $2 trillion and killed tens of thousands since 2001.
Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.