The United States has not publicly objected to the expected release of the three prisoners; instead, negotiators are exploring other options, including temporarily placing the inmates under house arrest, the two officials said, both speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The U.S. response puts it at odds with its Western allies: France and Australia have publicly opposed the release of at least three other prisoners accused of carrying out separate attacks against French and Australian nationals, including humanitarian workers.
Since a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban was inked in February, U.S. officials have applied consistent, intense pressure on the Afghan government to quickly release all those remaining of the 5,000 Taliban prisoners cited in the deal as a precondition to talks.
It was unclear what attacks the three prisoners are alleged to have been involved in or how many Americans were killed. Insider attacks are assaults by Taliban infiltrators of the Afghan security forces against foreign forces. (They’re often grouped together with “green on blue” attacks — assaults on foreign forces by Afghan forces with no known Taliban link.)
The State Department did not respond to questions about the prisoners. Resolute Support, the U.S. military command in Kabul, and the Department of Defense referred questions to the State Department, which also declined to comment. The Afghan government said it could not immediately provide further information on the matter.
A senior Afghan government official said he was “surprised” by Washington’s support for the release of Taliban prisoners linked to the killings of U.S. and foreign forces. But he said the consensus among Afghan government officials is that U.S. Afghan policy is now largely being dictated by the Trump administration’s desire to show voters ahead of the November presidential election that he is ending the war in Afghanistan.
“We understand the importance of the election, of the campaign, but our only question is, ‘At what cost?’ ” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Little is known about the remaining high-value Taliban detainees beyond that they are “accused of major crimes” and are “hardcore” Taliban fighters, according to statements from the Afghan government.
The release of the 320 Taliban prisoners remains one of the final hurdles before formal negotiations can start between the militant group and the Afghan government. This week, another disagreement emerged between the two sides over nearly two dozen elite Afghan troops the government says are being held by the Taliban. Afghan officials have said the talks will begin next week, but no date has been set.
The presence of Taliban prisoners accused of involvement in insider attacks against Americans could further complicate the prisoner release process as it progresses. Sixty-three U.S. troops in Afghanistan have died in insider and green-on-blue attacks since the start of the conflict, according to iCasualties.org, an independent website that draws on Pentagon data to track coalition casualties in Afghanistan.
The United States had been aware of French and Australian concerns regarding high-value Taliban prisoners linked to the deaths of their citizens for over a year, according to the Kabul-based diplomat, but did not begin seriously exploring possible solutions until recently.
Even as international pressure is building for talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to begin, the United States, Afghan government and Taliban have yet to agree under what conditions the six men could be released, according to the senior Afghan security official and the diplomat in Kabul.
“This shows how the United States really just bulldozed through the system,” the Kabul-based diplomat said, “part of Washington’s ‘whatever it takes’ approach” to securing the deal with the Taliban and jump-starting direct talks with the Afghan government.
Laurel Miller, the former acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the United States’ handling of prisoner releases so far is not a reflection that Washington cares any less about losses among its forces.
“The United States has more skin in the game,” she said of U.S. involvement in the peace process in Afghanistan compared to that of its European allies.
“The die was cast” when the United States agreed to the Taliban prisoner releases in the Doha deal, she said. “Once you go down that road, it’s hard to pick and choose.”
The prisoner exchange quickly became an issue for the Afghan government even as small groups of Taliban prisoners were released over time. Taliban prisoners in Afghan custody were seen as key leverage in negotiations with the militants, and many Afghan officials and analysts believed it would undermine the government to release the inmates before talks began.
Ultimately, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani convened a traditional assembly, called a loya jirga, earlier this month to decide the fate of the last group of 400 high-value Taliban prisoners.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a blunt statement before the gathering, urging the assembly to release all the prisoners, acknowledging the move would be “difficult” and “unpopular,” but pledging it would “lead to an important result long sought by Afghans and Afghanistan’s friends . . . a peace agreement and an end to the war.”
The assembly approved the releases, and Ghani signed an order authorizing the move. But the Afghan government is also asking for the Taliban to release 22 elite Afghan commandos in exchange for the remaining Taliban inmates. Taliban leaders said they are investigating the government’s “claim” the commandos are in their custody and said if the commandos are located, they will be released after direct talks begin.
Details about some of the remaining Taliban prisoners became public only when the governments of France and Australia issued statements opposing their release.
France asked Kabul not to release “several terrorists convicted of killing French citizens in Afghanistan,” without providing any further information. And Australia asked that a specific individual, Hekmatullah, a former Afghan army sergeant who killed three Australian soldiers, not be released.
Insider attacks against U.S. forces have been persistent throughout the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and deeply eroded trust between U.S. and Afghan forces. At times the attacks led to the suspension of face-to-face meetings between the two sides and long undermined the U.S.-led military and training missions here.
“The sense of moral injury and the sense of insult is always heightened” in these kinds of attacks, said Jason Dempsey, a former U.S. Army officer who served in Afghanistan and is now a senior fellow at Center for a New American Security. The attacks “100 percent disrupted partnership efforts,” he said.
U.S. officials are scrambling to identify a compromise that would address the concerns of Western allies and family members of the U.S. troops killed, but also allow the talks to launch shortly, according to the Kabul-based diplomat and first Afghan official. Options being explored include moving the six men to house arrest before the talks begin or releasing them after talks begin, according to the officials.
The launch of the peace talks is one of the few concrete demands outlined in the public version of the U.S.-Taliban deal on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
U.S. troops initially drew down to 8,600 in July from around 12,000 and U.S. officials have said any further reductions would be “conditions based.” But President Trump has said the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will drop to lower than 5,000 by November.
Trump campaigned on pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, and ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, Afghans officials say they are increasingly concerned a Trump tweet will completely withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, like Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
Some form of a deal to reduce violence before the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is seen as essential to preventing civil war, according to former U.S. officials and analysts.
Afghan security forces continue to struggle to conduct complex operations and protect the country’s urban centers without close U.S. support, specifically in the form of U.S. airstrikes and aerial surveillance. Afghanistan has already seen a significant increase in violence since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal. Casualties among the country’s security forces are on the rise, as are casualties among civilians.
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.