KABUL, Afghanistan — A five-member Taliban team was in Kabul on Thursday to follow up on this week’s prisoner release by the Afghan government that saw hundreds of insurgents freed. It was the single largest such release since a U.S.-Taliban deal earlier this year spelling an exchange of detainees between the warring sides.
Javid Faisal, an Afghan national security spokesman, and Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen both confirmed that a Taliban team was in the Afghan capital, without providing details.
Earlier this week, Shaheen had said from Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office, that the insurgents planned to free “a remarkable number” of Afghan officials and others they hold captive.
Later on Thursday, Shaheen tweeted that the Taliban released another 80 Afghan soldiers and government officials from their jails in northern Baghlan and Kunduz provinces, bringing to 347 the number of captives freed so far by the Taliban. With the release of hundreds of Taliban on Tuesday, the government has freed 2,000 insurgents.
The prisoner release is part of a deal signed by the United States and the Taliban in late February, designed to bring peace to Afghanistan and allow American soldiers to return home, ending America’s longest military engagement.
The deal calls for the government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners and for the militant group to free 1,000 Afghan government personnel and others. The prisoner releases would pave the way for the second, critical phase of the deal — negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul on a road map for post-war Afghanistan.
The U.S. has already started withdrawing about 13,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, a pullout that is expected to take place over 14 months and that depends on the Taliban abiding by their promise not to allow attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
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On Wednesday, President Donald Trump again called for a quick return of American soldiers and urged Afghan forces to step up in the defense of their country. He tweeted: “Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary!”
Trump has often complained about the enormous cost of the war and made bringing U.S. troops home key in his 2016 presidential campaign. Washington also spends $4 billion a year to sustain Afghanistan’s military and police forces.
In its latest quarterly report, the U.S. watchdog on American spending in Afghanistan said that Washington has spent more than $35 billion on governance and economic development, even as the Afghan government is seen as deeply corrupt. Transparency International last year rated Afghanistan among the world’s top 10 most corrupt countries. Poverty levels have also risen sharply, with nearly 55% percent of Afghans living on $1.90 a day, compared to 34% in 2012.
Separately, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the insurgents have not carried out any new attacks since the prisoner release. The Taliban however, have not said they would agree to an extension of a recent cease-fire for the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan.
Despite Mujahid’s statement, government officials say a number of security outposts have been attacked. The government also carried out an airstrike in southern Zabul province on Wednesday. The Taliban claimed civilians were killed in the air assault while the authorities said the Taliban were the target. The remoteness of the area makes it impossible to independently verify details of the attack.
Gannon reported from Islamabad.