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Afghanistan: Release Of Taliban Suspects Could Bolster Amnesty Talks

More than 80 suspected Taliban supporters were released from U.S. military detention centers across Afghanistan yesterday ahead of the three-day Muslim festival Eid Al-Adha. U.S. military officials say none was considered a high-level security threat. Some observers say the Afghan government appears to have asked for releases in cases where there was no evidence against the detainees. Others say it could encourage moderate Taliban supporters to accept a government amnesty offer.

Prague, 17 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. ambassador to Kabul Zalmay Khalilzad have both indicated recently that rank-and-file Taliban would be welcome to return home to reintegrate into society -- provided they are not linked to Al-Qaeda or wanted for crimes against humanity.

But Karzai's spokesman, Hamid Elmi, said there is no link between the release of prisoners and the amnesty offer.

"No, there is no such connection. [The release of detainees by the U.S.-led coalition] has taken place because we are in the days of the Eid celebration [beginning on 19 January]," Elmi said. "Remember that on this same occasion in the past, the custom has been to release prisoners. This time, coalition forces released 81 prisoners from their custody out of respect for the occasion."

Brad Adams, however, takes a different view. The Asia director for Human Rights Watch is among those experts on Afghanistan who believe there is a link between the prisoner release and efforts to foster amnesty talks with moderate ranks of the Taliban.
Security experts say reconciliation with moderate Taliban is vital to the success of Afghan reconstruction efforts.

"There are some public negotiations and a lot of private negotiations between the Taliban, the U.S., and the Afghan government about ending the low-level war with the Taliban," Adams said. "And I suspect that all of this is connected."

Adams believes Karzai's government asked U.S. forces to release the detainees in order to encourage national reconciliation.

"The Afghan government has been very unhappy with the behavior of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. They've told the U.S. that it has been heavy handed. It has been counterproductive. They have picked up the wrong people at the wrong time," Adams said. "They've made it very difficult for the Afghan government to defend the U.S. presence there. So they have been urging the U.S. for a long time to stop the [sweeping arrest operations] and to release people that they don't have evidence against. This seems to be a sign of that. At the same time, the U.S. has belatedly come to understand that Afghanistan is not the place where they can just arrest anybody they want at any time."

Security experts say reconciliation with moderate Taliban is vital to the success of Afghan reconstruction efforts.

The chief of staff for U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Colonel David Lamm, said he believes as many as a few thousand low-level Taliban are likely to accept the amnesty offer.

Meanwhile, Afghan Supreme Court chief justice Fazel Hadi Shinwari has confirmed that talks between Kabul and moderate elements of the Taliban are under way. Speaking to the detainees before they were freed yesterday, Shinwari encouraged them to view their release as a goodwill gesture toward reconciliation.

"I would like to welcome your safe release," Shinwari said. "Be happy and enjoy time with your family. Don't be upset at what happened to you in jail."

But Abdul Manan, who had been held at the U.S.-run Bagram airfield, said he will have a hard time forgetting what happened.

"I have bad memories of my interrogation by the Americans," Abdul Manan said. "[The U.S. military] abused me and gave me a hard time. This was the worst time that I have lived through."

Meanwhile, from the southeastern Afghan town of Gardayz, Paktiya Province Governor Hajji Asadollah Wafa said he is pushing forward with efforts to broker an amnesty deal.

"The amnesty has been announced by President Karzai, and it is on the basis of this policy that we are in contact with the tribal elders and religious leaders in Paktiya Province," Wafa said. "We announced the amnesty offered by President Karzai [to those leaders] and they assured us that they are going to contact alleged Taliban fighters, or those who have been misled or are angry with the central government. And they are going to work to get these people to return to their home districts."

Supreme Court chief justice Shinwari said yesterday's prisoner release could be instrumental to the success of the ongoing amnesty talks.

He added that at least one recently released Taliban commander from Logar Province already has served as an intermediary for talks between Taliban supporters and the Afghan government.

But purported Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi denied that report. Hakimi told the French news agency AFP today that there has not been any contact between the Taliban and Karzai's government.