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Afghan President Casts Doubt On Key Aspect Of U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has questioned a key component of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban aimed at ending the 18-year war in Afghanistan.

Ghani told a news briefing in the capital, Kabul, on March 1 that his government has made no commitment to free up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, as set out in the February 29 agreement.

The Western-backed Kabul government was not a signatory of the bilateral U.S.-Taliban deal.

"There is no commitment to releasing 5,000 prisoners," Ghani said, adding that any prisoner release was "not in the authority of the U.S., it is in the authority of the Afghan government."

"This is the right and the self-will of the people of Afghanistan,” Ghani added. “It could be included in the agenda of the intra-Afghan talks, but cannot be a prerequisite for talks."

There was no immediate response from the United States or the Taliban.

There are an estimated 10,000 Taliban prisoners being held in Afghanistan.

The U.S.-Taliban deal said Washington was committed to the release of "up to five thousand" Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government and "up to one thousand...prisoners of the other side will be released by March 10, 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations."

Road Map To Peace

Pursuit of a lasting peace -- which is heavily conditioned on guarantees that Afghanistan won't be used to stage attacks on the United States or its allies -- could face considerable obstacles as Washington tries to shift the burden of peacemaking to the warring Afghan sides with Ghani's government facing its own challenges following his disputed reelection victory.

The long-awaited road map to peace was signed by the leader of the political wing of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and Washington's chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, in the Qatari capital, Doha.

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In it, the United States commits in the deal to "start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence building measure with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides."

Ghani told CNN on March 1 that U.S. President Donald Trump had not asked for the release of the prisoners and that the political consensus needed for such a major step did not currently exist.

"The people of Afghanistan need to believe that we've gone from war to peace, and not that the agreement will be either a Trojan horse or the beginning of a much worse phase of conflict," Ghani told CNN.

Earlier, at his press conference, Ghani expressed hope that a seven-day partial truce that helped finalize the U.S.-Taliban agreement would continue until a more permanent deal was reached.

"The reduction in violence will continue with a goal to reach a full cease-fire," Ghani said.

Trump said on February 29 that American troops would "immediately" begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"Today. They will start immediately," Trump told reporters when asked when the soldiers would start to leave.

"No one should be criticizing this deal, after 19 years," Trump said, adding that he will "be meeting personally with Taliban leaders in the not-so-distant future," without specifying.

The agreement lays out a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for various security commitments from the insurgents and a pledge to hold talks with the government in Kabul -- which it so far has refused to do.

According to a joint declaration published by the U.S. and Afghan governments, the United States and NATO would withdraw all troops in Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban upholds the commitments made in the agreement.

The U.S. military has some 13,000 troops in Afghanistan and plans to immediately cut the level to 8,600, leading up to a potential final pullout in 2021.

Trump told a conservative political conference in suburban Maryland that if the Taliban lives up to its commitments, the war will "be over."

"We can’t be the policeman for the world," said Trump, who has often vowed to halt America’s involvement in “endless wars” around the world.

John Bolton, Trump's hawkish former national-security adviser, wrote on Twitter that "signing this agreement with Taliban is an unacceptable risk to America's civilian population."

"This is an Obama-style deal. Legitimizing Taliban sends the wrong signal to [Islamic State] and Al-Qaeda terrorists, and to America's enemies generally," he said, referring to former President Barack Obama, Trump's predecessor.

Republican U.S. Representative Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney under George W. Bush, also ripped the deal, saying the U.S. administration must explain how it will verify Taliban compliance.

"Today’s agreement with the Taliban includes concessions that could threaten the security of the United States," she said.

'Everyone Is Tired Of War'

Many experts have also said that eventual talks, if they occur, between Afghan government officials and the Taliban could prove to be troublesome. Many in Kabul have rejected talks with the extremist group, expressing doubts about its sincerity and ability to control its fighters.

Trump, however, said he was optimistic that such talks will be successful, saying "everyone is tired of war."

"The other side's tired of war. Everybody is tired of war -- a particularly long and gruesome one," he said.

"We've had tremendous success in Afghanistan, in the killing of terrorists, but it's time, after all these years, to go and to bring our people back home."

Meanwhile, chief Taliban negotiator Abbas Stanikzai said, "There is no doubt we have won the war.... This [is] why they are signing a peace treaty."

The Foreign Ministry of U.S. foe Iran, which shares a long border with Afghanistan and has a sizable population of Afghans, said the United States has no legal standing to sign a deal with the Taliban, Reuters reported.

Tehran also reportedly stressed the need for intra-Afghan talks and urged considerations for the interests of Afghanistan's neighbors.

Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said he considered a prisoner exchange an important confidence-building measure.

“The prisoner exchange will be one of the first confidence-building measures, so it will remain a very critical step that we need to push forward,” he added.

Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib told Afghanistan's Tolo TV channel that the government had made no commitment to releasing 5,000 prisoners by March 10.

Mohib also questioned the deal's seeming absence of specifics on the Taliban’s ties to neighboring Pakistan, which Kabul and Washington have long accused of harboring militants who conduct cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.

Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, his chief political rival who has disputed official results of September's presidential election that showed the president winning reelection, have yet to agree on the composition of the government's negotiating team for any peace talks with the Taliban.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal, AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters, The New York Times, and the BBC
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