U.S. Calls for Afghanistan's 'Urgent' Release of Taliban Prisoners Due to Coronavirus

The United States is urging Afghanistan to release Taliban prisoners as committed under prospective peace talks, warning that the detainees were at risk due to the spread of the new coronavirus.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said in a series of tweets Wednesday that Washington "would like to see prisoner releases begin as soon as possible in line with the U.S.-Taliban agreement." The historic deal was reached late last month as a planned precursor to direct negotiations between the government and Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan but as Khalilzad said, "No prisoners have been released to date despite the commitment to do so expressed by both sides."

"Coronavirus makes prisoner releases urgent; time is of the essence. We are committed to do our part and after consultation with all relevant sides," Khalilzad wrote, before listing three points the U.S. "understands" moving forward.

These points included meetings between technical teams, face-to-face conversations due to coronavirus, avoiding "provocative media statements" and that the "Taliban commit that released prisoners will abide by the commitments made in the peace agreement and not return to the battlefield."

"The time has come to move forward on prisoner releases," the diplomat said.

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An Afghan man wears a protective facemasks against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in a taxi car along the street in the west of Kabul, March 18. The Afghan Health Ministry has reported 22 COVID-19 patients, one of whom recovered. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

Recently re-elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued a decree last week ordering the release of 1,500 Taliban prisoners, who presidential spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi said on Twitter would be followed by 500 additional prisoners freed every two weeks to reach a total of 5,000 prisoners on the condition that the intra-Afghan dialogue progressed.

The following day, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen rejected the move as a violation of the U.S.-Taliban framework, which calls for up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 other prisoners under Taliban captivity to be "expeditiously" released as talks began on March 10. The year-long, Qatar-based series of negotiations between Washington and Taliban officials that produced the agreement did not include Kabul, which remains skeptical of its foe's intentions.

"We proposed a mechanism for the peace process to move forward," Afghan National Security Council spokesperson Javid Faisal wrote Saturday on Twitter. "Taliban will have to work with us to find a solution, get their prisoners released and push for peace. The ball is in their court now to decide on whether to remain part of the problem or become part of the solution."

But Afghanistan, the venue for the longest war in U.S. history, now faces a completely new issue that's rocked even the world's most powerful countries. COVID-19 has stricken more than 210,000 people across the globe, about 83,200 of whom have recovered and more than 8,700 of whom have died.

The Afghan Health Ministry placed the number of national COVID-19 cases on Wednesday at 22, and one patient recovered and was sent home that same day. Shaheen said Tuesday that the Taliban's rival health commission "assures all international health organizations and WHO of its readiness to cooperate and coordinate with them in combatting the Corona virus [sic]."

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A graphic provided by Statista shows the global spread of the new coronavirus as of March 18. More than 210,000 have been afflicted, 83,000 of whom have recovered and 8,700 have died. Statista

The above map was provided by Statista

"Similarly, the Islamic Emirate urges world's humanitarian and health organizations to pay special attention to the health of thousands of our prisoners," Shaheen said.

A separate statement released Wednesday by Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid described the coronavirus as "a disease ordained by God Almighty that may have been brought about due to human disobedience, sins of mankind or other reasons." It recommended religious activities such as reading the Quran, as well as following the guidelines of medical professionals.

As part of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the hardline Islamist organization has vowed to battle the local branch of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and prevent any other forces from using Afghanistan. to launch attacks against the U.S. or its allies. In return, foreign forces will withdraw for the first time since the 2001 invasion that followed the 9/11 attacks orchestrated by Al-Qaeda.

The groups allied in the wake of the CIA-backed mujahideen insurgency that ousted a Soviet intervention in the 1980s but Washington has sought to separate the two forces. Still, Al-Qaeda leadership welcomed the U.S.-Taliban peace deal as a "victory."