Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently granted amnesty to 887 prisoners accused of anti-government activities. The decision to extend an olive branch to the Taliban came days before the Muslim festival of Eid-ul Fitr. A resolution passed at a consultative peace assembly in April, which was attended by thousands of delegates from all over Afghanistan, called for the release of Taliban prisoners as a trust-building measure, and this was cited as a reason for the president’s decision.
The move was welcomed by John Bass, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, who called it a positive step toward peace.
A Taliban spokesman also praised the decision to free the group’s militants, adding that only 160 of those released had been detained for legitimate reasons. The rest, the Taliban says, were innocent civilians.
The decision wasn’t reciprocated by the Taliban who, at the same time, overran a district in Northern Takhar province and, according to a June 11 tweet by the group’s spokesperson, killed 142 soldiers.
The release of the Taliban’s prisoners coincides with Afghanistan being named the world’s “least peaceful country” by the latest Global Peace Index, replacing Syria at the bottom of the league table. The implementation of the president’s decision is ongoing and has received little media coverage. According to BBC Persian, which was the only news service on the ground when the first prisoners were being escorted out of the prison, the release is being carried out at night to minimize attention. By June 13, according to the Afghan government’s Media and Information Center, 490 prisoners had been released.
The Taliban’s claim that the government has put innocent civilians behind bars is based on flimsy evidence but may be true in some cases. Abdul Qaader, one of the prisoner’s released, said he was detained because he once served food to the Taliban in Balkh province. “I was at home when the security forces arrested me. I was innocent,” Qaader stated. He spent time in Bagram prison before being transferred to the dreaded Pol-i Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul.
The Taliban’s claim that the government has put innocent civilians behind bars is based on flimsy evidence but may be true in some cases
It is doubtful that all those released will return to civilian life. When asked about the Taliban movement right outside the prison gates, Sayed Mohammad, one of those released, replied, “I am a Muslim and as a Muslim, am ready to defend other Muslims, whether they’re the Taliban or someone else.”
He added, “I am prepared for any kind of sacrifice for the sake of Islam, even if it requires sacrificing my family.” Sayed realized while in prison that his father and two brothers were killed by the Afghan security forces. Most of those released who were asked whether they endorsed the Taliban refused to give straight answers, according to a BBC journalist on the ground.
For some, whether or not they return to militant life is not something they have any control over because they have become so deeply tangled with the ongoing war. Even those who are uncertain about continuing to fight may find themselves being pulled back into the conflict regardless.
The New York Times published an illuminating account of a former Taliban commander who was killed in a bomb blast – allegedly detonated by the group itself because the 25-year-old had begun to question the war after taking a long break from the fighting – shows how difficult it is to entirely abandon the group once one gets involved in it.
Zabet Khan had fought with the Taliban for 10 years and was known as Commander Zarqawi. He had attempted to start a new life by joining the migrants’ trail to Europe in 2014. He did menial jobs for three years in Athens, where he enjoyed the Western urban lifestyle. But feeling homesick and frustrated by his experiences with the Greek police, he returned to Afghanistan and rejoined the insurgency three years later, possibly under pressure from former superiors. He was killed within weeks of returning.
Khan’s story highlights the fact that simply rejecting the Taliban is not enough to extricate oneself from the insurgency. It isn’t just a matter of personal choice; individuals are strongly influenced at the village level and by kinships and authority figures. Releasing prisoners under such conditions is not really a show of mercy, nor does it increase the likelihood of peace. Rather, it puts more individuals in a position where if they reject the Taliban, they could face mortal threats. If they choose the opposite, they will face mortal risks all the same.
The prison system in Afghanistan further complicates the process of re-integration for released inmates. Those who do not have radical views become exposed to radical ideas inside prisons that are badly overcrowded, according to a 2017 report by Integrity Watch Afghanistan.
Based on figures from World Prison Brief, the prison population in Afghanistan has increased from 5,262 in 2005 to 26,519 in 2014. That five-fold increase creates a prison environment that is highly conducive to the radicalization of inmates.
According to the Combating Terrorism Center, extremist inmates in Pol-i Charkhi prison in Kabul, where the Taliban have long “maintained a strong influence,” have utilized grievances against the government to helped them to radicalize prisoners. Placing a person on the verge of radicalization in proximity to hardcore extremists is unlikely to end well, and that’s the situation in most Afghan prisons.
Previous attempts at winning the Taliban’s favor by releasing their prisoners has failed to slow down the pace of violence in Afghanistan. The war took more civilian lives in 2018 than in any year since the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan began keeping records in 2009. The majority of the casualties – 63% – were attributed to “anti-government elements (AGEs),”, 37% to Taliban, 20% to ISIS affiliates, and 6% to undetermined AGEs.
The move by President Ghani comes when he has done everything to make himself relevant in a peace dialogue in which he has been patently sidelined by all sides, including the United States.
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Back in 2014 during the presidential election campaign in Kandahar province, the Taliban’s traditional stronghold, he boasted to a gathering of supporters in one of his well-known moments of frantic agitation that he had released Taliban prisoners in the past and, if elected, would release more.
Upcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan are scheduled to take place in less than a year, and buying support in the south where most of the Taliban insurgency is focused and to which most of the released prisoners might be returning will be a decisive factor. The prisoner release also helps soften the tough posture Ghani has assumed against the Taliban compared to his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, at a moment when he wants to have a central role in the peace talks. Whether this gamble plays out well, apart from potentially supplying the Taliban with new recruits and prolonging the violence in rural Afghanistan, remains to be seen.