Taliban break talks with Afghan government over prisoner exchange

KABUL: The Taliban disrupted talks with the Afghan government on Tuesday in a prisoner swap, a major step in the peace talks the United States brokered after agreeing to a troop withdrawal pact with the militants.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the insurgent Islamist group's political office in Qatar, said on Twitter that a technical team would not participate in unsuccessful meetings and that the release of its prisoners was delayed on one pretext or another.

The late February pact between the United States and the Taliban, under which US-led international forces will withdraw in exchange for Taliban security assurances, is the best opportunity thus far to end the 18-year war.

But peace depends on talks between the US-backed Afghan government and the militants. A prisoner exchange is meant to build trust on both sides for those conversations.

A government spokesman said he would keep his job on the prisoner release plan.

We ask the Taliban not to sabotage the process by making excuses now, said Javid Faisal, spokesman for the National Security Council in Kabul.

Taliban suspension of the talks could lead to an escalation of violence, which in turn could threaten the plan to withdraw US troops, a major goal of President Donald Trump.

A three-member Taliban team arrived in Kabul last month from Qatar to begin the prisoner exchange process. Last week, Afghan officials said they would release 100 Taliban prisoners who were ill or over the age of 50.

In return, the Taliban was expected to release 20 members of the Afghan security forces. Ultimately, both sides would aspire to free the 6,000 prisoners they hold.

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the Taliban team's arrival in Kabul as good news.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Pompeo traveled to Kabul and Qatar's capital Doha last month in a bid to push the prisoner process forward.

Afghan government officials said the Taliban demanded the release of high-ranking commanders involved in some of the most violent attacks in recent years.