Long-awaited direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban will start in a week, the government of President Ashraf Ghani said on Tuesday.
In addition, the government said it would “soon” complete its part in the long-awaited and controversial prisoner exchange with the Taliban.
“The Islamic Republic will soon complete the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners,” according to the statement released by the presidential palace on Twitter. “With this action, we look forward to the start of direct negotiations with the Taliban.”
The Taliban, which were toppled by U.S.-backed forces after they sheltered 9/11 attacks architect Osama bin Laden, did not officially confirm that they were entering into negotiations with the government. The militants have persistently refused to negotiate directly with or recognize the government in Kabul, referring to Ghani as an American puppet.
However, two senior Taliban leaders, who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media, said the group had not yet decided to meet the Afghan government next week.
“What Ashraf Ghani claims isn’t true. We haven’t made any such decision yet to enter into the intra-Afghan dialogue,” said one Taliban leader, based in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province.
A Taliban commander from Afghanistan’s Helmand province said the group may sit with the Afghan government if all their prisoners are freed, but added that there were differences of opinion among the leaders.
The Taliban officially announced Tuesday a three-day ceasefire during the upcoming Eid-ul-Adha holiday. They directed their fighters not to carry out attacks during the ceasefire period but said they can respond to opposition attacks.
If the prisoner exchange is completed and the Taliban does sit down with Afghan leaders, including members of the government, it would represent a significant breakthrough on the path to peace in the war-torn country.
An official Taliban spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Ghani’s announcement on negotiations. The State Department also did not respond to a request for comment.
The official announcements from both sides inject much needed life into the embattled peace process in Afghanistan after months of limited, if any, progress. In February, the United States and the Taliban agreed in a landmark deal that U.S. forces would withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban security guarantees.
Under the agreement signed in the Gulf-state of Qatar, the militants agreed to enter into peace talks with Afghan leaders, including government officials. But the start of these negotiations, originally slated to begin on March 10, have been delayed.
Much of the delays have been as a result of Kabul’s reluctance to free some Taliban prisoners identified for release as part of the agreement. The Afghan government was not party to the U.S.-Taliban deal.
The U.S., nevertheless, committed to work with both sides to secure the release of up to 5,000 prisoners held by the Afghan government and 1,000 prisoners held by the Taliban by the start of intra-Afghan peace talks.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced last week that it had reduced its number of forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 in 135 days as stipulated under the deal.
The conflict in Afghanistan is America’s longest war and has cost the lives of more than 2,000 U.S. troops and wounded many thousands of others. Between 2009 and last year, the United Nations has recorded more than 100,000 civilian casualties with more than 35,000 killed and 65,000 injured.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly vowed to end America’s “endless wars” and to bring troops home.
Abigail Williams contributed.