Pompeo hopeful of a prisoner swap in Afghanistan

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WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has said that he hopes the Afghan government and the Taliban will ultimately agree to swap prisoners despite initial differences.

In an interview with CBS Face the Nation, recorded a day after he returned from Doha after signing a peace deal with the Taliban, Secretary Pompeo said the agreement also includes a secret implementation document.

When asked to comment on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s statement on Sunday that there’s no agreement on releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners, the top US diplomat said: “You saw what the document says.”

The document says that “up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 prisoners of the other side will be released by March 10, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations. Both sides committed to releasing all the remaining prisoners over in three months.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters news agency on Monday that they will not take part in intra-Afghan talks until their prisoners are released. The US media described the two conflicting positions as a major barrier to US-led efforts to end the 18-year old war.

“We will work with all relevant parties … to create confidence-building measures — the Afghan government, non-Taliban and others in the Afghan — we want this to be an inclusive process,” Secretary Pompeo said.

“There’ll be lots of people who say things. There’ll be lots of noise. Everyone is competing for attention and time in the media. What matters is the actions that we take, the discussions that we had.”

Pompeo recalled that while he was in Doha, the US Secretary of Defence and Nato’s Secretary-General visited Kabul where they received a commitment from the Afghan government, too. “No one is under any illusion that this will be straightforward,” he added.

Asked if it’s right to put 5,000 Taliban fighters back in the field, he said: “There have been prisoner releases from both sides before. We have managed to figure our path forward. We’ll know who these people are.”

Reminded of a statement by some Republican lawmakers that there were secret annexes to the deal, he said: “There are no annexes that the member of Congress won’t have a chance to see.” But “there are two implementing elements that … are secret … military implementation documents that are important to protect our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Every member of Congress will get a chance to see them,” he added.

Asked when US troops could leave Afghanistan, Pompeo said: “It’s going to be rocky and bumpy. No one — no one — is under any illusion that this won’t be a difficult conversation. But that conversation for the first time in almost two decades will be among the Afghan people, and that’s the appropriate place for that conversation to take place.”

Commenting on US President Donald Trump’s statement on Sunday that he would soon meet the Taliban to consolidate the deal, Pompeo said: “I don’t know when. I don’t know where. I’m very confident President Trump wants to make sure that everyone in Afghanistan understands that the United States is committed to making sure that this conversation takes place.”

The interviewer reminded him that he was the first US cabinet official to ever meet a Taliban leader and asked how it felt to meet the people he had called terrorists in the past, the secretary said: “They have an enormous amount of American blood on their hands.”

But he disagreed with the suggestion that the Taliban still had a partnership with Al Qaeda. “Nope. They signed a document [and] agreed that they would break that relationship and would work alongside us to destroy, deny resources to, and to have Al Qaeda depart from that place.”

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