The path to peace negotiations between the Taliban and an Afghan national delegation finally seems in sight -- and short.
On Sunday, a special Afghan council agreed to release 400 Taliban prisoners that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said were too dangerous for him to approve releasing on his own authority.
Their release this week should mean that as early as next week the militant group's political leaders will sit with an Afghan delegation to begin negotiations on the country's political future -- and that U.S. troops could fully exit the country in the coming months.
The negotiations are a product of the deal the U.S. and the Taliban signed in February. But a full U.S. withdrawal doesn't depend on them being successful, just them starting -- and President Donald Trump's repeated commitment to pulling out American forces has undermined the Afghan government's negotiating position, according to some critics.
Violence has increased in the months after that deal was signed. The United Nations reported late last month a 33% increase in deaths from Taliban attacks in the first six months of 2020, totaling nearly 1,300 civilians -- although it found a 13% decrease in the total number of killed and wounded civilians.
Despite the sustained violence, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said over the weekend that another 3,600 U.S. troops will withdraw by November and the 2020 presidential election -- fulfilling a key Trump campaign promise, but potentially leaving Afghan security forces more vulnerable to Taliban attacks or possibly diminishing joint counter terrorism efforts against the Islamic State's affiliate in the region.
"We think that we can do all the core missions -- first and foremost being ensured the United States is not threatened by terrorists coming out of Afghanistan -- we can do those at a lower level," Esper told Fox News Saturday.
The U.S. has approximately 8,600 troops in Afghanistan now after drawing down from 14,000 as a condition of the U.S.-Taliban deal. Commanders like Gen. Austin Miller had said 8,600 was the minimum needed to sustain key counter terrorism and training missions, but the new draw down will leave less than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Since the February deal, the Taliban have continued to attack Afghan security forces, and with high-profile attacks by ISIS, levels of violence have increased in recent months.
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani initially balked at releasing Taliban fighters, but the U.S.-Taliban deal committed his government to releasing 5,000 of them, in exchange for the Taliban releasing 1,000 government and security personnel as a goodwill gesture.
After releasing 4,600 prisoners, Ghani last week convened a Loya Jirga, a traditional council of elders and representatives, to decide on the freedom of the final 400 Taliban prisoners, saying they were too dangerous for him to approve the release of alone.
Under pressure from the U.S., the council voted for their release Sunday, but urged the Taliban to adopt a ceasefire.
A three-day truce for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha largely held at the start of August, but an attack against a military compound on Saturday killed seven military personnel and injured 16 others, according to The Associated Press. The Afghan Interior Ministry also reported Monday that 80 civilians were killed and 95 injured in Taliban attacks across country in the last week, per Afghanistan's 1TV News.
Amid that continued violence, the U.S. has pushed for the peace process to move forward, five months after intra-Afghan negotiations were scheduled to begin on March 10.
Chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad heralded the jirga's decision, tweeting late Sunday, "With these bold steps, after 40 years of war, a historic opportunity for peace is now possible; one that benefits all Afghans and contributes to regional stability and global security."
The two sides will meet in Doha, Qatar -- the Gulf Arab capital where the militant group has a political office -- per Khalilzad.
There are reports the first meeting could be as soon as Sunday, Aug. 16.
Calling the jirga's decision "a good step, a positive step," Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said only that negotiations could start within one week of their prisoners being freed, according to The Associated Press.