Afghanistan to release 400 Taliban prisoners, paving way for direct peace talks

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he would sign an order for the release of 400 Taliban prisoners when he addressed the Loya Jirga in Kabul on Sunday.

(CNN)The Afghan government has agreed to release 400 Taliban prisoners, paving the way for direct peace talks with the insurgent group to end nearly two decades of war.

The country's grand assembly of elders, the consultative Loya Jirga, passed a resolution Sunday calling for the release of the last batch of some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, whom the Taliban demanded be freed as a condition for joining peace negotiations.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he would sign an order for the release of the inmates when he addressed the Loya Jirga in Kabul on Sunday.
    "The Jirga approves the release of four hundred Taliban prisoners in order to remove obstacles to the start of peace talks and stop the bloodshed," the assembly said in its resolution.
    It added that following the release of the prisoners, "direct negotiations" should be "initiated immediately without any excuse."
    "The Jirga also calls on the Taliban to fulfill their obligation to release all civilians and military prisoners and release them immediately," the resolution said.
    The first round of peace talks is planned to be held in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office, Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation and chairman of the Loya Jirga, said Saturday.
    The assembly stressed the need for "an immediate and lasting ceasefire in the country" and called on the international community, especially the United States, to "be committed to the people of Afghanistan."
    The release of prisoners is part of an agreement signed by the US and the Taliban in February, which sets into motion the potential of a full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and an end to America's longest-fought war.
    American forces removed the Taliban from power in 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attacks, which the US linked to al Qaeda, a group that operated under the Taliban regime's protection in Afghanistan.
    The February agreement called for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 "prisoners of the other side" on the first day of the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
    "The relevant sides have the goal of releasing all the remaining prisoners over the course of the subsequent three months. The United States commits to completing this goal," the agreement said.
      On Saturday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the US will downsize to fewer than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of November.
      "We are going down to a number less than 5,000 before the end of November," Esper said in an interview with Fox News.