PUL-E-CHARKHI, Afghanistan (AP) — Thousands of Taliban prisoners jailed in Afghanistan see a peace deal allegedly being hammered out between the United States and the Taliban as their ticket to freedom.
They know a prisoner release is a key pillar of any agreement that brings an end to Afghanistan's 18-year war, the United States’ longest.
A list of about 5,000 Taliban prisoners has been given to the Americans and their release has been written into the agreement under discussion, said a Taliban official familiar with the on-again, off-again talks taking place in Qatar. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. U.S. and Afghan government officials have said a prisoner release is part of the negotiation.
But some analysts say freeing prisoners could undermine peace in Afghanistan.
"There's a need for Afghan and U.S. officials to do their due diligence on any Taliban prisoners they're planning to release, in order to minimize the likelihood that they'll set free jihadists that can do destabilizing things and undercut a fledgling peace process," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center.
The Associated Press interviewed more than a dozen Taliban prisoners inside the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the eastern edge of the capital, Kabul. Several were nostalgic for the Taliban's Afghanistan, ruled by the mighty hand of their previous leader, the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, who died several years ago.
But they insisted that they accept it would not be the same now, and that though they still wanted Islamic rule, they no longer call for some of their strict edicts, like the ban on education and on girls and women working.
"We want women to be educated, become engineers; we want women to work in every department," said one prisoner, Maulvi Niaz Mohammed, though he said the work must be "based on Islam." He said young Afghans should not fear the Taliban: "It is they who will build our country and develop it."
Taliban negotiators have taken a similar tone in the talks. But there is a deep distrust on all sides and many in the public worry what will happen if the Taliban, who ruled for five years until they were toppled in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, regain authority.
The Taliban have well-organized communication networks inside Afghan prisons that record the latest arrests, province by province, who is sick and who has died. It all gets delivered to a prisoners’ commission, devoted to their release and headed by Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, who during the Taliban rule served as justice minister and the "virtue and vice" minister in charge of religious police.
During that time, he was widely feared. Turabi was known to personally enforce the movement's dictates, snatching music tapes from taxi drivers disobeying a ban on music and television, and stalking offices and businesses to search for violators who trimmed their beard or missed one of the five daily calls to prayer. Once in 1996, just days after the Taliban took control of Kabul from warring mujahedeen groups, when the AP was interviewing a Taliban fighter, Turabi slapped the hulking, 6-foot-tall fighter in the face for talking with a foreign woman journalist.
Built in the 1970s to house 5,000 prisoners, Pul-e-Charkhi now has 10,500 prisoners, according to the warden, Akhtar Noorzoi. They are packed in 11 cellblocks surrounded by turrets, guard towers and walls topped with razor wire.