A traditional Afghan council is set to meet again on August 8 in Kabul to decide whether the government should release 400 Taliban prisoners that have been convicted of involvement in high-profile attacks in the country.
The release of the prisoners is the last hurdle to opening peace talks between the internationally backed government in Kabul and the Taliban under a peace deal between the militants and the United States.
The meeting of several thousand Afghan politicians and community leaders, a Loya Jirga, is expected to last three days.
Kabul said it has released 4,600 Taliban inmates out of the 5,000 pledged in the landmark agreement signed in February by the United States and the Taliban, but authorities have balked at freeing the remaining prisoners demanded by the Taliban.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that according to the Afghan Constitution, “the release of these 400 prisoners is not within the authority of the president of Afghanistan…these 400 people have serious cases.”
Ghani, addressing the 3,200 delegates who had gathered in a massive tent in Kabul on August 7, stressed that he would “strongly endorse and support any decision.”
If the council agrees to free the last 400 Taliban, talks between Kabul and the Taliban could begin as early as next week.
A survey circulated at the Loya Jirga said the choice is between freeing the Taliban prisoners so that talks could begin, or refusing and the war would continue.
The U.S.-Taliban deal calls on the Taliban to guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a staging ground for attacks on the United States or its allies. The withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops hinges on the Taliban meeting those commitments and not on the negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul’s political leadership.
The Loya Jirga is headed by Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, who took over the leadership of the Loya Jirga from its previous head, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a former warlord and close ally of Ghani’s.
Abdullah, Ghani’s bitter rival in a disputed presidential election last year, was appointed to lead the council to end political infighting in Kabul.
Abdullah said on August 7 that Afghanistan was at a critical juncture.
“Our decisions are linked to the fate of the country. It was not an easy decision on the 4,600 detainees…. It was a big decision. But what does it show? The determination of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in removing obstacles to achieving intra-Afghan talks and ultimately peace and stability in this country,” Abdullah said.
The Taliban, meanwhile, has denied that the 400 inmates are especially dangerous.
“The accusations [the Afghan government] are now making are not true. In fact, these accusations were made by the Kabul administration for delaying the process and taking advantage of it. Other than that, those [accusations] have no basis,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told RFE/RL from Qatar, where the militants have a political office.
The Taliban says it has freed all 1,000 prisoners it had pledged in the agreement with the United States and insists on its demand for the release of the remaining 400 prisoners on its list.
The United States has reportedly proposed the Taliban prisoners be transferred from Afghan jails to a location where they would be under both Taliban and Afghan government surveillance.
With reporting by AP