Thousands of Afghan elders, community leaders, and politicians have gathered in Kabul for a grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, to debate government efforts to make peace with the Taliban, in particular to decide the fate of 400 hard-core Taliban prisoners whose release could clear the way for talks.
Last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered the release of 500 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture amid a three-day cease-fire proposed by the Taliban and agreed to by the Afghan government that ended on August 2.
Ghani said the government had released 4,600 Taliban prisoners out of the 5,000 pledged in a landmark agreement signed in February by the United States and the Taliban.
But Ghani said he had ‘no authority’ under the country’s constitution to release the remaining 400 inmates on the Taliban’s list because of their involvement in serious crimes.
Ghani then announced he would summon the Loya Jirga to decide the fate of the remaining 400 prisoners on the Taliban’s list.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged attendees ‘to take advantage of this historic opportunity for a peace that benefits all Afghans and contributes to regional stability and global security’ and promised to hold the Taliban to the commitment it made to enter peace talks.
‘We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular,’ Pompeo said in a statement on August 6.
‘But this difficult action will lead to an important result long sought by Afghans and Afghanistan’s friends: reduction of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war.’
The Taliban says it has freed all 1,000 prisoners it had pledged in the agreement with U.S. negotiators and insists on its demand for the release of the remaining 400 prisoners on its list.
Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said the assembly will also decide ‘what kind of peace it wants.’
U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the deal allowing the United States to withdraw its forces and end its longest-ever war, warned against the Loya Jirga throwing up any complications.
‘We wish the jirga participants success…and urge them not to allow those who prefer the status quo and seek to complicate the path to peace to manipulate the process,’ Khalilzad said on Twitter.
Critics have accused Ghani of delaying peace talks with the Taliban to retain power because it is widely speculated that negotiations could seek a neutral interim government.
Ghani, who has insisted he will complete his five-year term, was elected in a disputed presidential election held last year.
Ghani has called on the Taliban to enter into peace talks as soon as possible.
The United States has reportedly proposed that the Taliban prisoners be transferred from Afghan jails to a location where they would be under both Taliban and Afghan government surveillance.
Of the 400 Taliban prisoners left, around 200 are accused by the government of masterminding attacks on embassies, public squares, and government offices, killing thousands of civilians in recent years.
The Loya Jirga, held under a giant tent, is a centuries-old institution used to build consensus among Afghanistan’s rival tribes, factions, and ethnic groups.
Such a meeting is traditionally convened under extraordinary circumstances to discuss matters of national importance.
Since the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February, 3,560 Afghan security personnel have been killed in attacks by militants, Ghani said last week. He said thousands more had been wounded.
In the same week, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a report that more than 1,280 Afghan civilians had been killed during the first half of 2020 — mainly as a result of fighting between Afghan government forces and Taliban militants.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
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