By Shadi Khan Saif
KABUL, Afghanistan (AA) - The Afghan capital on Friday started the Loya Jirga council to discuss the fate of 400 Taliban prisoners and the future of peace talks.
Addressing the moot, President Ashraf Ghani said the elders from across the country have gathered “to strengthen democratic values, unity and ensure support for economic development.”
In his remarks, Ghani promised the long-awaited direct talks with the Taliban would commence as soon as the council decides on the fate of captive Taliban insurgents.
“ ... the sooner you [council participants] decide, the better it is so that the talks between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban begins,” said Ghani while defending democratic system in the face of insurgents bent upon reviving their “Islamic Emirate” in the country.
The event, set to last at least two days, has caught global attention as it is being held amid ongoing peace negotiation between Taliban insurgents and the US.
The State Department said the Jirga will consolidate national support for peace in Afghanistan and determine the fate of the remaining Taliban prisoners which are a major obstacle to starting the intra-Afghan talks.
“We understand that they will decide on the expeditious release of the remaining Taliban prisoners from their list, the last obstacle to the start of intra-Afghan negotiations,” it said in a statement.
- ‘Historic opportunity’
Washington on Friday urged the participants in the grand moot not to allow anyone to opt for “the status quo or complicate” the path to peace in Afghanistan.
In a series of tweets, the top US peace broker, Zalmay Khalilzad, dubbed the meeting of the Loya Jirga – the highest consultation body made up of Afghan elders – a “historic opportunity” to remove the last hurdle to direct peace talks.
“A positive outcome will mean a reduction in violence and Afghans immediately coming together at the negotiating table,” said the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation.
“We wish the Jirga participants success in their discussions and urge them not to allow those who prefer the status quo and seek to complicate the path to peace to manipulate the process.”
Security has been tightened in Kabul, with the deployment of thousands of additional forces.
Besides deciding the fate of 400 captive insurgents – a particularly thorny issue between Kabul and the Taliban – the moot is also set to discuss other key matters such as a cease-fire extension, intra-Afghan talks, and proposed negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the presidential palace said Thursday.
Downplaying the status and need for the Loya Jirga, the Taliban have demanded all hurdles in the way of peace be removed. “It is imperative that all sides understand the need of this time and refrain from creating obstacles for the present opportunity,” a statement by the group said on Wednesday.
The Taliban insurgents last week announced a surprise three-day cease-fire during the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, which was welcomed and reciprocated by the Afghan government.