KABUL: An Afghan grand council convened by President Ashraf Ghani ended on Friday with a resounding call for peace with the Taliban and a promise from the president to free 175 Taliban prisoners ahead of Ramazan.
The council known as Loya Jirga brought together more than 3,200 politicians, tribal elders, prominent figures and others to hammer out a shared strategy for future negotiations with the Taliban.
Ghani had sought to project a unified stance with the council but several prominent Afghans boycotted the gathering, including Ghani’s partner in the government, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, exposing the deepening rifts in the administration.
“I want to say to the Taliban that the choice is now in your hands,” the president said at the closing ceremony in Kabul. “Now it is your turn to show what you want to do.”
Ghani said the message of the five-day gathering was clear: “Afghans want peace” and offered a ceasefire, though he stressed it would not be unilateral.
In a statement on Friday, the Taliban rejected a ceasefire, saying attacks would continue during Ramazan but said “fighters are very careful of civilians during any operation”.
The group has rejected ceasefire proposals saying US and Nato troops must withdraw from the country first.
The Taliban called the Loya Jirga an attempt by Ghani to shore up his popularity and criticised it for not mentioning the latest United Nations report, which said the US and Afghan forces killed more civilians in the first three months of this year than the militants.
The grand council produced a 23-point list for peace talks with the Taliban, including a truce for Ramazan. The Loya Jirga also urged the government to form a strong negotiating team and said at least 50 of its members should represent victims of wars. The council also backed women’s rights, in keeping with the tenets of Islam.
But after opening the council on Monday, Ghani handed over the chairmanship to Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, a former warlord with past links to Osama bin Laden and the militants who took control of Kabul after the collapse of the communist government in the early 1990s. He is known for refusing to meet women.
In their statement, the Taliban said once they have a deal with the United States on the withdrawal of its forces, they will then consider talks with members of the Afghan government “to resolve internal issues”.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan welcomed the jirga’s outcome and ceasefire call.
Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2019