Afghan Council Meets on Taliban Fate 08/07 06:08
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- A traditional council met Friday in Afghanistan's
capital to decide whether to release a final 400 Taliban prisoners, the last
hurdle to starting negotiations between Kabul's political leadership and the
Taliban under a peace deal with the U.S.
The negotiations are a critical step toward lasting peace in Afghanistan.
The talks will decide what a peaceful Afghanistan might look like, what
constitutional changes will be made, how the rights of women and minorities
will be protected and the fate of the tens of thousands of heavily armed men on
both sides of the conflict. Besides Taliban fighters, warlords in Kabul
maintain thousands of armed militias loyal to them.
The Taliban in a statement Friday rejected the Kabul gathering, saying it
had no legal status.
A statement by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued late Thursday made
it clear that the 400 prisoners had to be released if peace talks with the
Taliban were to move forward.
"We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular," Pompeo
said. "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 traditional council, or loya jirga, will cost an already poor
Afghanistan $4.5 million. It is being attended by several thousand people even
as the Health Ministry earlier this week said as many as half of Kabul's
residents have been infected by the coronavirus. Official figures of nearly 37,
000 confirmed cases are a woeful under reporting of the infection rate,
according to the health minister. He said 10 million people --- a third of
Afghans --- have been infected.
In his statement, Pompeo said the Taliban had agreed to reduce violence once
"The Taliban have also committed to significantly reduce violence and
casualties during the talks where the parties will decide on a political road
map to end the long and brutal war and agree on a permanent and comprehensive
ceasefire," he said.
Since signing the agreement with Washington in February, the Taliban have
not attacked U.S. and NATO troops, but have continued to wage war with the
Afghan National Security Forces. The U.S. and NATO have also begun withdrawing
some troops in line with the agreement.
The February peace deal calls on the Taliban to guarantee Afghanistan will
not be used as a staging arena by terrorist groups to attack the United States
or its allies. The withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops hinges on the Taliban
meeting those commitments and not on a positive outcome to negotiations between
the Taliban and Kabul's political leadership.
The intra-Afghan negotiations that Washington had hoped would begin in March
have been delayed by the reluctance of Kabul to release the Taliban prisoners.
The deal called on Kabul to free 5,000 Taliban and the insurgent group to free
1,000 government and military personnel.
President Ashraf Ghani eventually freed all but 400 of the prisoners while
insisting on a council to decide whether they could be released, saying their
crimes were too serious for him to decide on alone.
Abdullah Abdullah, who was made head of the High Council for National
Reconciliation to end political infighting in Kabul, took over the leadership
of the traditional council from its previous head, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a
warlord and close ally of Ghani's.
Sayyaf, a deeply religious conservative and inspiration for the Philippine
terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, urged participants "to not create obstacles to
peace," without elaborating.
Ghani told participants at the opening of the council they must decide "one
way or another" on the 400 Taliban prisoners because the Taliban have made
clear that if the prisoners are released within three days, they will begin
negotiations but if not there will be none.
He offered no instruction saying simply: "It is time to decide."
The council is scheduled to end Sunday but Ghani said "it would be great if
you decide today or tomorrow," paving the way for an early start to
negotiations with the Taliban.