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 Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that starts next week.
The council, known as Loya Jirga, had brought together more than 3,200 participants, politicians, tribal elders, many 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,” Ghani 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.”
He also offered a cease-fire but stressed that it would not be unilateral. The proposal is likely moot as the Taliban have so far rejected a cease-fire until US and NATO troops withdraw from the country.
The Taliban have in recent months stepped up their attacks, inflicting staggering casualties on Afghan forces, and now hold sway over half the country.
The US, meanwhile, has accelerated efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the 17-year war, America’s longest conflict.
US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, appointed last year, has been crisscrossing the region seeking consensus among Afghanistan’s neighbors, as well as Russia and China, on the need for a peace settlement.
President Donald Trump has also expressed his frustration with Washington’s longtime involvement in Afghanistan, as well as a desire to bring the estimated 14,000 US soldiers home.
The grand council produced a 23-point list for peace-talks with the Taliban, including a truce for Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.
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.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether that referred to wars that pre-dated the 2001 US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime.
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 adhering to a strict interpretation of Islam and refusing to meet with women.
“We want a sustainable peace in our country,” said Hatifa Tayeb, the council’s secretary and one of the women delegates. “No fight has a winner and no peace has a loser, so we all want from the Taliban to stop the conflict and join the peace process.”
Also this week, Khalilzad is holding a new round of talks with the Taliban in Qatar, where the insurgents maintain a political office.
Those talks, however, are focused only on a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops and guarantees from the Taliban that Afghan territory will not be used in the future to harbor global terrorists.
The Taliban had for years harbored al-Qaida and its former chief, Osama bin Laden.