The Loya Jirga, a traditional Afghan council, concluded on Sunday to
free 400 Taliban members, paving the way for an early start to negotiations between Afghanistan’s warring sides.
The declaration read out in both of Afghanistan’s official languages of Pashto and Farsi calls for an immediate start to negotiations and cease fire. The move looks to bring the United States a little closer to returning its troops and ending its longest military engagement.
No date has been set but negotiations between Kabul’s political leadership and the Taliban are expected to begin as early as next week and will most likely be held in Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani praised delegates for their decision, urged the Taliban to stop fighting.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the decision “was a good step, a positive step”. He said negotiations could start within one week of their prisoners being freed.
As for a cease fire, Shaheen said the Taliban was committed to the deal it struck with the United States and according to that deal “the cease fire will be one of the items to be discussed during the intra-Afghan negotiations”.
The council’s decision to free the prisoners does not come as a surprise as delegates were urged by the US at the start of the council, or jirga, on Friday to take “this difficult action” so negotiations could begin to bring an end to the war.
“To remove obstacle, to start peace talks and to stop the bloodshed, the jirga confirms the release of 400 Taliban prisoners,” said Atefa Tayeb, a council secretary who read out the final declaration at the conclusion.
A spike in recent violence in Afghanistan has been mostly attributed to the IS affiliate, whom the Taliban are fighting as are the Afghan government and US forces. Previously a US department of defense official who could not be named because of the sensitivity of the subject said Washington considered IS its biggest threat in Afghanistan and wanted a deal that would recruit the Taliban in a coordinated fight against it.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Foreign Office on Sunday welcomed the council’s recommendation to release the remaining 400 prisoners.
“We hope that with [the] implementation of this step […], as envisaged in the US-Taliban peace agreement, intra-Afghan negotiations will commence at the earliest,” a statement by FO spokesperson Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri said.
“Pakistan has repeatedly emphasised that Afghan leaders must seize this historic opportunity and work together constructively through intra-Afghan negotiations to secure a comprehensive, broad-based and inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan.
“The international community must also reinforce its support for the success of intra-Afghan negotiations for sustained and durable peace and stability in Afghanistan,” the statement read.
“For its part, Pakistan has consistently supported an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. Pakistan’s positive contribution to the process is internationally recognised.
“Pakistan reaffirms its support for a peaceful, stable, united, democratic, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan, at peace with itself and with its neighbours.”