The Loya Jirga, or grand council, on Sunday officially agreed to release 400 Taliban prisoners so as to pave the way for intra-Afghan peace talks.
The Jirga, made up of 3,200 tribal elders, community leaders and politicians, announced their decision on the third and final day of the gathering.
“In order to remove an obstacle, allow the start of the peace process and an end of bloodshed, the Loya Jirga approves the release of 400 Taliban,” the assembly said in a resolution.
Within minutes, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said, “Today, I will sign the release order of these 400 prisoners.”
In his closing speech Ghani said: “We have the capacity for peace, and most importantly, we have the moral courage that war is not the solution.”
He said both the people and government of Afghanistan accept the Taliban as a reality but it was now up to the Taliban to prove whether they accept the diversity and unity of Afghanistan or not.
“The Loya Jirga of Afghanistan made history today. The Afghan Loya Jirga wants to end the last 40 years” of war, he said.
“Great courage is not in war, great courage is in peace,” he added.
He also said the decision made collectively by the delegates proved it was a sign of the country’s national unity and the people’s belief in the constitution and system of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
The release of the 400 “hard-core” Taliban prisoners has been a stumbling block in the peace talks process over the past few months, following the Doha agreement signed between the US and the Taliban.
In accordance with the agreement, the Afghan government had to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Over 4,600 have been released so far but the final 400, who were listed by the Taliban, has been a sticking point.
Last week Ghani called for a Loya Jirga to make the decision.
According to Reuters, talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government will start in Doha this week.
However, Ghani has said that the Taliban must agree to a complete ceasefire before talks can start.
This latest move comes amid mounting pressure from the United States for Afghanistan and the Taliban to work out a peace deal.
Ahead of November US elections, Trump is determined to fulfill a major campaign promise of ending America’s longest war.
The drawdown of troops is part of the US’s plan and will bring the number of US troops to “a number less than 5,000” by the end of November, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in an interview broadcast on Saturday.
Khalilzad wraps up 4-day trip to Turkey ahead of Summit
Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has wrapped up a four-day visit to Turkey to discuss the upcoming Istanbul Summit on the Afghanistan peace process.
In a statement issued by the US Embassy in Turkey, the planned Istanbul Summit “is meant to help Afghan negotiators accelerate their efforts to end the war in Afghanistan and agree to a political settlement and a permanent ceasefire.”
The conference will complement peace talks currently ongoing in Doha, the statement read.
Khalilzad, who was in Turkey from March 26 to 29, met with a number of Turkish officials during this time, including Presidential Advisor Ibrahim Kalin, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal.
According to the embassy’s statement, American and Turkish officials consulted on the timing, format, and overall objectives and agenda of the conference to ensure that it will be well prepared and organized.
“They agreed that an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned conference, supported by high-level attendance from the international community, provides the best means to accelerate the peace process.
“They also agreed to urge the Afghan parties to prepare for constructive participation in this conference.”
This comes after Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), said last week he hopes “tangible progress will be made towards a peace settlement at the Istanbul meeting”.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview, Abdullah said the presence of decision-makers expected to attend the meeting needs to be utilized to push to accelerate the settlement of issues in Afghanistan.
“There have been a lot of discussions between both sides in the past few months in Doha. The Doha process will continue and then we have the Istanbul meeting. The Istanbul meeting will be held at a high level.
“There will be top leaders of Afghanistan and Taliban — that’s how it is anticipated,” Abdullah said.
He also urged that the Istanbul opportunity should not be used to give speeches; instead, it should focus on working for tangible progress.
“The final, final, final agreement, of course, it takes time, but we should at least agree on few principles. And an agreement on a ceasefire will be very, very important,” Abdullah added.
Anadolu reported that Abdullah said it’s time to move beyond the US-Taliban deal, which stipulates the May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops, and stated it was time to forge an agreement directly between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
He also stated the Taliban’s readiness to move ahead would be tested in the coming days.
“Eventually, it has to be a comprehensive agreement between us, there is something between the US and the Taliban, but eventually, we need to agree. The readiness of the Taliban remains to be seen. It will be tested before the meeting in Turkey,” Abdullah told Anadolu.
No date for the Istanbul Summit has yet been confirmed but it is widely expected that it will take place early next month.
Pakistan’s FM to attend Heart of Asia summit
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi will attend the 9th Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process ministerial meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan this week.
According to Pakistan’s foreign office, Qureshi will deliver a statement “highlighting Pakistan’s positive contributions to the Afghan peace process and its support for Afghanistan’s development and connectivity within the regional framework.”
Qureshi is also expected to hold consultations with regional and international partners, including Tajik leaders.
The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process comprises 15 participating countries, 17 supporting countries and 12 supporting regional and international organizations.
Members of the process are Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkey.
US and NATO partners will exit Afghanistan ‘together’: Blinken
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that American forces will only withdraw from Afghanistan in coordination with their NATO allies.
“We’ve been very clear, and NATO has been very clear, that the approach that we’re taking to this is we went in together, we’ve adapted to circumstances together and we will come out together when the time is right,” Blinken said in an interview with CNN.
“And what we’re focused on now is looking at the May 1 deadline.”
“One of the things that was important was not only to share our thinking as we’re going through this review, including the May 1 deadline but to listen, to hear from our partners who are so invested: their ideas, their thoughts, their analysis.”
With only weeks away from the May 1 troop withdrawal deadline, signed between the US and Taliban in Doha last year, Washington is still reviewing the deal although President Joe Biden said on Wednesday at a press conference that the date would be “hard to meet” for “tactical reasons”.
However, he also said that he does not expect US troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2022.
The US currently has a reported 2,500 troops in the country but the New York Times said in a recent article that the figure was closer to 3,500. NATO meanwhile has about 7,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, bringing the total number of foreign troops to around 10,000.
Blinken told CNN: “There are actually more European forces in Afghanistan right now than there are American, so they’re deeply invested in this with us, and they’ve been shoulder to shoulder with us from the very start.”
“It was also very important to try to accelerate the diplomacy because ultimately everyone recognizes that there is no military solution to Afghanistan,” he said.
“There has to be some kind of political settlement, and it has to be a settlement reached by the Afghans themselves.”
This comes after the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad departed for Turkey on Thursday to resume negotiations on the peace process.
“Ambassador Khalilzad will build on recent efforts by regional and international partners to encourage two Afghan parties to accelerate their negotiations to end the conflict,” the State Department said.
“He will engage the two sides on their preparatory efforts for talks on a political settlement that produces a permanent ceasefire and a durable and just peace.
“He will also meet with stakeholders to discuss how the region and international community can facilitate talks between the sides.”
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