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 US.
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 Associated Press reported.
However, the Taliban in a statement Friday rejected the Kabul gathering, saying it had no legal status.
A statement by US 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 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 talks begin.
“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.
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.
According to AP, 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.
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."