Diplomacy

Afghans kick off loya jirga to decide fate of 400 Taliban prisoners

Salaam Times and AFP

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More than 3,000 Afghans gather in Kabul August 7 to decide the fate of hundreds of Taliban prisoners. Thew loya jirga is aimed at bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government. [Dr. Abdullah Abdullah]

KABUL -- Thousands of Afghans began a three-day gathering in Kabul on Friday (August 7) to decide whether to release about 400 Taliban prisoners, including many involved in attacks that killed scores of Afghans and foreigners.

The prisoners' fate is a crucial hurdle in launching peace talks between the two warring sides, which have committed to completing a prisoner exchange before the talks can start.

Kabul has released almost 5,000 Taliban inmates, but authorities have balked at freeing a final 400 or so demanded by the Taliban, saying they are "too dangerous" to let free.

"The Taliban said if these 400 are released, then within three days direct talks will start," President Ashraf Ghani said as he opened the loya jirga at the Kabul Polytechnic University.

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President Ashraf Ghani speaks on the first day of the loya jirga on August 7 in Kabul. The Taliban said if the remaining 400 of their prisoners were released, they would start direct talks with the Afghan government within three days, Ghani told participants. [Afghan Presidential Palace]

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Members of the loya jirga wearing face masks wait to be tested for the COVID-19 coronavirus at the Kabul Polytechnic University on August 5. The grand assembly of Afghan elders is meeting to decide the fate of 400 Taliban prisoners the government says are "too dangerous" to release as part of the path to intra-Afghan peace talks. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

"If they are not freed, not only would they continue the war, but they would intensify it. But it was not possible to release them without consulting the nation."

About 3,200 dignitaries are participating in the three-day assembly, said Masoom Stanekzai, chairman of the organising committee.

They are expected to pass a resolution on Sunday (August 9), but their decision is not legally binding. The previous government once rejected a jirga's recommendation.

The Taliban on August 7 dismissed the jirga, saying it did not represent the nation.

"We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement before the first session started.

"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."

Pompeo vowed that the United States would hold the Taliban to its commitments to reduce violence after the start of peace talks and to maintain support for Afghanistan.

"We are ready to support a peace settlement, including by extending US development programs to previously underserved areas," he said.

Serious offences

According to an official list of the Taliban prisoners, many of the inmates are accused of serious offences, with more than 150 of them on death row.

The list also includes a group of 44 insurgents of particular concern for their role in "high-profile" attacks.

They include five insurgents linked to the 2018 attack against the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul that killed 40 people, including 14 foreigners.

A Taliban militant involved in the massive May 2017 truck bombing near the German embassy in Kabul is on the list, as well as a former Afghan army officer who killed five French troops and wounded 13 in 2012 in an insider attack.

According to the prisoner list, the Taliban are demanding the release of an insurgent involved in the 2018 attack against the British security firm G4S as well as several militants involved in the killing of US soldiers.

Two militants involved in a suicide attack targeting a NATO convoy in Kabul in 2015 that killed 12 people, including three Americans, were among the 400.

Another pair on the list are imprisoned for the 2003 murder of Bettina Goislard, a United Nations refugee worker.

"There are definitely some prisoners that people don't want released, mostly because they are guilty of having killed coalition troops and nationals," a Western official familiar with the case told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Continued fighting

The prisoner swap is not the only hurdle to peace talks.

The Taliban and government forces agreed to a three-day truce to mark Eid ul Adha from July 31 to August 2.

However, fighting resumed Wednesday (August 5) when the Taliban attacked government forces in Ghazni Province, the first time authorities confirmed direct fighting since the ceasefire expired.

Ten insurgents were killed in two clashes, according to Defence Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman.

"Their attacks were repelled, and they suffered casualties," he told AFP.

Wahidullah Jumazada, spokesman for the Ghazni provincial governor, confirmed the two clashes.

In one battle near Ghazni city, Afghan forces called in an air strike when Taliban fighters raided an army base housing about 300 government troops.

Another concern is that the Taliban have maintained a close relationship with al-Qaeda, which analysts and officials say is in breach of the Taliban's peace agreement with the United States and an indication of their insincerity about holding intra-Afghan talks and ending the war.

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They should release Taliban after the negotiations. If they release them before the negotiations, they may also join Taliban group like the other 5000 of them.

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On one hand, the Ministry of Health of Afghanistan warned of the re-emergence of the corona and called on the people to observe the health recommendations and social distances. On the other hand, nearly 4,000 people gathered under one roof in Loya Jirga Tent for three days to discuss release of Taliban prisoners.

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There was no need for a consultative Loya Jirga, and if the government wanted a consultation, there were 250 representatives of the people in the parliament. Convening a Loya Jirga has faced the Afghan capital with closure, and this is to the loss of the people.

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Convention of Loya Jirga was against the law, because Afghanistan has a parliament and a senate in which representatives of the people are present. The country is facing severe economic problems and the outbreak of the coronavirus, and society needs financial assistance. They did not need to spend millions of dollars to hold a Loya Jirga for releasing some prisoners.

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The president of Afghanistan should have investigated the crimes of Taliban prisoners before their release. Every Taliban prisoner who has been released so far has returned to the battlefield of Taliban and ISIS. If these 400 dangerous Taliban prisoners are released, security situation in the country will get worse.

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The President's decision to release Taliban prisoners had been finalized and there was no need to hold a Loya Jirga which costs millions of dollars.

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By holding a Loya Jirga, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani wants the peace process to last until the end of his term, and consultation on the release of 400 Taliban prisoners is a pretext to achieve his personal goal, and if not, why didn’t he consult with the people about the 4,600 released prisoners? They were not arrested for killing chickens or stealing eggs that the government released them without consulting the Afghans. All prisoners were and are criminals. Therefore, if the president really consulted the people and the decision of the Afghan people was important to him, he would convene the Loya Jirga before the release of 4,600 prisoners.

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The president of Afghanistan understands that no peace will come in the country with the release of Taliban prisoners and now 4,600 Taliban prisoners have been released. President Ghani wants to leave the responsibility of releasing Taliban prisoners to the people of this country, as they were the people who decided to release dangerous Taliban prisoners. If the situation worsens, it will be the responsibility of the members of the Jirga, not the president.

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If the Jirga decides whether or not to release 400 prisoners, the United States will release them. Therefore, Loya Jirga should not have been convened and millions of dollars should not have been spent. This money should have been spent on building a school or a bridge or a power dam. Lately, the president has been making unwise decisions. The president's advisers should be replaced by qualified people in order to give right advices to the president.

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