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Thousands gather in Kabul for largest Afghan peace meeting

The loya jirga is a four-day event [Getty]

Date of publication: 29 April, 2019

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More than 3,000 people were invited to the rare "loya jirga" to discuss US efforts to forge a peace deal with the Taliban.
Thousands of politicians and officials from across Afghanistan gathered amid tight security in Kabul on Monday to discuss the war and US efforts to forge a peace deal with the Taliban.

More than 3,000 people were invited to the rare "loya jirga", which is being billed as the largest in modern Afghan history, in a bid to set possible conditions under which they might accept a peace settlement.

The loya jirga - literally "grand assembly" in Pashto - is being held as the US and Taliban are discussing a possible foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in exchange for a permanent ceasefire and various Taliban pledges. 

The talks have so far cut out the government of President Ashraf Ghani, whom the Taliban view as a US stooge.

"We want to specify the main lines for the negotiations with the Taliban," Ghani said at the start of the summit. "We want clear advice from all of you."

Ghani's government hopes the high-stakes meeting will set out Kabul's conditions for any deal, including the continuation of the constitution and the protection of women's rights, the media, and free speech.

Ghani had invited the Taliban but the insurgents, having waged an unrelenting guerrilla war since 2001, refused. 

Much of Kabul was locked down on Monday, with a weeklong public holiday declared for the duration of the four-day event.

Streets across the capital were closed and hilly overlooks blocked. In the past, the Taliban have blasted rockets at a tent hosting a loya jirga.

In a statement, the Taliban have vowed that any decisions or resolutions made at a loya jirga are "never acceptable to the real and devout sons of this homeland".

The most recent jirga was held in 2013, when Afghan officials endorsed a security agreement that allowed US troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond their planned withdrawal in 2014.

'Must adapt'

On Sunday, a top US diplomat wanted there would be no enduring peace in Afghanistan unless the Taliban adapt to the changes that have swept the country since they were ousted in 2001.

Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is leading US efforts to forge a peace deal with the Taliban, made the comments in a visit to Kabul as he continues a months-long push for a settlement.

Speaking to Tolo News, Khalilzad said the Taliban recognise their government "made a lot mistakes" when it was in power from 1996-2001, and "they have learned a lot".

"If the Taliban insist on going back to the system they used to have, in my personal opinion it means the continuation of war not peace," said Afghan-born Khalilzad, speaking in Dari.

Khalilzad has signalled progress in talks, which centre on the Taliban guaranteeing Afghanistan can never again be used as a springboard for foreign terror attacks, in return for an eventual withdrawal of foreign forces.

When the hard-line Islamists were in power, they barred girls from school, executed women on flimsy allegations of adultery and banned a free press, music and many other basic freedoms.

Khalilzad is expected to meet with the Taliban in Doha in the coming days, but critics have lashed peace talks for so far failing to include members of the Afghan government, which the Taliban view as a puppet regime.

The special envoy said it was vital all parties communicate in an "intra-Afghan dialogue". Such a meeting was supposed to take place in Doha this month but it collapsed amid squabbling about the size of the guest list.

"We have started discussion for the withdrawal of the (US) forces, but for the past few weeks my struggles were focused on providing a ground for intra-Afghan talks," Khalilzad said. 

"That is the first step for further discussion, but there has been no proper progress yet."

He added that Washington is "a bit impatient" to end the war, given its $45 billion annual cost to the US taxpayer and the continued toll it takes on US forces.

Washington wants "to put an end to their expenses in Afghanistan and the dangers the forces face but also Washington has a responsibility and wants to end this war responsibly and leave a good legacy," Khalilzad said.

The collapse in talks comes at a critical time and amid continued bloodshed in Afghanistan, where the Taliban now control or influence about half of Afghanistan and 3,804 civilians were killed there last year, according to a UN tally.

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