Traditional Afghan council meets on release of 400 Taliban

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, wearing a protective face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, attends an Afghan Loya Jirga meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. The traditional council opened Friday in the Afghan capital to decide the release of a final 400 Taliban - the last hurdle to the start of negotiations between Kabuls political leadership and the Taliban in keeping with a peace deal the United States signed with the insurgent movement in February. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

KABUL – A traditional council met Friday in Kabul to decide whether to release a final 400 Taliban prisoners, the last hurdle to negotiations between Afghanistan’s political leadership and the Taliban under a peace deal the insurgents signed with the United States earlier this year.

The meeting of the council of elders, known as Loya Jirga, was initially expected to last three days but could end as early as Saturday.

The Kabul-Taliban negotiations are seen as a critical step toward lasting peace in Afghanistan and a roadmap to what the country might look like after decades of war, with the Taliban joining the political mainstream. They are also to decide what constitutional changes would be made in a post-war Afghanistan, and how the rights of women and minorities would be protected.

The negotiations would also determine the fate of the tens of thousands of heavily armed men on both sides of the conflict — the Taliban on one side, and the warlords and armed militias loyal to Kabul on the other.

The Taliban have rejected Friday's gathering in Kabul, claiming it had no legal status. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement late Thursday saying 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."

If the council agrees to free the 400 Taliban — the last batch of prisoners whose release the insurgents have demanded under the U.S.-Taliban accord from February — talks between Kabul and the Taliban could begin as early as Monday.

A survey circulated at the Loya Jirga on Friday put the choice bluntly: decide to free the Taliban prisoners and talks could begin on Monday, or refuse and the war would continue. If the Taliban are freed, direct talks could be followed by a lasting cease-fire.