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Afghan Council Meets on Taliban Fate   08/07 06:08


   KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- 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 U.S.

   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 Taliban in a statement Friday rejected the Kabul gathering, saying it 
had no legal status.

   A statement by U.S. 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, or loya jirga, 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.

   Since signing the agreement with Washington in February, the Taliban have 
not attacked U.S. and NATO troops, but have continued to wage war with the 
Afghan National Security Forces. The U.S. and NATO have also begun withdrawing 
some troops in line with the agreement.

   The February peace deal calls on the Taliban to guarantee Afghanistan will 
not be used as a staging arena by terrorist groups to attack the United States 
or its allies. The withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops hinges on the Taliban 
meeting those commitments and not on a positive outcome to negotiations between 
the Taliban and Kabul's political leadership.

   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.

   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.

   Abdullah Abdullah, who was made head of the High Council for National 
Reconciliation to end political infighting in Kabul, took over the leadership 
of the traditional council from its previous head, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a 
warlord and close ally of Ghani's.

   Sayyaf, a deeply religious conservative and inspiration for the Philippine 
terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, urged participants "to not create obstacles to 
peace," without elaborating.

   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."

   The council is scheduled to end Sunday but Ghani said "it would be great if 
you decide today or tomorrow," paving the way for an early start to 
negotiations with the Taliban.

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