Afghanistan’s president on Monday inaugurated a grand council to consult with 3,200 Afghans on peace talks with the Taliban amid strong opposition from his political rivals and the militant group itself.
The Taliban and many opposition leaders have boycotted President Ashraf Ghani’s four-day grand assembly called Loya Jirga, attended by politicians, tribal elders, prominent public figures and representatives from across the country.
The participants over the next three days are expected to debate the framework of the government’s peace talks with the Taliban.
“Proud moment to see countrymen from the poor and deprived districts and villages of the country gathered in the jirga for consultations to determine framework and limits in talks with the Taliban,” Ghani said in his opening remarks.
“Your conditions will be our conditions (in the peace talks). Tell us clearly and without censor: what should we do? And what are your demands? I am ready to listen to your consultations,” he said.
The meeting comes as Taliban leaders and officials from the United States, led by envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, have held several rounds of peace talks to end the 18-year conflict.
In their last meeting, the two sides came closer to agreeing a draft on the withdrawal of foreign troops from the war-ravaged country.
The Taliban have refused to directly talk to the government, which its leaders view as a US puppet.
Ghani said he was “not in pursuit of a fragile and temporary peace but a lasting and durable peace", “the true winners of which should be the people of the country, not the Taliban or the government.”
He introduced influential figure and former militant Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf as chairman of the meeting.
Sayyaf said the council was not to “create obstacles (in peace talks), as some think”.
“The jirga will give a green light to the Taliban toward peace,” Sayyaf said.
Omar Daudzai, the main organizer of the event, said the number of participants increased from the previously announced 2,500 to 3,200 from all 407 districts of the country.
Some 300 governments officials and foreign diplomats are participating as guests.
The participants will be organized in over 50 committees to hold consultations, with recommendations due to be shared with the president as a resolution on the fourth and final day.
The meeting is one of the several such events held over the past 18 years for national decisions.
The most recent jirga was held in Dec. 2013 to ratify a bilateral security agreement between Afghanistan and the US when Hamid Karzai was president.
However, a large scale boycott has overshadowed the meeting amid strong criticism from most of the opposition leaders and even the government’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
“In the current situation, I don’t consider the convening of this Loya Jirga in the interest of the people or a way to help ongoing peace talks,” Karzai said in a statement, adding it will have “possible negative impacts on the ongoing peace talks”.
Other politicians have dismissed it as part of Ghani’s campaign for presidential elections in September, when he will be seeking a second term in office.
“(Some) 12 presidential candidates, who have support of several political parties and civil society members, boycotted the jirga and called it illegitimate,” Hewad Malikzada, spokesman for the council of presidential candidates told EFE.
“This jirga is a clear attempt by President Ghani to campaign for re-election,” he said.
In a new statement, the Taliban, who have already rejected the government’s invitation to participate, called the meeting an “effort to fool the nation” with “pre-written and predetermined resolutions”.
The insurgent group called on political parties and people to stay away from the event, which they said was an effort to “sabotage the authentic peace process”.
The grand council comes days after the cancellation of a planned intra-Afghan conference to gather government and Taliban representatives in a peace conference in Doha.