An Afghan grand assembly has ended with delegates from across the country demanding an “immediate and permanent” ceasefire and a promise from the president to free 175 Taliban prisoners before Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that starts on Sunday.
The council – known as Loya Jirga – brought together more than 3,200 participants, politicians, tribal elders and other prominent figures to hammer out a shared strategy for future negotiations with the Taliban.
“Now it is your turn to show what you want to do.” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the message of the four-day gathering was clear: “Afghans want peace.”
“I want to say to the Taliban that the choice is now in your hands,” Ghani said at the closing ceremony in capital Kabul on Friday.
The grand council produced a 23-point list for peace talks with the Taliban.
The Loya Jirga also urged the government to form a strong negotiating team and said at least 50 of its members should represent the victims of wars.
The Taliban are currently negotiating in separate talks with a US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar. They have so far refused to speak with Ghani, whom they view as an American “puppet”.
Those talks, however, are focused only on a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops and guarantees from the Taliban that Afghan territory will not be used in the future to harbour global fighters.
Huge swaths of Afghan society worry that if the United States does make a deal with the Taliban, the armed group would try to seize power and undo advances in women’s rights, media freedoms, and legal protections.
Such concerns were prominent at the jirga, where hundreds of women were in attendance outlining their “red lines” for any negotiations with the Taliban.
The declaration at the end of the event said the rights of all Afghans should be preserved.
“We don’t want such a peace that women’s rights are not respected, freedom of expression are not ensured, elections are not held,” committee member Faizullah Jalal told the summit.
Ghani also offered a ceasefire at the assembly, but stressed that it would not be unilateral. The proposal is likely moot as the Taliban have so far rejected a ceasefire until US and NATO troops withdraw from the country.
He had sought to project a unified stance with the council but several prominent Afghans boycotted the gathering, including Ghani’s partner in the government, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, accusing the president of using it for political ends in advance of presidential elections scheduled for September 28. Ghani refuted the allegations.
“The initiative of the Loya Jirga is considered the only way for Ghani to gain some sort of legitimacy. He is under a lot of pressure from the United States amid their talks with the Taliban,” Faiz Muhammad Zaland, a political analyst based in Kabul, told Al Jazeera.
“Therefore, Ghani called for a mock Jirga to obtain some kind of public support against his political opponents.”
The US has accelerated efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the 17-year war – the US’s’s longest conflict.
Khalilzad, appointed last year, has been crisscrossing the region seeking consensus among Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as Russia and China, on the need for a peace settlement.
President Donald Trump has also expressed his frustration with Washington’s longtime involvement in Afghanistan, as well as a desire to bring the estimated 14,000 US soldiers home.
The Taliban have stepped up their attacks in recent months, inflicting staggering casualties on Afghan forces, and now hold sway over half the country.
Khalilzad said on Twitter on Friday that he had told the Taliban “that the Afghan people, who are their brothers and sisters, want this war to end. It is time to put down arms, stop the violence and embrace peace.”
The Taliban responded on Twitter by saying Khalilzad “should forget about the idea of us putting down our arms”.
“Instead of such fantasies, he should drive the idea home [to the US] about ending the use of force and incurring further human and financial losses for the decaying Kabul administration,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted.
Afghanistan’s war rages on, with thousands of civilians and fighters being killed each year.
US forces continue to train Afghan partners on the ground and attack the Taliban from the air, in a bid to push the war to a political settlement.