Afghan president Ashraf Ghani opened a grand council on Monday with politicians, tribal, ethnic and religious leaders meeting in Kabul to discuss negotiations with the Taliban.
The four-day gathering, called a loya jirga, included about 3200 representatives from every district in Afghanistan, said Mohammed Omar Daudzai, the presidential adviser for reconciliation.
The meeting aims to build consensus among various ethnic groups and tribal factions and is traditionally convened under extraordinary circumstances.
Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who shares power with Ghani, and former President Hamid Karzai are among a number of senior figures boycotting the gathering, accusing the president of using it for political ends ahead of presidential elections scheduled for September 28.
But in his opening remarks, Ghani refuted the allegations.
“Poor people are bearing the brunt of war, not political elites, we have not come here for campaigning,” he said.
Security around the capital has been tight with police and military forces checking vehicles and their occupants at checkpoints throughout the city.
Kabul’s normally bustling streets were mostly empty. The government declared a week-long holiday while the assembly takes place.
The Taliban has called on Afghans to boycott the meeting.
“Do not participate in the enemy’s conspiracy under the name of jirga, instead find ways to further sideline the shaky administration of Kabul,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
On its website the Taliban said there had been progress in negotiations with the United States and the jirga was an “obstacle for ending occupation” and was “sabotaging the authentic peace process”.
The Taliban said “it considers this jirga the embodiment of efforts demanded by foreigners, its boycott a national and Islamic responsibility and its participants the enemies of true peace”.
US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has held several rounds of talks with the Taliban with another meeting expected to be held in Qatar soon, where the Taliban has a political office.
He told Tolo News in Kabul on Sunday that any agreement with the Taliban requires a permanent truce and lasting peace.
“We are seeking peace and [a] political settlement… We want peace to give us the possibility to withdraw,” he told the country’s largest private television station.
“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,” Khalilzad said.
The Taliban has repeatedly refused to meet representatives of Ghani’s government, labelling them “puppets” of the West.
An intra-Afghan meeting was scheduled to be held in Doha earlier this month, but it was cancelled over disputes about the 250-strong delegation from Kabul.
Afghan women have expressed concern about being sidelined from the peace process, and fear the Taliban could try to reimpose the harsh restrictions that kept them from schools and the workforce during the group’s rule.