Afghanistan officials say a traditional consultative council will convene Friday to decide whether the last 400 Taliban prisoners will be released as part of a peace agreement, even as its health ministry says half of Kabul’s residents are infected with the coronavirus.
The Taliban have rejected any changes to the deal they signed in February with the United States.
That deal calls for 5,000 Taliban prisoners to be freed by Kabul and the Taliban to free 1,000 government personnel, including security officials, ahead of the start of intra-Afghan negotiations to map out a framework for a future Afghanistan. The release of the 400 prisoners is the final hurdle to the start of negotiations.
The Taliban have freed the 1,000 prisoners they were holding and U.S. and NATO soldiers have already begun withdrawing troops in line with the agreement. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has refused to free a final 400 Taliban prisoners, saying he needs a wider authority from a loya jirga, or traditional grand consultative council.
The 3,200 people who will be attending the meeting are the same elders and political leaders invited to a similar council meeting held last year. According to Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, the council will also decide “what kind of peace it wants.”
The council is being held even as the government’s health minister, Jawad Osmani, in a briefing this week said a survey suggested that at least half of Kabul’s population has been infected with the coronavirus and at least 10 million people — or a third of all Afghans — have been infected. The official figures are grossly lower at nearly 37,000 confirmed cases since Kabul began keeping statistics in March.
Meanwhile, Ghani’s critics have accused the president of stalling peace negotiations with the Taliban to retain power as president because it is widely speculated that negotiations could seek a neutral interim government. Ghani, who has insisted he will finish his five-year term, was elected in controversial presidential polls held last year. He and rival Abdullah Abdullah battled over the results, which Abdullah alleged were deeply flawed.
Washington intervened, warning the squabbling leaders to find a political compromise. That led to Abdullah being named to head peace efforts as head of a High Council for National Reconciliation.
Although silent for several days after Ghani announced the council meeting, Abdullah’s advisor, Mujib Rahimi on Thursday said that if asked, Abdullah will head the council.
Last year’s meeting was led by a close ally of Ghani’s, Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, a deeply religiously conservative Kabul warlord who figured prominently in the 1980s war against the invading Soviet Union and inspiration for the Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.
The Taliban have said they are ready to hold negotiations within a week of the final prisoners being released. They also agreed to a three-day ceasefire over a Muslim holiday that ended Sunday at midnight.
Since then, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has held a video call with Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The U.N. Secretary-General’s special representative to Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, also held a meeting with Baradar on Wednesday, according to a tweet from Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen. While there has been no announcement of a continued ceasefire, there have been no reports of large scale military attacks by the Taliban against the Afghan military.
Th Taliban have also not attacked U.S. or NATO troops since the February signing of the deal with the Americans.
By Tameem Akhgar and Kathy Gannon for the Associated Press.
Akhgar reported from Kabul, Gannon reported from Islamabad.