The four-day consultative grand assembly, known as a "loya jirga", is an attempt by President Ashraf Ghani to influence peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, which the militants have excluded his government from.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a consultative grand assembly in Kabul, Afghanistan. April 29, 2019.
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a consultative grand assembly in Kabul, Afghanistan. April 29, 2019. (Omar Sobhani / Reuters)

Over three thousand Afghans congregated in Kabul on Monday for a rare consultative meeting aimed at finding ways to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban and end Afghanistan's war.

The four-day consultative grand assembly, known as a "loya jirga", is an attempt by President Ashraf Ghani to influence peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, which the Taliban have excluded his government from.

"It is a proud moment for me to have representatives from all over the country here and today we are gathered to speak about the peace talks," Ghani said in an opening ceremony in huge tent set up for such assemblies in central Kabul.

A loya jirga is aimed at building consensus among various ethnic groups and tribal factions and is traditionally convened under extraordinary circumstances.

This week's meeting, being attended by around 3,200 trial elders, and community and religious leaders from all 34 provinces, aims to set out Kabul's conditions for any peace deal.

But Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani's partner in a unity government brokered by the United States, heads a list of no-shows.

"We are all here to talk about the framework of peace talks with the Taliban ... reaching a sustainable peace is very important to us," Ghani said in his welcome address.

Waving a copy of Afghanistan's constitution, Ghani lauded it as the most Islamic of constitutions — an apparent message to the Taliban who have suggested they want to negotiate articles within the charter, without specifying.

An Afghan roadmap

In several rounds of talks with the Taliban since October, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has narrowed the gaps on a deal under which US forces would withdraw in return for guarantees that Afghanistan will not revert to a haven for international terrorists. 

But Khalilzad has struggled to get Afghans to agree on a roadmap for the country's future.

The Taliban have refused to directly talk to Kabul representatives, viewing the government as a US puppet. 

Intense fighting continues in various parts of the country, with the Taliban controlling and influencing more territory than at any point since 2001.

"If Abdullah and his supporters don't attend [the jirga], there's going to be a glaring absence of key stakeholders that will diminish the event's credibility in a big way," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center.

"Given all the divides in Afghanistan, there is as much of a need for reconciliation within Afghanistan as there is for reconciliation with the Taliban."

Ghani invited the Taliban to the jirga but they have urged people to boycott it, denouncing it as an attempt by the Western-backed government to deceive the country and extend what the Taliban see as its illegitimate rule. In the past, the Taliban have fired rockets at the loya jirga tent. 

Much of Kabul was under virtual lockdown on Monday, amid a massive security operation for the meeting.

International response to Ghani and talks

The US talks with the Taliban in Qatar are part of President Donald Trump's efforts to end America's longest war, which began when US-backed forces ousted the Taliban weeks after September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Ghani, who hopes to secure a second term in presidential election set for September, is feeling isolated from the peace process and the jirga was a bid to broaden his support, diplomats in Kabul said.

"He wants to prove that he has the ability to secure a peace deal and also enjoys the support of Afghans," said one diplomat.

"Ghani fears the opposition is using the Taliban refusal to engage with him to undermine him politically," the diplomat said.

The Americans also appear increasingly impatient with Ghani. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Ghani to urge him to join the talks in Doha, where the Taliban maintain an office.

Pakistan, which the US and Afghanistan regularly accuse of aiding insurgents, issued a statement saying talks were the only path to peace in Afghanistan. 

It promised not to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs and even condemned the Taliban's recent announcement of the start of their annual spring offensive.

Khalilzad recently met with representatives of China and Russia, saying there is an "emerging international consensus on the US approach to end the war and assurances terrorism never again emanates from Afghanistan."

The Department of State said the US, Russia and China called for intra-Afghan talks, urged a cease-fire and supported "an orderly and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan as part of the overall peace process."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies