The largest gathering of Afghanistan's loya jirga or grand assembly, convened by President Ashraf Ghani to discuss peace with the Taliban, ended on Friday with a unanimous call for the insurgents to observe an immediate and permanent ceasefire.
The loya jirga is a traditional method of reaching a democratic consensus among Afghans on matters of national interest, bringing together prominent members of society such as politicians, religious leaders, tribal elders and civic representatives. The last such assembly was held in 2013 to discuss extending the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
This assembly was convened to discuss the peace negotiations with the Taliban, who have waged a bloody insurgency since the fall of their regime in 2001. The council passed a 23-point resolution which included demands to end violence, preserve women’s rights, open a Taliban political office in the country, open direct talks between the insurgents and the government, and setting a timeline for a "responsible" withdrawal of foreign forces.
As a peace gesture, President Ghani announced in his closing remarks that the Afghan government would release 175 Taliban prisoners for Ramadan. “I would like the Taliban to send their representatives to Kabul or any other city of Afghanistan so that these Taliban prisoners can be handed over in the true Afghan way. This is a gift of Islamic and human gesture,” Mr Ghani said.
He also urged the Taliban’s Committee for Prisoners to come forward for talks on the fate of the remaining prisoners.
The jirga was boycotted by many opposition leaders including Abdullah Abdullah, who holds the post of chief executive under a power-sharing arrangement with Mr Ghani. Former president Hamid Karzai last week voiced concerns that Mr Ghani had called the meeting to bolster his bid for re-election later this year.
Despite this, the assembly drew more than 3,500 participants from across the country who discussed various issues related to the peace talks over five days.
"This jirga showed that the Afghan people are united, smart, aware and intelligent and we unanimously, in one voice, seek to preserve all the achievements we made in the last 18 years," Sahera Sharif, an MP from Khost province, told The National.
“Through the jirga, we were also able to establish that the national interest and unity are more important and valuable to us than ethnic and gender divisions.”
Ms Sharif, 57, who has been involved in politics since the fall of Taliban regime ended the restrictions place on women by the hardline Islamists, said it was important that her voice as an Afghan woman leader be heard alongside the men.
“It is important for us to not lose what we have achieved for Afghan women in the past 18 years. We have raised a united voice to Taliban for women rights which is in accordance to the Afghan constitution and the Sharia law. Not only the women, but even men supported and joined us,” she said.
She said women made up about a third of the participants in the jirga, which was encouraging and raised hopes for the future of Afghanistan.
Manizha Ramizy, a lecturer at Kabul University who also took part in the assembly, agreed with Ms Sharif.
“Women played an important role in the jirga because of what we have achieved in the last few years," Ms Ramizy said. "They weren’t just silent observers, they raised their voices, shared their opinions and were also picked to lead or be deputies for many of committees that were formed during the jirga."
She said women’s presence at the assembly had sent a strong message to the Taliban that they would eventually have to talk to the women of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for peace, held another round of talks this week with Taliban representatives based at their political office in Qatar. The US administration has pushed for talks with the Taliban over the past year, meeting their leaders on several occasions. However, the Afghan government has been kept out of these talks because the Taliban refuse to deal with what they call a “puppet regime”.
“I don’t think foreigners can help us to solve our internal issues. This is an opportunity for all Afghans to discuss peace inside Afghanistan, led by Afghans, and solve our problem internally,” Ms Sharif said.
She appealed to the Taliban to take the government’s offer to negotiate. “We know our problems, our culture and traditions are the same, we have a common language, so why can’t we sit together and solve these together and bring stable and permanent peace in our country,” she said.
The Taliban, however, have rejected the loya jirga, saying it was “never acceptable to the real and devout sons of this homeland”.
However, after the large participation in the gathering, an emboldened President Ghani threw down a challenge to the Taliban in his closing speech.
“Have you asked the Afghan people what they want?" he said. "Oh Taliban! Why don’t you gather 3,500 Afghans and asked them what they want.”