Doors Opened for Direct Talks with the Taleban: The results of the Loya Jirga on prisoners and peace

Thomas Ruttig • Ali Yawar Adili • Obaid Ali 

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The three-day Consultative Peace Loya Jirga held in Kabul from 17-19 Asad 1399 (7-9 August 2020) has opened the way for the Afghan government to release a final 400 Taleban prisoners from government jails, thereby removing the last obstacle blocking direct peace talks with the Taleban. The jirga delegates did not question the stark choice the government put to them – release the prisoners or face continuing war – and opted for ‘peace’. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, Ali Yawar Adili and Obaid Ali discuss the proceedings and outcome of the jirga and provide a working translation of the 25-point final resolution. They conclude that the jirga provided President Ghani with political (but not waterproof legal) cover for the prisoners’ release and that although it provided a framework with which the ‘Kabul’ delegation will enter into talks with the Taleban, several of the jirga’s demands are ambiguous, contradictory or difficult to enforce. 

Dr Abdullah speaking at the Consultative Loya Jirga in Kabul in August 2020. In the first row, to the extreme right is Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf (from behind, with black-golden turban). Photo: Dr Abdullah Twitter account.Why was the jirga convened and what was it about?

President Ghani called the Consultative Peace Loya Jirga to help him decide whether he could release a final batch of Taleban prisoners (read earlier AAN analysis here and here). The prisoner exchange (5,000 Taleban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan forces and civilian government personnel captured by the Taleban) had been made prerequisite in the February 2020 Doha agreement between the US and Taleban for direct peace talks to start between the internationally recognised government and the Taleban insurgents, the so-called intra-Afghan negotiations. The Afghan government had not been a party to the agreement (but was more or less consulted) and originally opposed the release of the prisoners (1) – particularly since the US did not extract any concession from the Taleban on the government’s priorities, such as a meaningful pre-talks ceasefire (read earlier AAN analysis here).

As a result of immense US pressure, the prisoner exchange started anyway, in April 2020 (read a media report here). By late July, just before the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha, when both sides announced they were close to finalising their releases, the government had released 4,600 Taleban prisoners in total. The release hit a hurdle over the last 400 imprisoned Taleban at least some of whom the government considered to be of high value or particularly dangerous.

The US-Taleban agreement did not contain any provision that either side would be able to demand the release of particular prisoners. The Taleban, nevertheless, handed over a list of 5,000 names, and insisted that these be freed. When Ghani, instead, wanted to release 500 other prisoners as the government’s last batch, the Taleban protested and demanded on the release of the particular 400 prisoners on their list. The US did not support Ghani’s position and exerted more pressure on him to conclude the prisoner exchange. Ghani in turn argued that, according to the constitution and the penal code, it was not in his power to release these prisoners (although this possibly was also the case with prisoners released earlier, as discussed by AAN here) and that he, therefore, had to consult the people of Afghanistan in the form of another consultative loya jirga. (For a discussion of the terminology and concepts, see AAN reports herehere and here.)

This led to fears on the US side that Ghani could try to use the jirga to block the release of these specific prisoners, as AAN heard from diplomatic circles and Afghan sources. This, then, could have again seriously delayed the start of the intra-Afghan talks, which had already been set for 10 August (although this date was not publicised ahead of the jirga; there will certainly be at least another slight delay). (2) The same had already happened with the original planned starting date, 10 March 2020 (read AAN analysis here).

What were the delegates, in practice, asked to decide on?

The government put before the jirga’s 3,400 delegates – representing 23 “classes” of people (3) – two questions (4) that they were asked to discuss in their committees. The first question pertained to the decision regarding the prisoners. The way it was phrased, presenting the matter as a stark choice between negotiations and war, already made it clear what the desired answer was:

The peace negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taleban group are supposed to start on 20/5/1399 (10 August 2020). The main obstacle to the start of direct negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taleban is the release of 400 Taleban prisoners. These prisoners are convicted of crimes whose release is beyond the president’s authorities based on the constitution. Therefore, a decision should be made about one of the following options and advice of the respected members of the Consultative Peace Loya Jirga about this decision is necessary.

Option one: the prisoners [should] be released and in return for it, based on national and international guarantees, direct negotiations should start, a permanent ceasefire established, and the way for lasting peace be paved. Option two: if the prisoners are not released, fighting, violence and the current situation will continue. 

The second question asked delegates to advise the negotiating team on how to proceed and what their expectations of the outcome of the talks were:

With the finalisation of the consultation on the first question, given that direct negotiations [will] begin, what is the Loya Jirga members’ advice to the negotiation team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and what are your expectations from the results of the negotiations?

The Consultative Loya Jirga questionnaire. Photo: received from journalist

Up to and during the jirga, the delegates were never provided with any detailed information on the controversial 400 prisoners that they were asked to decide on. A Badakhshan representative told AAN that many delegates only knew that they were Taleban fighters, but not the differences between them and the 4,600 Taleban already released. (5) Nor was this, incidentally, the case about the entirety of the 5,000 Taleban prisoners, as Shahrzad Akbar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), stressed in a tweet on 9 August.

The jirga, however, on the third day gave its green light for the releases. Its final resolution (an AAN working translation of the full text is in the annex) stated:

The jirga approves the release of 400 prisoners demanded by the Taleban in order to remove obstacles to the start of the peace negotiations, to stop the bloodshed and observe public interest and good. 

The final resolution also called for an “immediate and permanent ceasefire” and called “on the international community, especially the US to deliver on their commitments to the people of Afghanistan in this regard,” as well as for assurances “that the prisoners who are released do not return to the war fronts and their activities are monitored.”

Ghani immediately announced in his concluding speech at the jirga that he would order the releases and the decree was indeed signed the next day (an official translation here) (more on this below).

How did the jirga proceed?

As the jirga was convened at very short notice (Ghani had announced it only on 29 July), it was decided that the 3,200 members of the first, April/May 2019 Consultative Loya Jirga would again be invited. It is not clear, however, whether all of the 2019 delegates did indeed participate. AAN has seen a few of the 2019 jirga delegates write on their Facebook pages that they would not participate, for example political commentator Ahmad Saidi, who said he was also the head of a committee last year, and journalist Elyas Nawandesh who said the jirga was irrelevant as the decision about the prisoner exchange had already been taken by the 2019 jirga. (6)

The 2019 jirga was boycotted by a number of political groups, including Dr Abdullah’s camp, in the run-up to the controversial 2019 presidential election (read AAN report here). Some of these politicians, such as acting minister of foreign affairs Hanif Atmar, are part of the government now and were thus present. It is not clear whether others invited in 2019 but who boycotted the gathering were given any representation this year. The official number of delegates that was released was 3,400, ie 200 more than in 2019, which suggests that additional delegates were added. So far, however, no names or selection procedures for the delegates have been publicised.

The jirga proceeded along the lines of its 2019 predecessor. However this year, after the traditional recitation of verses from the Quran and the playing of the national anthem, the jirga started with a speech by the acting minister for public health, Ahmad Jawad Osmani, about health measures to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus in the assembly. Despite this, the seating in the hall was tight, and a large number of delegates did not wear masks. The delegates were then, as had been the case in 2019, divided into 50 committees to discuss the government’s central questions and to report back to the plenary session. That would make it over 60 people per committee, rather large groups in which it would have been difficult to have everybody speak out in detail.

The administrative board and the secretariat, as well as the heads for the 50 committees, were the same as in 2019, as was the jirga’s – initial – chairman, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf. He, however, invited Dr Abdullah Abdullah to take this place (a photo here), citing ‘poor health’ as the reason he would not be able to lead the jirga. This certainly was a way to bring in Abdullah, who had been missing from the 2019 list. The chairmanship also corresponded with his new official position as the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), given to him in the 2020 post-election political agreement with Ghani (read AAN report here), which includes official oversight over all matters related to the peace process.

Abdullah and Sayyaf during the handover of the Consultative Loya Jirga chairmanship. Photo: Dr Abdullah twitter account.

After taking his seat as the chairman of the Loya Jirga, Abdullah invited Ghani to the podium, where the president delivered a long speech on the government’s general performance, the issues around the US-Taleban agreement and the upcoming peace negotiations. He pointed to a “negotiation gap” in the text of the US-Taleban agreement, in which the US had pledged to facilitate the release of “up to” 5,000 Taleban prisoners and said the Taleban had interpreted this in a maximalist way, as 5,000 specific prisoners. Ghani said the Taleban had threatened that if the last 400 prisoners were not released, they would not only continue the war and the violence, but intensify it. However, he said they had also committed to start negotiations with the government within three days after the remaining 400 prisoners were released. For the government, he said, the first item on the agenda would be a permanent ceasefire (find a summary report by the Palace of his speech here).

Following Ghani’s speech, Abdullah praised the jirga as inclusive and even called last year’s jirga – the one he had boycotted – a success and announced that the HCNR would start its work as soon as the jirga was over (watch video here). He also pointed to the widespread support for the jirga that had been given by former president Hamed Karzai, his allies and former vice presidents Karim Khalili and Abdul Rashid Dostum (he particularly mentioned that Dostum’s colleagues were present in the jirga) (7) and noted the presence and support of the speakers of both houses of parliament, despite their expectation that they should have been consulted in advance – this was a reference to Wolesi Jirga speaker Mir Rahman Rahmani’s initial opposition to the jirga. (8)

The discussions in the 50 committees seem to have been very quick as, at the end of the first day, Abdullah reported that 33 of them had already presented their conclusions. The remaining 17 reported by mid-day on the second day, following which, the “most important” points of the conclusions from the 50 committees were published (find the Dari version here) on the Facebook page of the – so-far not yet fully formed or functional – High Council for National Reconciliation (AAN background on the council here). The points arising from the committees’ discussions already made it clear on the second day that the jirga would speak in favour of the release of the prisoners, but with some conditions or caveats attached. For example, the summary made a point of mentioning that the agreement to release the prisoners did not mean forgiving their crimes, since no person or institution has such a right. (9)

The concluding session on day three was attended by a broader range of politicians than its opening and included Karzai, Khalil and former minister of finance Omar Zakhilwal. (10) In the final session, the jirga secretaries read the resolutions out in both official languages, Pashto and Dari, and Abdullah handed a copy to President Ghani. There was no vote or acceptance of the text by acclamation.

Abdullah congratulated the delegates for producing a resolution that covered “all needs and demands of the nation” and emphasised that the government “had no interference or influence in Jirga’s decisions,” (11) thus conveying the message that he is now on the same page as the president.

Ghani, in his concluding speech said that “Today, I signed that decree which I could not have signed in my life, because it was beyond my authority. Now based on your consensus and moral decision, I sign the decree to release the 400 prisoners and I will release them” (see the Dari and Pashto versions here).

A framework for negotiations

Most of the 25 points of the jirga’s resolution pertained to the second question put before the delegates:

With the finalisation of the consultation on the first question, given that direct negotiations [will] begin, what is the Loya Jirga members’ advice to the negotiation team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and what are your expectations from the results of the negotiations?

The points that were put forward included: the immediate start of direct negotiations with the Taleban, the protection of the last two decades’ achievements, including the freedoms and rights enshrined in the constitution, the protection of victims’ rights, transparency in the peace process and the international community’s support during peace talks and after their conclusion. The text demanded that the current constitution “should be preserved” but, at the same time, opened the way – “as per need” – for possible “amendments … through the mechanism provided for in [the constitution] itself” (which would be a Constitutional Loya Jirga). There is a call to hold the intra-Afghan talks in Afghanistan, while conceding in the same sentence that “otherwise they [c/should be] held in a third, impartial country.”

Furthermore, the delegates demanded an amnesty for ANSF personnel, including those who have been convicted for cooperation with the Taleban. They only wanted to exclude those convicted of treason, not those for corruption (see annex for AAN’s translation of the resolution’s full text from the original Dari).

Point 13 of the resolution, on women’s rights, shows a remarkable change of tone compared with earlier statements. While the jirga members demanded that the fundamental rights of ethnic and religious minorities currently enshrined in the constitution should be ensured (in point 12), women are only assured of a – not further defined – “political and social status,” without reference to the current constitution which enshrines equal rights. In point 20, the delegates called on the government for “necessary actions to further improve and strengthen the negotiation team and strengthen women’s presence in all phases of the peace process.” (14)

The jirga did not discuss the controversial issue of whether or not it would agree to the possibility of an interim government, if required as a result of the peace negotiations. President Ghani earlier rejected the idea of an interim government, while Dr Abdullah has shown flexibility on the matter, whereupon they were at loggerheads (read AAN reporting here).

Altogether, the points raised by the delegates in practice renew the mandate of the government’s existing negotiating team (although the jirga called for including more women), which had already been given by the 2019 jirga and the women’s consultation (read AAN reporting here) in April of the same year.

On 10 August, the day after the jirga, Ghani signed two separate decrees. According to the Palace, in one he waived the convictions of those among the 5,000 prisoners on the Taleban list who had already been tried, following article two of the jirga resolution. In the second decree he pardoned an unknown number of security personnel sentenced to up to five years of prison, but stipulated that the decree would not ban lawsuits by victims, based on the haq ul-abd principle (see the report by his office here). It is not clear, but possible, that the second decree also covers personnel convicted of corruption, which would go against good governance principles.

The Taleban’s reaction to the jirga’s outcome

Two days before the jirga, the Taleban had criticised its convening in a statement (read the English version here) calling it a “pretext” the government could “possibly use as a tool against peace and wishes of the nation.” They said that before reaching a comprehensive peace and political settlement, the jirga would not represent the whole nation and called on all sides to understand the urgency of implementing their agreement with the US. Once the jirga was over, the Taleban seemed fairly happy with its outcome. The spokesman for their political office in Qatar, Suhail Shahin, told the BBC that the jirga’s outcome was a “good action” although he insisted the jirga itself was still not legitimate. He also said that their movement was ready to begin negotiations with the government, within a week of their prisoners being released.

Opposition, criticism and reactions

A few political groups boycotted the jirga. This included the Rabbani faction of Jamiat-e Islami which stated that the jirga had no legal validity in Afghan law and was “a misuse of the national budget” for individual political purposes. It further said:

The sudden and immediate call for a rubber stamping Consultative Jirga which has no legal validity under the laws of Afghanistan and is not representative of the people, in the existence of the legitimate representative institutions such as the National Assembly, political parties and civic institutions is nothing but a waste of time and an attempt to deceive the people.

The larger Jamiat faction, led by former Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur, however supported the jirga in a statement.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami also did not participate in the jirga. In an interview with the BBC, Hekmatyar called the jirga “meaningless” and said the US could release Taleban prisoners “with a single phone call.” He said that the government simply called the jirga to obtain its own political goals.

In the jirga itself, there was little visible discord. An exception was, on day one, by Farah MP Belqis Roshan, who has a reputation for being articulate. She stood up in the middle of the president’s speech and held up a banner that read “Baj dehi ba Taleban wahshi khianat-e melli” (Concessions to the brutal Taleban are national treason). A video later posted on social media showed a female organiser shoving her through the middle isle and throwing her to the ground. Another young participant who also reportedly interrupted the president’s speech was apparently led out of the jirga too by fellow delegates. A video of this incident the authors saw on the social media only showed the second part of the story.

Farah MP Belqis Roshan holding up her anti-Taleban talks protest slogan in the Consultative Loya Jirga on 7 August. Tolonews screenshot.

The following day, a female committee reporteur, Asila Wardak, when presenting conclusions, denounced the rough handling of MP Roshan, which led to an uproar, with a male participant climbing onto the stage, condemning those who supported Roshan and verbally abusing Roshan with sexist language. Jirga chair Abdullah calmed down the participants and said that opposition should not be silenced.

Both Abdullah and the president later apologised to Roshan and condemned the silencing of dissent. Abdullah had already issued a statement on the same day, regretting that MP Roshan had been “treated inappropriately” and instructing “those in charge of holding the jirga to investigate the case and prevent the repetition of such incidents during the jirga sessions.” The Wolesi Jirga’s administrative board then called for the dismissal of the security officer who had attacked Roshan, as well as Baqer Kazemi, one of the spokespeople for the jirga who had apparently verbally attacked Roshan.

Abdullah confirmed that there had been opposing views within the committees in a media briefing (watch the video here) after the end of the committees work on the second day, when answering a journalist’s question as to whether there had been any committee that opposed the release of the 400 prisoners. He said:

… but the conclusions presented were the middle ground. I mean there were members within the committees who were against the release of the prisoners and saying that those who had already been released have gone back to the battlefield and intensified the war and the remaining number might do the same. There were these views. But the general conclusions presented by the committees, I did not see them opposing it.

At least one small demonstration in Bamyan against the jirga’s decisions was reported in Afghan media and reportedly various small ones in support of Belqis Roshan (see photos of one in Kabul here).

There was also criticism from civil society organisations. For instance, the Afghanistan Civil Society Forum Organisation (ACSFO) in a statement (printed text with AAN) said that jirgas had not been defined in the constitution and that spending 330 million Afghanis (4.3 million USD) on this one, while more than 80 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line and the National Assembly and provincial councils were in place, was not in the country’s interest and would only undercut the role of the judicial institutions, parliament and the provincial councils.

International donors were largely silent until the day before the jirga, but they had reportedly been working behind the scenes. Since there were concerns that Ghani might try to use the jirga to delay intra-Afghan negotiations, the US reportedly tried to engage other political groups to pre-empt such a scenario. A day before the jirga, US Secretary of State, moreover, issued a statement admitting “that the release of these prisoners is unpopular. But this difficult action will lead to an important result long sought by Afghans and Afghanistan’s friends: reduction of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war.” Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation welcomed “the Afghan Loya Jirga’s declaration and President Ghani’s decision to sign the decree ordering the release of the remaining prisoners” in a series of tweets.

Afghan media interviewed participants expressing their support for a pardon for the prisoners, including a mother who had lost three sons in the war (shown on state broadcaster RTA). Most of the interviewees stressed the country’s need for peace.

Conclusion

The jirga resolution has given Ghani a way to release the remaining 400 Taleban prisoners (under heavy US pressure), which will, supposedly, allow the first round(s) of intra-Afghan negotiations to start in Doha, the capital of Qatar, soon.

While the resolution may have provided him political cover for the decrees he has signed, it does not represent waterproof legal cover, as discussed in a recent AAN analysis which also details how this dilemma could have been better handled. Moreover, the green light for the release of 400 prisoners was granted without the public, or indeed the delegates being told who these prisoners were, what crimes they had committed and why their release was so controversial.

Overall, the jirga has produced a number of political winners. President Ghani, though seemingly forced to accept an outcome he was trying to avoid, did manage to hold a jirga against US misgivings, a repetition of his holding the 2019 presidential election against US will. He did not succeed in winning more time before negotiations start, which may or may not have been on his agenda, and he was not explicitly confirmed as the legitimate head of state for his current five-year tenure (as by the 2019 jirga). However, he did succeed in keeping the controversial issue of an interim government off the agenda. These achievements did come at a price, as Ghani had to reach out to Abdullah, whom he had outmanoeuvred after the election and with whom he is still locked in conflict over the implementation of their political agreement. Abdullah, in turn, was encouraged by the US to take the lead role in the jirga in an effort to project government unity to the Taleban.

It was surprising, though, how quickly Ghani adapted to the demand of the release he had originally opposed, resulting in the talks-or-war choice put before the delegates in a way that would make anyone rejecting the proposal looking as if they were against peace.

In this new constellation, Abdullah has strengthened his position, too. Having whitewashed his 2019 jirga boycott, it can be assumed that he will be rewarded for his show of government unity. The same goes for ex-president Hamed Karzai, who appeared, together with Abdullah and Ghani, as part of a triumverate driving the peace process on the government side. Karzai was seated directly next to Ghani on the jirga’s third day, which he attended (watch the video here).

Compared to the 2019 Consultative Peace Loya Jirga, which was boycotted by almost the entire political opposition in the country, including the Abdullah camp, this jirga has appeared to show a broadening political consensus in Kabul towards the Doha talks with the Taleban. The Abdullah camp and its political allies seem to have bought into what now could be called the political mandate for the negotiation team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Apart from one faction of Jamiat-e Islami party and Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, who have only limited political weight, the remaining political leaders supported where the process appears to be heading.

The US has also come out getting what it wants, since the jirga opens the way for President Donald Trump to say, before the upcoming US election in November, that he is on course with US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Trump has already announced, that he expects US troops will be down to 4-5,000 by November, a prediction that was repeated in defence secretary Mark Esper’s statement during the jirga.

While the pre-talks prisoner release takes an important trump card out of the government’s hands, it is not, by a long way, the only one they hold. After all, the government controls the capital and the cities and the armed forces (despite some defections and infiltrations) and has the international recognition and backing which is necessary not just to protect the post-2001 achievements but to run a state at all in Afghanistan. Furthermore, despite widespread criticism of the government’s weaknesses, it appears to still have at least most Afghans’ backing for preserving the constitutionally enshrined rights and freedoms and their preference for a republican system over the Taleban’s emirate.

The jirga’s insistence on the preservation of the constitution and its rights and freedoms, however, is not that clear-cut. There are backdoors in this mandate that could open wide. For example, the fact that the delegates felt it necessary to say that the constitution could be amended (they did caveat it – through the constitutional mechanism – but since a Constitutional Loya Jirga is unlikely to be called, this could open the door for further unconstitutional ‘improvisations’). Of particular concern is the failure to mention the “constitutional rights” of woman in the jirga’s final resolution.

There are still serious concerns over talks, and strong misgivings against a possible power-sharing deal with the Taleban in large parts of Afghan society. But when put in such stark terms as presented at the jirga – prisoner release so that talks can start or the continuation war – nobody wants to be seen as standing in the way of peace. The fact, then, that there was so little visible opposition to the jirga’s conclusions reflects an absence of current viable alternatives to end the war, rather than a ringing endorsement of the path now chosen.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert


(1) As we wrote before the jirga: “Ghani – who had not consented to the exchange – had registered his objections, as he saw it as a repudiation of Afghan sovereignty. (…) Despite his irritation at being pushed into the prisoner swap by the US-Taleban agreement, President Ghani took a more moderate position after the US recognised him as the winner of the September 2019 presidential election.”

(2) According to Afghan state broadcaster RTA, talks may possibly commence on 16 August in Doha. Whereas the Taleban had reportedly said they were ready to meet within a week after the release was complete, Ghani in his speech said they had committed to meeting within three days. It is not clear whether the negotiations, once started, will move on, to Norway, Germany or another third country.

(3) Reports about the number of participants were confusing. Masum Stanekzai, head of the commission for holding the jirga, said on the first day that 3,200 representatives including 720 women, had participated in the jirga and that they came from 25 different categories of people, including members of the National Assembly, ie the two houses of parliament, provincial councils, social organisations, tribal elders and youth (see here). The figure 3,200 corresponded with the number of participants of the 2019 jirga, in which the 3,200 were said to have represented:

[social groups] including Ulema, influential persons [mutanafezin, an often-used term in the Afghan context], university professors, merchants/entrepreneurs, local development councils, district/area representative, youth, women and representatives of civil society (quoted by AAN here).

However, the final resolution for this week’s jirga (see the full text in the annex) mentions 3,400 members from 23 categories of people.

(4) Also a more extensive catalogue of 45 detailed questions on three general topics (the peace process, governance and information policy) was distributed among the delegates. AAN only obtained a copy of these questions as this report was being published. There will be analysis forthcoming on this questionnaire.

(5) According to an Afghan media report, the majority of the 400 prisoners have been sentenced to death. According to a Tolonews overview, however, there were other categories:

  • 156 sentenced to death
  • 105 convicted of violating haq ul-abd (rights of the individual, a sharia concept)
  • 34 convicted in kidnapping cases that resulted in deaths
  • 51 drug traffickers
  • 6 convicted of ‘moral crimes’
  • 4 convicted of unknown crimes
  • 44 on a blacklist of the Afghan government and its allied countries (see also here)

The BBC reported, quoting “a credible source,” as saying on 10 August, that the prisoners demanded to be released by the Taleban included 40 foreign nationals, including from Pakistan and Uzbekistan. The report however said it is not clear whether they were among the 400 controversial prisoners. The Taleban have denied that foreign nationals were on their list. The BBC’s source also said that 150 of the 400 prisoners “are big drug-traffickers” and “not Taleban. When the Taleban insist that they be released, it is about their financial funding. They are not small traffickers.”

(6) Nawandesh said he was not attending the 2020 jirga because the 2019 Loya Jirga had already decided on the prisoner releases, since in article 13 of its resolution it called for a prisoner exchange as a confidence-building measure.

(7) Khalili did not attend personally, referring to corona-related “precautions” (watch the video here).

(8) In a meeting between President Ghani and the administrative board of the parliament on 4 August, Rahmani had argued that organising a Consultative Loya Jirga “in the presence of the people’s true representatives,” the members of the two houses of parliament, was illegal (see report about the meeting on Rahmani’s Facebook page here). Later on the same day, the administrative board and heads of the Wolesi Jirga commissions held a meeting and after “long discussions and analysis of different aspects,” the decision whether to participate in the jirga or not was deferred to individual MPs (see the report by speaker Rahmani here).

The US embassy apparently also played a role in convincing Rahmani to participate. Rahmani himself reported that US Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson had called him to discuss the ongoing peace process, the holding of the Consultative Peace Loya Jirga and mutual cooperation.

It is not clear how many MPs finally participated.

(9) The conclusions from the jirga committees, as reported on the HCNR Facebook page; AAN working translation), were as follows:

  • In order to achieve a durable and dignified peace, it is necessary for the parties to show required flexibility
  • The remaining 400 Taleban prisoners [should] be released so that there are no excuses for postponing the peace negotiations
  • Upon release of the Taleban prisoners, an unconditional ceasefire [should] be imposed and the parties [should] remain committed to it.
  • Peace talks [should] start as soon as possible
  • Formation of an inclusive national delegation for peace negotiations that has the capability to defend the values of the last 19 years and their gains.
  • Peace negotiations led by Afghans [should] preferably be held in Afghanistan
  • Countries involved in the Afghanistan case [should] stop supporting the Taleban and not ferment tensions
  • The Taleban should no longer carry out terrorist attacks under the Daesh brand
  • The prisoners [should] be freed with national and international guarantees so they do not return to the fighting ranks
  • The international community should guarantee the start and success of talks and ensure durable peace in Afghanistan
  • Prisoners [who are members of the] country’s security forces [should] be released in order to prevent the weakening of their morale
  • In the peace negotiations, the [political system of the] republic and gains of last 19 years [should] be firmly defended
  • The constitution should be defended, especially chapter two [“The Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Citizens”] and the democratic system in the constitution
  • Citizens’ freedoms and rights enshrined in the country’s constitution should be preserved, especially women’s rights and freedoms
  • Freedom of expression and freedom of the press should be preserved
  • The progress of peace negotiations should be shared with the people of Afghanistan in the course of talks
  • The government should secure the consent of families of victims of the war [for the release of the prisoners]
  • All different strata of society should be included, especially women and youth, in the peace negotiation delegation
  • The negotiation team should have full ability and capacity for talks
  • Peace agreements should be reached under the monitoring and guarantees of the UN, and the major international and regional powers

(10) Zakhilwal had, in an interview with RTA, questioned the “needs” and “motives” for convening the jirga, but he also said that if “it is indeed convened to resolve the issue of the remaining Taliban prisoners so that it can lead quickly and directly to intra-Afghan negotiations…. then it should still be supported.” Karzai had earlier issued a statement along the lines of Zakhilwal’s, saying that if this jirga was convened “just for the vital national goal of peace” and to stress “the immediate start of intra-Afghan negotiations,” he would support it.

(11) Abdullah is quoted here on the basis of AAN’s live monitoring of the speech on Afghan TV. The text has not been published yet.

(12) In late March 2020, the government announced a 21-member negotiation team which included only four women (see full list in footnote 3 of AAN’s earlier report here). It is unlikely there will be any changes to the team before the upcoming first round of negotiations, as this would open new discussions around the political balance in the team, which tends to be time consuming.


Annex: 

Resolution of the Asad 1399 (August 2020) Consultative Peace Loya Jirga (AAN working translation)

(و امرهم شوری بینهم) (1)

Inspired by the holy verse [from the Holy Quran] ” فَأَصْلِحُوا بَیْنَ أَخَوَیْكُمْ” [translation: Therefore, make peace between your brothers] and pursuant to decree number 51 dated 14 Asad 1399 (3 August 2020) of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as well as according to paragraph 21 of the resolution of the 2019 Consultative Peace Loya Jirga, this jirga began on 17 Asad 1399 (7 August 2019) and lasted for three days. We, the 3,400 members of the Consultative Peace Loya Jirga, including both women and men representing 23 different classes of society from 34 provinces, came together in the capital of the country. We did so in order to present our consultations/advice regarding the release of 400 Taleban prisoners and to determine the framework for peace negotiations with the Taleban.

Acknowledging that the Loya Jirga is deemed to be the highest manifestation of the people’s will for consultation on issues of supreme interest to our country, and that our dear country’s history show that the people of Afghanistan, at critical junctures, have referred to their collective wisdom through historical loya jirgas for the purpose of maintaining territorial integrity, national sovereignty and the taking of important and most appropriate decisions.

The Consultative Peace Loya Jirga, based on the consultations of its members during their working committees, presents the following recommendations to the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Taleban, Islamic countries and the international community:

1.      The Loya Jirga members welcome and support the peace process in achieving an enduring and dignified peace that will result in security and stability throughout the country.

2.      The Jirga approves the release of 400 prisoners demanded by the Taleban in order to remove any obstacles so that peace negotiations can begin, to stop the bloodshed and observe the public interest.

3.      If there are foreign nationals among these prisoners, they should be handed to their respective countries upon securing credible guarantees from them [for the ex-prisoners].

4.      It [should] be ensured that upon the release of these prisoners, direct negotiations start immediately, without any excuses

5.      The Jirga calls for an immediate and lasting ceasefire throughout the country and calls on the international community, especially the US, to deliver on their commitments to the people of Afghanistan in this regard.

6.      The people and government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan [must] be assured that the prisoners who are released do not return to the battlefield and that their activities be monitored.

7.      Considering that the government releases the Taleban prisoners, the Jirga also calls on the Taleban to fulfil their obligation to release all civilian and military captives of the government and release them immediately.

8.      The haq ul-abd [victims’ rights] of those released by the Taleban shall be reserved in case of demand.

9.      We request the international community to prevent any interference by countries directly or indirectly involved in destabilising the country or supporting terrorist groups.

10.   While peace efforts are underway, the Loya Jirga members call on the government and the Taleban to cease armed violence and to resolve all disputes through talks. The people of Afghanistan will take a firm decision regarding any party that insists on the continuation of violence

11.   Islamic values, the role of the ulema, basic government institutions, democracy and the achievements of the people of Afghanistan [made] in the last two decades should be preserved and strengthened

12.   During peace negotiations, the principles of democracy and the republican system (jamhuriyat) as well as the fundamental rights of the citizens of the country, especially ethnic, religious [dini and mazhabi] minorities, which are enshrined in chapter two of the constitution and its other articles should not be compromised at all.

13.   The Consultative Peace Loya Jirga emphasises that the country’s women, who represent half of society, should enjoy legal and political status and should have a constructive role and participation in all phases of the peace process.

14.   The Consultative Loya Jirga members believe that the constitution is the national document and should be preserved. But in case of need, amendments to the constitution  are possible [only] through the mechanism provided for in [the constitution] itself.

15.   The Loya Jirga members recommend that the principle of national participation be observed in the formation of the High Council for National Reconciliation and national figures, political leaders, respected ulema, tribal elders, women, youths, civil society and other strata of society be included in its composition. In order to further ensure that the peace process is people-centric [mardomi], its activities should be extended to all provinces

16.   The Jirga emphasises the transparency of the peace process and expects the High Council for National Reconciliation and the negotiation team to provide information to the people of Afghanistan on a timely basis regarding any developments within the process.

17.   The country’s security and defence forces, as the guardians of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, should be supported and strengthened. Meanwhile, the heirs of martyrs of security institutions and victims of terrorist incidents [should] be better looked after.

18.   The Jirga stresses that in the course of negotiations with the Taleban, understanding [should] be reached on a clear mechanism to provide social order, security of installations and infrastructure and [broader] stability in the country to dispel people’s concerns.

19.   In order to pay tribute to the country’s security and defence forces, which are the pride of the people, it is recommended that the government commute the remaining prison terms of those among the country’s security and defence forces convicted of crimes [the amnesty of which is] under the authority of the president, with the exception of treason. In addition, those convicted on mere charges of [having had] relations with the Taleban should [also] be included in a [presidential] decree about an amnesty.

20.   The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is obliged to present specific guidance in the light of national interests and to take necessary action to further improve and strengthen the negotiation team and to strengthen women’s presence in all phases of the peace process

21.   The Jirga emphasises that the necessary conditions be created for negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taleban within the country as both parties are citizens of the country. If not, they should be held in a third, impartial country. These negotiations should be continuous and this process should not be stopped for any reason.

22.   The Jirga members are grateful for the cooperation and support of the international community, especially the US. At the same time, the Jirga members request that all countries and international organisations deliver on their commitments and continue their assistance and cooperation throughout the negotiations process and after a peace agreement has been reached at.

23. We request Islamic countries and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, especially Afghanistan’s neighbours, to help our people achieve permanent peace and stability, and fulfil their Islamic responsibility towards the selfless sacrifices of the mujahed nation of Afghanistan

24.   The Loya Jirga members announce their complete preparedness for providing any necessary advice and cooperation during the peace process and the government [should] make full use of the advice and capacities of the Loya Jirga members for ensuring the continuation of the discussion on peace, which is one of its [the government’s] priorities.

25.   Since the Jirga members have provided specific and detailed recommendations on various issues, which are useful for future action by the government, these recommendations [should] be sent to the president as an attachment to this resolution so that relevant institutions [can] be instructed in this regard

This resolution includes an introduction and 25 paragraphs issued by the Consultative Peace Loya Jirga members on 19 Asad 1399 (9 August 2020)


(1) This is part of a verse from the Holy Quran, saying “… and [conduct] their affairs by counsel among themselves”

Doors Opened for Direct Talks with the Taleban: The results of the Loya Jirga on prisoners and peace