KABUL -- A grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, has opened in Afghanistan's capital to decide whether to release a final 400 Taliban prisoners, the last hurdle to opening peace talks between the internationally backed government and the Taliban under a peace deal between the militants and the United States.
Thousands of Afghan elders, community leaders, and politicians gathered on August 7 in Kabul to debate the fate of the 400 hard-core Taliban prisoners.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani opened the Loya Jirga by saying that according to the constitution, "the release of these 400 prisoners is not within the authority of the president of Afghanistan...these 400 people have serious cases."
Last week, Ghani ordered the release of 500 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture amid a three-day cease-fire proposed by the Taliban and agreed to by the Afghan government that ended on August 2.
Ghani said the government had released 4,600 Taliban prisoners out of the 5,000 pledged in a landmark agreement signed in February by the United States and the Taliban.
Ghani then announced he would summon the Loya Jirga to decide the fate of the remaining 400 prisoners on the Taliban's list.
The Loya Jirga is being led by Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, who took over the leadership of the Loya Jirga from its previous head, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a warlord and close ally of Ghani's.
Abdullah, Ghani's former bitter rival, was appointed to lead the High Council to end political infighting in Kabul.
Critics have accused Ghani of delaying peace talks with the Taliban to retain power because it is widely speculated that negotiations could seek a neutral interim government.
Ghani, who has insisted he will complete his five-year term, won a disputed presidential election last year against Abdullah.
Abdullah said on August 7 that Afghanistan was at a critical juncture.
"Our decisions are linked to the fate of the country. It was not an easy decision on the 4,600 detainees.... It was a big decision. But what does it show? The determination of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in removing obstacles to achieving intra-Afghan talks and ultimately peace and stability in this country," he said.
The Taliban, meanwhile, has denied that the 400 inmates are especially dangerous.
"The accusations they [the Afghan government] are now making are not true. In fact, these accusations were made by the Kabul administration for delaying the process and taking advantage of it. Other than that, those [accusations] have no basis," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told RFE/RL from Doha, where the militants have an office.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged attendees "to take advantage of this historic opportunity for a peace that benefits all Afghans and contributes to regional stability and global security" and promised to hold the Taliban to the commitment it made to enter peace talks.
"We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular," Pompeo said in a statement on August 6.
"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."
The Taliban says it has freed all 1,000 prisoners it had pledged in the agreement with U.S. negotiators and insists on its demand for the release of the remaining 400 prisoners on its list.
U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the deal allowing the United States to withdraw its forces and end its longest-ever war, warned against the Loya Jirga throwing up any complications.
"We wish the jirga participants success...and urge them not to allow those who prefer the status quo and seek to complicate the path to peace to manipulate the process," Khalilzad said on Twitter.
The United States has reportedly proposed that the Taliban prisoners be transferred from Afghan jails to a location where they would be under both Taliban and Afghan government surveillance.
Of the 400 Taliban prisoners left, around 200 are accused by the government of masterminding attacks on embassies, public squares, and government offices, killing thousands of civilians in recent years.
The Loya Jirga, held under a giant tent, is a centuries-old institution used to build consensus among Afghanistan's rival tribes, factions, and ethnic groups.
Such a meeting is traditionally convened under extraordinary circumstances to discuss matters of national importance.
Since the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February, 3,560 Afghan security personnel have been killed in attacks by militants, Ghani said last week. He said thousands more had been wounded.
In the same week, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a report that more than 1,280 Afghan civilians had been killed during the first half of 2020 -- mainly as a result of fighting between Afghan government forces and Taliban militants.
With reporting by Reuters and AP