The Afghan government and the Taliban are on the verge of starting peace talks aimed at ending almost two decades of war in Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani said that he will approve the release of 400 Taliban militants.
Ghani announced his intention to sign a decree to release the militants on August 9, shortly after the move was recommended by 3,400 prominent Afghans at a three-day Loya Jirga in Kabul.
The decision came more than five months after Washington and the Taliban made the release of prisoners by both sides a condition for the talks between the militant group and Kabul.
The talks will start in Doha, Qatar, after the completion of the prisoner release, expected in the next few days, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Twitter.
Khalilzad welcomed Ghani’s decision and the declaration of the Loya Jirga, a traditional meeting of Afghan tribal elders and other stakeholders convened to decide on controversial national issues.
“The parties will embark on a process to reach an agreement on a political roadmap & a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire to end the Afghan war,” he said on Twitter.
The United States supports the process to achieve a sustainable peace and the goal of attaining “a sovereign, unified, and democratic Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors and does not pose a threat to the world,” he added.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Reuters that the Taliban had agreed to start the talks within 10 days but declined to commit to a cease-fire as requested by Ghani, saying it will be decided during the talks, not before.
The Afghan delegation is to be led by the former head of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, Masoom Stanakzai. The delegation will include Afghan politicians, former officials and representatives of civil society. Kabul has previously said that five members of the delegation would be women.
Ghani had called for the Loya Jirga, saying that he did not have the authority under Afghanistan's constitution to release the 400 prisoners from Afghan jails because they'd committed violent crimes.
"The decision of the Loya Jirga has removed the last excuse and obstacles on the way to peace talks. We are on the verge of peace talks," said Abdullah Abdullah, who headed the meeting and who is head of the High Council for National Reconciliation.
Kabul already has released 4,600 Taliban inmates out of the 5,000 pledged in the landmark agreement signed in February by the United States and the Taliban.
But Afghan officials have described the remaining prisoners as dangerous. About 200 of them are accused by the Afghan government of masterminding attacks on embassies, public squares, and government offices, killing thousands of civilians in recent years.
The Taliban says it has freed all 1,000 government prisoners it had pledged in the agreement with the United States and insisted on the release of the remaining 400 prisoners.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who is up for reelection in November, has said repeatedly that he wants to end America's longest war, which began after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
With about three months to go until the election, Trump is eager to fulfill his promise to bring an end to the war and continue withdrawing U.S. troops.
The drawdown will bring the number of U.S. troops to "a number less than 5,000" by the end of November, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in an interview broadcast on August 8.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP