‘Loya Jirga’ to decide on prisoner release begins

‘Loya Jirga’ to decide on prisoner release begins

Taliban wants 400 fighters to be freed

As Afghanistan began a three-day ‘Loya Jirga’ to decide on freeing about 400 Taliban fighters convicted for “serious crimes” including murder and abductions, India said it would support the Ashraf Ghani government on the issue, and that the government has been briefed on plans for intra-Afghan negotiations.

The ‘Loya Jirga’, or grand assembly of more than 3,000 representatives from around the country, has been convened after Mr. Ghani refused to release the men, an announcement that threatened to derail intra-Afghan talks, tentatively scheduled for August 10 in Doha. The Jirga was called after some heavy lifting from the U.S. pushing the Ghani government for a compromise, and has been followed by a videoconference meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Taliban deputy Mullah Baradar.

“The Loya Jirga is a highly respected traditional consultative body of Afghanistan and this meeting is an issue internal to Afghanistan. Our policy is consistent in the support of the government of Afghanistan,” said MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava, in response to a question from The Hindu. “PM Modi and President Ghani had a telephone conversation on 3rd August, and our Ambassador in Kabul is in touch with the leadership there and is being briefed on all matters,” he added. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Mr. Pompeo also spoke on Thursday night, and discussed Afghanistan amongst other issues.

The outcome of the meeting is not completely certain, as many of the delegates have publicly expressed their opposition to the release of Taliban convicts. On Friday, Afghan MP Bilquis Roshan was virtually pushed out of the Loya Jirga after she held up a banner and raised slogans against the move, at the start of the assembly. Addressing the Jirga, Mr. Ghani said he would implement its advice on the prisoner release, adding that talks with the Taliban would begin in “three days” if the 400 men were freed, and that the Taliban has warned of more bloodshed if they aren’t.

In a statement on Thursday, Mr. Pompeo acknowledged the difficulties ahead for the Jirga. “We acknowledge 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,” he said, urging the early release of the prisoners.

The prisoner exchanges are part of the agreements signed by the U.S. and Taliban and the U.S. and Ghani government in February this year. However, these were delayed for several months, and the intro-Afghan talks, that were set for March 10 had to be put off. After pushing for the Ghani government to complete the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and for the Taliban to release 1,000 Afghan soldiers and civilians in its custody. On July 15, the U.S. also announced it had withdrawn forces from five military bases, and reduced its troop strength to about 8,000. Over the past few weeks, the U.S. government has been keen to speed up the reconciliation process, ostensibly with an eye on the November Presidential elections.

“This is not the first time the U.S. has brought pressure on the Ghani government in order to push ahead with the “reconciliation” process with the Taliban. Earlier too, the U.S. had threatened to withhold funds unless the prisoner release was started,” said former Ambassador to Kabul Gautam Mukhopadhyay.

“India should support any genuine peace process. But so far, this is one-sided and pushed by the U.S. and Pakistan”, he added, recommending that India should not recognise or publicly engage the Taliban until it recognises the Ghani government, something the militant group has yet to do.

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