Afghanistan to hold grand council of elders to discuss peace talks

Afghanistan to hold grand council of elders to discuss peace talks
By Reuters
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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan is planning to hold a grand council of tribal elders and political leaders next month to discuss how to end the Taliban insurgency, a presidential peace envoy said, as Taliban officials and U.S. diplomats prepared to resume talks in Qatar on Monday.

The assembly, known as a loya jirga, will be convened in Kabul on March 17, with more than 2,000 participants gathering for four days of debate under a large tent, according to Umer Daudzai, the special peace envoy appointed last year by President Ashraf Ghani.

The loya jirga is a centuries-old institution used to build consensus among competing tribes, factions and ethnic groups and was used to lay the foundations of a post-Taliban society after a U.S.-led campaign drove the hardline Islamist militants from power in 2001.

Having waged an unrelenting guerrilla war against government and Western forces since then, the Taliban has consistently refused to talk to the Kabul government, dismissing it as a foreign-backed "puppet" regime.

A loya jirga, however, could potentially provide a forum for representatives of the Taliban to enter into a dialogue with wider Afghan society.

"The main purpose of holding the loya jirga is to reach a national consensus for peace in the country," said Daudzai, who is leading preparations for the assembly.

Daudzai, a former interior minister, said it would also be an opportunity to make clear that the ultra hardline rule imposed by the Taliban in the 1990s, with its harsh punishments and restrictions on womens' rights, were unacceptable for Afghanistan's broader society.

"We will discuss in the jirga that the gains, particularly the rights of women and freedom of speech are not up for debate or concession," Daudzai said.

Participants invited to attend the jirga would be chosen by special committees to provide a voice for a cross-section of Afghan society from across the country.

On Monday, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is due to meet a Taliban delegation in Qatar for the latest in a round of meetings that started last year, with the focus likely to be on how to implement a ceasefire and the possible withdrawal of international troops.

The Taliban's political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will be the most senior figure attending the talks.

The U.S. side has been trying to persuade the Taliban to talk to the government in Kabul. Daudzai, who would lead any negotiations with the Taliban, said the insurgents would eventually have to engage with the government to address their demands for the exchange prisoners and removal of international travel bans on senior leaders.

With civilian casualties hitting record levels last year and more than 3,800 people killed, Daudzai said the momentum for peace was fast building and he hoped direct negotiations with the Taliban could start within two to three months.

(This story has been refiled to correct spelling in paragraph one)

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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