President Ashraf Ghani (left) speaks to delegates during the first day of Loya Jirga in Kabul.
Afghanistan's president opened a grand council on Monday of more than 3,200 prominent Afghans seeking to agree on a common approach to peace talks with the Taliban, but the gathering may further aggravate divisions within the U.S.-backed government.
President Ashraf Ghani hopes to showcase unity at the four-day meeting — known as Loya Jirga — that brings together politicians, tribal elders and others.
But Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, his partner in a unity government brokered by the United States after a bitterly disputed election in 2014, heads a list of no-shows.
Ghani's peace envoy Omar Daudzai said they had expected about 2,500 attendees but more than 3,200 gathered for the first day of the Loya Jirga, which ends on Thursday. They delegates will be divided into groups and committees and discuss negotiating points for future talks with the Taliban.
"We are all here to talk about the framework of peace talks with the Taliban ... reaching a sustainable peace is very important to us," said Ghani in his welcome address to delegates.
Waving a copy of Afghanistan's constitution, Ghani lauded it as the most Islamic of constitutions — an apparent message to the Taliban who have suggested they want to negotiate articles within the charter, without specifying.
In several rounds of talks with the Taliban, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has narrowed the gaps on a deal under which US forces would withdraw in return for guarantees that Afghanistan not revert to a haven for international terrorists. But Khalilzad has struggled to get Afghans to agree on a roadmap for the country's future.
The Taliban have refused to directly talk to Kabul representatives, viewing the government as a US puppet.
"We are all here to talk about the framework of peace talks with the Taliban... reaching a sustainable peace is very important to us.
"If Abdullah and his supporters don't attend, there's going to be a glaring absence of key stakeholders that will diminish the event's credibility in a big way," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center. "Given all the divides in Afghanistan, there is as much of a need for reconciliation within Afghanistan as there is for reconciliation with the Taliban."
The latest attempt at Afghan-to-Afghan talks - scheduled in Qatar earlier this month and intended to include the Taliban, Kabul government representatives, the opposition and other prominent figures - collapsed as the two sides were unable to agree on the participants.
The Loya Jirga, a deeply-rooted tradition aimed at building consensus among Afghanistan's various ethnic groups, tribes and factions, was intended to strengthen Ghani's hand but risks being seen as just a gathering of loyalists.
The Americans appear increasingly impatient with Ghani, with Khalilzad tweeting his frustration after the Qatar talks fell apart. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Ghani to urge him to join the talks in Doha, where the Taliban maintain an office.
Even Pakistan, which the US and Afghanistan regularly accuse of aiding insurgents, issued a statement saying talks were the only path to peace in Afghanistan. It promised not to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs and even condemned the Taliban's recent announcement of the start of their annual spring offensive.
"The so called offensives are condemnable and will undermine the peace process. It is not right to seek an edge in dialogue through coercion." Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan said. "Pakistan will not be party to any internal conflict in Afghanistan anymore."
Over the weekend, Khalilzad tweeted his approval of Khan's statement. The U.S. envoy recently met with representatives of China and Russia, saying there is an "emerging international consensus on the U.S. approach to end the war and assurances terrorism never again emanates from Afghanistan."
The State Department said the US, Russia and China called for intra-Afghan talks, urged a cease-fire and supported "an orderly and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan as part of the overall peace process."
The statement also said the Taliban have agreed to fight Islamic State militants in Afghanistan and sever ties with Al Qaeda, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement and other militant groups. It said the Taliban have promised to "ensure the areas they control will not be used to threaten any other country" and called on the insurgents "to prevent terrorist recruiting, training, and fundraising, and expel any known terrorists."
"Given all the divides in Afghanistan, there is as much of a need for reconciliation within Afghanistan as there is for reconciliation with the Taliban.
The Taliban effectively control nearly half of Afghanistan and have continued to carry out daily attacks despite their talks with Khalilzad. They have also refused to agree to any cease-fire before international troops withdraw.
A Taliban official familiar with the talks said the two sides are still haggling over a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops, with the Taliban demanding six months and the US seeking 18 months. The Taliban official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
But even as Khalilzad nears an agreement with the Taliban, he appears increasingly at odds with Kabul. During a visit to Washington last month, Ghani's national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, accused Khalilzad of personal ambitions and sidelining the government.
Ordinary Afghans, who have endured decades of war, express frustration with both sides.
Hajji Sher Aga, who owns a gas station near Kabul, complained about the lack of security and lawlessness. He blamed widespread government corruption and said peace with the Taliban was the only answer.
"The Taliban are also Afghan," said Hajji Noor Aga, one of his workers.
It was not immediately clear whether the US-Taliban talks will resume and when on ending nearly 18 years of fighting.
President Ashraf Ghani spoke during the Muslim holiday Eid Al Adha and as US and Taliban negotiators continue their work in the Gulf nation of Qatar, where the insurgents have a political office.
The start of the talks, envisaged under a US-Taliban peace agreement signed in February, was hampered by a series of delays that have frustrated Washington. Some had expected the negotiations to begin earlier this month.
Ghani said the message of the five-day gathering was clear: “Afghans want peace” and offered a ceasefire, though he stressed it would not be unilateral. In the statement on Friday, the Taliban rejected a ceasefire, saying attacks will continue during Ramadan but said “fighters are very careful of civilians during any operation.”
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