Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks on the last day of the Afghan Loya Jirga meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 3, 2019.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks on the last day of the Afghan Loya Jirga meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 3, 2019.

ISLAMABAD - An Afghan grand assembly, or loya jirga, ended Friday with the delegates in Kabul demanding peace with the Taliban, as President Ashraf Ghani promised to free 175 Taliban prisoners ahead of Ramadan, which begins in a few days.

The Afghan Taliban, for their part, responded harshly to demands for a cease-fire, saying the United States should end the use of force instead. 

"@US4AfghanPeace should forget about the idea of us putting down our arms. Instead of such fantasies, he should drive the idea home (U.S.) about ending the use of force & incurring further human & financial losses for the decaying Kabul administration," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a tweet.

He appeared to be referring to Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, who started a sixth round of direct negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday as the jirga was taking place. 

US envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad
FILE - U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad speaks during a debate at Tolo TV channel in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 28, 2019.

"It is time to put down arms, stop the violence, & embrace peace," Khalilzad said on Twitter.

Cease-fire vs. foreign troop exit

The government says the jirga was convened to allow delegates from Afghan society to formulate the parameters of negotiations with the Taliban.

In its final resolution presented Friday, the jirga demanded an immediate cease-fire.

The Taliban in turn issued their own formula for peace in the form of an op-ed on their website, titled, "What is the path towards Peace?"

"[O]ccupation and war are tied on a linear string as cause and effect," the piece read, adding that without the removal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, peace cannot be achieved.

The Taliban insist on postponement of an intra-Afghan dialogue involving the current Kabul administration until foreign troops are out of the country. Pressure has increased on the Taliban to include the government in peace negotiations as China, Russia and other regional countries add their support to this U.S. demand.

"So, when the occupation ends and the foreign aspect of war [is] removed from the equation, peace then requires the Afghans, especially the political class to be lenient, cordial and forgiving by learning from historic experiences and working hand in hand with one another to achieve the common goal of the people, a peaceful Islamic government," the opinion piece stated.

Prisoner release

Even though the Taliban have engaged with Afghan stakeholders in the past, including opposition politicians, they refuse to have direct talks with official representatives of the Kabul government, labeling it a puppet of foreign occupiers.

Delegates attend the last day of the Afghan Loya J
Delegates attend the last day of the Afghan Loya Jirga meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 3, 2019.

Ghani announced that he was ready to implement more than 20 recommendations of the jirga immediately. As a gesture of goodwill, Ghani pledged to release 175 Taliban from Afghan prisons.

Apart from an immediate cease-fire, the jirga also recommended the opening of a Taliban political office in Afghanistan, a prisoner exchange, preservation of human rights, including the rights of women during negotiations with the Taliban, and the formation of an all-inclusive negotiation team to talk to the Taliban.

Ghani has repeatedly asked the Taliban to move their peace negotiations to Afghanistan and promised them a political office and security. So far, the Taliban have ignored his requests, and usually meet Khalilzad and his team in Doha, where they have maintained an unofficial political office for years.

While the loya jirga does not have legal status, analysts say its recommendations will put public pressure on the Taliban.

The jirga was not without controversy. A majority of opposition politicians, including 12 presidential candidates, boycotted the jirga, calling it a waste of money and a campaign stunt by Ghani, who seeks a second term in presidential elections scheduled for September.