KABUL -- Several thousand Afghan politicians and community leaders are meeting in a traditional grand assembly in Afghanistan's capital to decide whether the government should release 400 Taliban prisoners that have been convicted of involvement in deadly, high-profile attacks in the country.
The release of the prisoners is the last hurdle to opening peace talks between the internationally backed government in Kabul and the Taliban under a peace deal between the militants and the United States.
Kabul said it 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 authorities have balked at freeing the remaining prisoners demanded by the Taliban.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that according to the Afghan Constitution, "the release of these 400 prisoners is not within the authority of the president of Afghanistan...these 400 people have serious cases.”
Ghani, addressing the 3,200 delegates who gathered in a massive tent in Kabul on August 7, stressed that he would "strongly endorse and support any decision."
The three-day Loya Jirga is a traditional gathering of ethnic, religious, and political leaders who decide on matters of national importance.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged attendees "to take advantage of this historic opportunity for a peace that benefits all Afghans and contributes to regional stability and global security" and promised to hold the Taliban to the commitments it made to enter peace talks.
"We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular," Pompeo said in a statement on August 6. "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."
Lawmaker Belquis Roshan, a women's rights activist attending the gathering, protested against the potential release of the prisoners.
As Ghani spoke, she stood in the hall and unfurled a banner that read: "Redeeming the Taliban is national treason."
Roshan was escorted out of the tent by security guards.
Last week, Ghani ordered the release of 500 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture amid a three-day cease-fire proposed by the Taliban and agreed to by the Afghan government that ended on August 2. But those prisoners were not on the Taliban’s list.
Ghani then announced that the Loya Jirga delegates would decide whether to release the remaining 400 prisoners on the Taliban's list.
The Loya Jirga is headed by Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, who took over the leadership of the Loya Jirga from its previous head, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a former warlord and close ally of Ghani's.
Abdullah, Ghani's bitter rival in a disputed presidential election last year, was appointed to lead the council to end political infighting in Kabul.
Critics have accused Ghani of delaying peace talks with the Taliban to retain power because it is widely speculated that negotiations could seek a neutral interim government.
Ghani has insisted he will complete his five-year term.
Abdullah said on August 7 that Afghanistan was at a critical juncture.
“Our decisions are linked to the fate of the country. It was not an easy decision on the 4,600 detainees.... It was a big decision. But what does it show? The determination of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in removing obstacles to achieving intra-Afghan talks and ultimately peace and stability in this country,” Abdullah said.
The Taliban, meanwhile, has denied that the 400 inmates are especially dangerous.
“The accusations [the Afghan government is] now making are not true. In fact, these accusations were made by the Kabul administration for delaying the process and taking advantage of it. Other than that, those [accusations] have no basis,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told RFE/RL from Qatar, where the militants have a political office.
But Afghan officials have described the remaining prisoners as dangerous.
Of the 400 Taliban prisoners left, around 200 are accused by the Afghan government of masterminding attacks on embassies, public squares, and government offices, killing thousands of civilians in recent years.
They include militants linked to the 2018 attack against the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul that killed 40 people, including 14 foreigners.
Another Taliban prisoner is linked to the massive May 2017 truck bombing near the German Embassy in Kabul that killed over 100 people.
Also on the list is a former Afghan Army officer who killed five French troops and wounded 13 in 2012 in an insider attack.
The Taliban says it has freed all 1,000 prisoners it had pledged to in the agreement with the United States and insists on its demand for the release of the remaining 400 prisoners on its list.
The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the deal that potentially allows the United States to withdraw its forces and end its longest-ever war, warned against the Loya Jirga throwing up any complications.
"We wish the jirga participants success...and urge them not to allow those who prefer the status quo and seek to complicate the path to peace to manipulate the process," Khalilzad said on Twitter.
The United States has reportedly proposed the Taliban prisoners be transferred from Afghan jails to a location where they would be under both Taliban and Afghan government surveillance.
The Loya Jirga is a centuries-old institution used to build consensus among Afghanistan's rival tribes, factions, and ethnic groups.
Such a meeting is traditionally convened under extraordinary circumstances.
Since the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February, 3,560 Afghan security personnel have been killed in attacks by militants, Ghani said last week. He said thousands more have been wounded.
In the same week, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a report that more than 1,280 Afghan civilians had been killed during the first half of 2020 -- mainly as a result of fighting between Afghan government forces and Taliban militants.