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Afghanistan Opens Loya Jirga To Discuss Peace Talks

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (center) attends a consultative grand assembly known as the Loya Jirga in Kabul on April 29.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has opened a four-day Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, with more than 3,200 delegates seeking to agree on a common approach to peace talks with the Taliban.

The Loya Jirga bringing together politicians, tribal elders, and other prominent figures was overshadowed by no-shows by several high-ranking officials, including Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani's partner in a unity government.

President Ghani's special envoy, Omar Daudzai, said that delegates from Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan were among the participants of the gathering taking place under tight security in Kabul on April 29.

Ghani told the gathering that he wanted to create a "unified stance" on peace. He called the participants "ambassadors of peace" in Afghanistan, and said the Loya Jirga delegates would determine the "direction" of the peace process.

The Taliban has vowed that any decisions or resolutions made at the Loya Jirga are "never acceptable to the real and devout sons of this homeland."

Taliban representatives have so far refused to negotiate with the government, calling it a puppet of the West, and have insisted on the withdrawal of foreign forces before talks with Kabul can begin.

The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of Resolute Support, a NATO-led mission that provides training and assistance to security forces in Afghanistan as they battle Taliban fighters and other extremist groups, including Islamic State extremists and Al-Qaeda.

Last week, the United States, Russia, and China said in a joint statement that they had agreed on the goal of withdrawing foreign forces from Afghanistan and to seek an "inclusive Afghan-led" peace process.

The Taliban now effectively controls or influences about half of the conflict-torn country. Dashing hopes for any quick cease-fire, the militant group announced the start of its annual spring offensive earlier in April, despite taking part in several rounds of talks with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

After several meetings with Taliban representatives in Qatar, Khalilzad has narrowed the gaps on a deal under which U.S. forces would withdraw in return for guarantees that Afghanistan will not revert to a haven for international terrorists. But he has struggled to get Afghans to agree on a road map for the country's future.

A Loya Jirga is an ancient Afghan tradition that has been convened at times of national crisis or to settle major disputes.

The most recent jirga was held in 2013, when the Afghan government endorsed a security agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond their planned withdrawal in 2014.

With reporting by Tolo News, AP, AFP, and dpa
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