Thousands of leaders from across Afghanistan are taking part in a Loya Jirga, a four-day gathering of politicians, tribal leaders and other notable figures. The assemblies are convened to deal with issues such as constitutional concerns, electing new leaders or, in this case, a peace agreement for the decadeslong conflict in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Taliban, which have been seizing and holding territory in Afghanistan as U.S. forces have withdrawn, have spoken out against the Loya Jirga, claiming that it is being organized and influenced by outside powers, rather than by Afghans themselves. The Taliban have the momentum in the war right now, and during recent peace talks, the group has refused to meet with Afghan officials in an effort to delegitimize the government, which the Taliban see as a puppet regime. But the marginalization of Kabul is also a purposeful strategy for the Taliban; the group wants to minimize the government’s power in any sort of settlement.
However, the Taliban’s stance on the Loya Jirga may be softening. According to Afghan broadcaster Tolo News, the Taliban have allowed leaders from regions under Taliban control to attend the assembly, drawing praise from Mohammad Omar Daudzai, the head of the commission responsible for organizing the Loya Jirga.
While the Taliban have still refused to meet with the Afghan government in an official capacity, allowing leaders from Taliban-held territory to attend is a way to communicate with Afghan officials behind the scenes without publicly legitimizing the government in Kabul. It does not yet appear that members of the Taliban themselves are attending the Loya Jirga, but it will be easy enough for the attendees to pass along messages from the government when they return to Taliban-held territory. It’s also possible that the Afghan government is purposefully playing this up, and that it does not reflect a real shift in the Taliban’s position. It’s a subtle development, to be sure, but it could be a sign that some progress is being made behind closed doors.
Ultimately, the Taliban want the U.S. out of Afghanistan, but they know the U.S. won’t leave without a compromise in place. At a certain point, then, the Taliban will need to negotiate with the government in Kabul. Some Afghan officials, in a statement of their discontent with President Ashraf Ghani, are skipping the meeting. This gives the Taliban a chance to deal with the Afghan government on their own terms and to exploit the divisions in Kabul without losing the momentum they have generated thus far.