A Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, has wrapped up in Kabul, with leading Afghan politicians and tribal, ethnic, and religious leaders calling for an immediate cease-fire to help settle the nearly two-decade long conflict in the country.
Some 3,200 representatives, separated into dozens of individual committees, met in the Afghan capital under tight security to find common ground and discuss methods of reaching a peace deal with the Taliban militant group.
According to the state-run Afghan broadcaster RTA World, the Loya Jirga also called for a prisoner exchange and the opening of a Taliban office in Afghanistan.
Reacting to the Loya Jirga demand for a cease-fire, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he was "prepared to implement the fair and legitimate demand" for a truce but stressed it "cannot be one-sided," the AFP news agency quoted him as saying.
The Taliban later rejected calls for a truce, which the Loya Jirga proposed should start on May 6, the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
In a statement, the Taliban said waging jihad, or holy war, during Ramadan had "even more [holy] rewards."
They called the Loya Jirga "symbolic" and a "failure."
The Loya Jirga said the government in Kabul must have a central role in the peace process with coordination provided by the international community. It also said human rights, including women's rights, must be protected in Afghanistan.
Some opposition politicians boycotted the assembly, saying they had not been consulted by the government of President Ashraf Ghani, who organized the event. Afghanistan's chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, was among those saying he would not attend.
Ghani has alienated much of the country's political elite, who say they have been sidelined from the government's peace efforts.
Many concerns remain within Afghan society about a potential peace deal with the Taliban, with some people expressing worries that the militant Islamists would try to seize power and reverse advances in women's rights, media freedoms, and legal protections.
Hundreds of women attended the assembly and set out their "red lines" for any negotiations with the Taliban.
Semin Noori, head of one of the assembly committees, said that "withdrawal of foreign forces should not mean that all advances made in women's rights are forgotten and we are forced to suffer again."
Many leaders said the government and the Taliban must immediately agree to a nationwide battlefield truce as a prelude to a peace deal.
Abdul Hannan, a committee chairman who traveled from the south of the country to attend the assembly, urged "both sides to announce a cease-fire."
"The war will end only when both sides stop fighting before they sign a permanent peace agreement," he added.
"Every day, Afghans are being killed without any reason. An unconditional cease-fire must be announced," said Mohammad Qureshi, another committee leader.
Taliban negotiators 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.
The Taliban now effectively controls or influences about half of the country. Dashing hopes for any quick cease-fire, the militant group has announced the start of its spring offensive, despite taking part in several rounds of talks with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar.
Even if U.S. and Taliban negotiators strike a deal to end fighting in the 18-year war, the militant group would still need to reach agreement with Afghan politicians and tribal leaders before a sustainable cease-fire could begin.
Loya Jirga is an ancient Afghan tradition that has been convened at times of national crisis or to settle major disputes. It plays a purely consultative role but usually carries much influence in Afghan society.
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.