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KABUL (Reuters) – The reclusive Taliban leader pardoned members of Afghanistan’s former Western-backed administration in a rare public appearance on Friday and joined thousands of religious and tribal leaders gathered in Kabul from across the country.

Some 3,500 representatives, including members of minorities, arrived in the Afghan capital on Thursday for the first loya jirga since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last year, a large assembly traditionally held by Afghans to achieve consensus on important policy issues.

The conference came after a number of former administration officials returned to Kabul after months of exile abroad and declared themselves ready to serve the country.

In Friday’s speech at the meeting venue, Kabul Polytechnic University’s Loya Jirga tent, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada said he had pardoned them but did not see their future in the administration of the country.

“I don’t hold them responsible for their past actions,” he told loya jirga attendees, the state-run Bakhtar news agency reported.

“But amnesty does not mean including them in the government.”

Most of the country’s top officials left after its Western-backed government collapsed when the Taliban took power in August, following the withdrawal of US-led forces after two decades of war.

Akhundzada has been the supreme authority of the Taliban since 2016. Rarely seen in public, he has long kept a low profile. His last public appearance was in Kandahar City during Eid prayers in May, but the congregation could not see him and only heard his voice.

His direct appearance before the participants in the loya jirga was confirmed by government spokespersons and Abdul Wahid Rayan, the head of the Bakhtar news agency.

“He sat on the stage facing the audience and delivered his speech,” Rayan told Arab News.

At the Kabul rally, Akhundzada called on investors to return to the country and gave them security guarantees, saying dependence on foreign aid could not revive the country’s economy.

Afghanistan has faced economic and humanitarian catastrophe since the Taliban takeover, which prompted the United States and other donor states to cut financial aid, freeze $10 billion in country and isolate it from the global banking system.

“I ask businessmen to come to Afghanistan without any fear and invest in manufacturing factories because foreign aid will not help boost our economy,” Akhundzada said.

The loya jirga was convened by the Taliban to forge national unity, as unrecognized by foreign governments, they came under increasing pressure to form an inclusive government in order to gain international recognition.

Professor Naseer Ahmad Nawidy, professor of political science at Salam University in Kabul, said Akhundzada’s speech delivered “clear messages of tolerance, unity, obedience and solidarity to members of the Taliban while acknowledging their sacrifices.

He told Arab News: “It’s promising and it will boost the Taliban’s confidence in their leadership.”

However, he added that no perspective was provided on the country’s future, including “women’s rights, girls’ education, economic opportunities, use of technical expertise from all Afghans in governance and the optimism of youth”.