World News

Afghan Leader Declares Brief, Unilateral Cease-Fire in Taliban Fight

Posted June 7, 2018 2:15 p.m. EDT
Updated June 7, 2018 2:18 p.m. EDT

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan declared a brief unilateral cease-fire with the Taliban on Thursday, a strategic gamble seen as a trust-building measure to encourage the armed group to conduct peace talks even as the war continues to grow deadlier.

The cease-fire, which Ghani said would go into effect next week to coincide with one of the holiest periods on the Muslim calendar, comes months after his government presented an extensive peace offer to the Taliban.

But just what the cease-fire could mean for the prospects of peace talks was unclear, with the resurgent Taliban dictating the reality on the battlefield and, with it, any moves toward peace over the last few years.

“This cease-fire is an opportunity for the Taliban to introspect that their violent campaign is not winning them hearts and minds but further alienating the Afghan people from their cause,” Ghani said in his announcement.

“Afghan national defense and security forces will only stop offensive maneuvers against armed Afghan Taliban and will continue to target Daesh and other foreign-backed terrorist organizations and their affiliates,” he said in reference to Islamic State fighters and other insurgents.

Ghani’s security officials said the decision to declare a cease-fire was discussed in Kabul on Wednesday with army corps commanders and regional police chiefs, who were sent back to their headquarters to prepare their forces for the halt in fighting.

The abrupt nature of Ghani’s call was sure to rattle military units, which have been pinned down by the Taliban and which, over 17 years of consistent fighting, have not given much thought to how they might carry out a cease-fire.

Many U.S. military officers advising the Afghan units were also caught by surprise, hearing word of the cease-fire only hours before it was announced. There are about 14,000 U.S. troops in the country, advising Afghan forces and carrying out counterterrorism operations.

One officer, who was not authorized to speak to the news media, said they were told in a planning meeting just before Ghani’s announcement that they would not be patrolling or advising during the cease-fire period, and that all ground movements would be canceled.

Gen. Akhtar Mohammed Ibrahimi, the deputy interior minister, said Ghani’s cease-fire plan had also been coordinated with the U.S. military, which is responsible for a large number of airstrikes against the Taliban.

Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said his troops would honor the Afghan president’s call for a cease-fire.

“We will adhere to the wishes of Afghanistan for the country to enjoy a peaceful end to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and support the search for an end to the conflict,” Nicholson said in a statement.

The statement said the cease-fire did not include U.S. counterterrorism efforts against the Islamic State, al-Qaida and other regional and international terrorist groups.

Borhan Osman, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan who has kept a close eye on militant movements here, said Ghani’s cease-fire announcement furthered the challenge presented to the Taliban by his offer months ago of a detailed peace plan that the militant group is still considering without a clear response.

But it also reflected a battlefield reality, he said, where “more than 90 percent of the attacks in Afghanistan are initiated by the insurgency these days.” The government is already on the defensive, he said, so it might as well use the cease-fire to build trust with the Taliban and test how serious they are about negotiating peace.

“The Taliban have always expressed concern that the government is not serious about peace, and not coherent enough to be a reliable partner for talks,” Osman said. “Today’s announcement could be a step toward addressing those worries, showing that Mr. Ghani as commander in chief has the power to halt offensives by all pro-government forces.”

It is unclear how the Taliban will react to Ghani’s unilateral cease-fire. The movement’s spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said he was consulting the leadership about their position.

Osman said the Taliban would closely watch the implementation of the cease-fire to see whether Ghani has full control over his forces, or faces dissenters who will rebel and take things into their own hands.