World News

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

Posted June 7, 2018 5:16 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 militant group to conduct peace talks even as the war grows deadlier.

The cease-fire, which Ghani said would go into effect for eight days starting 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 prospect of peace talks was unclear, with the resurgent Taliban dictating battlefield and, as a result, any moves toward peace.

“This cease-fire is an opportunity for the Taliban to reflect 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.

Officials said the cease-fire applied only to the Taliban and its brutal arm, the Haqqani network, which is behind some of the deadliest attacks. Operations against the Islamic State group, remnants of al-Qaida and other regional terrorist groups will continue.

The United Nations and representatives of European countries in Afghanistan welcomed the news of the cease-fire. Still, many diplomats said privately that they were caught off guard by the announcement, and senior Afghan officials struggled to explain the sudden move.

Many U.S. military officers advising Afghan units were also caught by surprise, hearing of the cease-fire only hours before it was announced.

Ghani’s announcement came 10 months after President Donald Trump reluctantly expanded the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan in the hope that the military could turn a corner in the long war. But with Afghan forces struggling to roll back Taliban gains, officials in Washington have expressed an urgent need to show Trump progress.

Last week, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan told reporters at the Pentagon that “channels of dialogue” had opened with the Taliban. Other officials played down the development or said that its revelation was premature. The Taliban rejected the claim.

The commander, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., said his will troops honor the cease-fire. The 14,000 U.S. troops under his command are largely involved in a NATO advisory mission, but they also carry out a robust campaign of airstrikes and smaller counterterrorism efforts.

“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.

If the Taliban halts attacks during the cease-fire, said Lisa Curtis, who leads Afghanistan policy at the National Security Council, it would “represent an unprecedented step forward in the peace process.”

“However, even if the Taliban does not reciprocate,” Curtis added, “this demonstration of the Afghan government’s seriousness about a peace process will illustrate to all stakeholders which party bears primary responsibility for perpetuating this war.”

The abruptness of Ghani’s announcement was likely to rattle his military units, which have been pinned down by the Taliban in some areas and, after 17 years of consistent fighting, have had little preparation for a cease-fire.

Some analysts feared that not enough thought had gone into how a cease-fire might play out at a time when the war has spread to nearly half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The presence of many militant groups makes the task much harder for a force stretched by daily fighting.

“Fighting is ongoing in 15 provinces, and the Afghan president announces the cease-fire,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a retired Afghan general and military analyst.

“Unilateral cease-fires are not helpful,” Amarkhel said. “Don’t forget that already the Afghan army isn’t attacking — it is defending. It will confuse the Afghan forces, the Taliban will attack and gain more, and it will affect the morale of the Afghan forces.”

But Borhan Osman, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan, said a cease-fire might be an effective countermove at a time when “more than 90 percent of the attacks in Afghanistan are initiated by the insurgency.”

With the government on the defensive, Osman said, it might as well use a cease-fire to build trust with the Taliban and test their seriousness about negotiating peace. The Taliban has yet to offer a clear response to the peace plan Ghani offered months ago.

“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 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 group’s spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said he was consulting its leaders about its position. Osman said the Taliban would closely watch how the cease-fire unfolds to see whether Ghani has full control over his forces.

Gen. Mohammed Sharif Yaftali, chief of the Afghan army, 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 for a halt in fighting.

Still, word seemed to be trickling down slowly based on interviews with 20 Afghan army and police commanders around the country. Only six were aware of the cease-fire when reached about an hour after the announcement, and they said they had heard it on television. The others said they were unaware.

“Cease-fire?” asked Sayed Jahangir Karamat, deputy police chief of Badakhshan. “No, no, no, I haven’t heard — the information hasn’t come yet.”

Other commanders said they welcomed the cease-fire but were skeptical it would amount to much.

“It will not work because we are not attacking the Taliban; they are attacking on us. We are not going out after them; they are attacking on us in our bases,” said Mohammed Naqib, commander of an Afghan border police unit in restive Helmand province. “Instead of making a cease-fire, we would rather like the president to release our salary.”

About 30,000 Afghan police officers have not been paid for months out of fear that the money was going to corrupt leaders.