World News

Taliban Announce Brief Cease-Fire, Offering Afghans Hope for Lull in War

Posted June 9, 2018 11:13 a.m. EDT
Updated June 9, 2018 11:18 a.m. EDT

KABUL, Afghanistan — In a move that could inject life into a long-struggling Afghan peace process, the Taliban announced Saturday that they would halt operations against Afghan forces for the three days of the Muslim festival Eid al-Fitr.

Their announcement came days after the Afghan government declared a unilateral eight-day cease-fire, and for the first time it promised Afghan civilians, who have borne the brunt of the 17-year conflict, a temporary reduction in violence, which has only been getting worse in recent years.

The Taliban announcement came after another bloody night in Afghanistan. In three provinces, more than 50 members of the Afghan security forces and pro-government militias were killed overnight, government officials said Saturday.

A strong push is underway to restart a lackluster peace process, which has repeatedly broken down. It is underpinned both by the heavy daily toll of the long war on ordinary Afghans and President Donald Trump’s limited patience for the costly U.S. involvement here.

Many diplomats and officials in Kabul saw the cease-fire as a small gesture of trust-building at best, and warned that it was too early to pin too much hope on it as some of the most basic questions about a concrete peace process remained unresolved.

Although the Taliban statement did not acknowledge the government cease-fire, the moves by the two sides would overlap for three days.

For the festival, Taliban fighters “are instructed to stop their offensive operations against domestic opposition,” the militant group’s statement said, referring to Afghan forces. Eid al-Fitr celebrates the end of the holy month of Ramadan and begins June 16.

The Taliban statement said international forces in the U.S.-led NATO coalition would still be the target of attacks. But the movement of international forces has been limited in recent years under a curtailed advisory role, with a smaller counterterrorism mission that largely focuses on remnants of al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said their announcement was not in response to the government’s declaration of cease-fire. In past years, Mujahid said, the Taliban have instructed their fighters to abstain from attacks; but they could not announce that publicly out of fear that the government and the U.S. military would take advantage of it and amplify attacks.

“The reason for announcing it this time is that, after the Kabul administration announced theirs, the people were concerned that our Mujahedeen might continue operations and it might disturb their Eid celebrations,” Mujahid said. “We wanted them to be confident that we also won’t do any operations. But our announcement is unrelated to the Kabul administration’s”

Conversations with diplomats and senior officials in Kabul suggest that the recent unilateral cease-fire announced by the government had been sudden, uncoordinated with the Taliban and not the outcome of a broader, cohesive peace effort.

Over the past few years, as the United States has drawn down from the peak of about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, it has increasingly embraced a political settlement as the only end to the long Afghan war.

But just how that settlement could be negotiated has proved to be a difficult task, compounded by several factors, including the Taliban’s long but increasingly complicated relationship with the Pakistani military as a source of support, a weak interlocutor in the government in Kabul that’s marred by infighting, and the breakdown of consensus among regional players like Iran and Russia, who have stakes in an endgame in Afghanistan.

Although initial contact between the two sides brought sporadic success, there have been many setbacks. The only time the Afghan government came close to initiating substantive direct talks with the Taliban, in the summer of 2015, the process was derailed by news that the insurgent envoys they were meeting had, in fact, come in the name of a Taliban supreme leader who had died years before, the news of which had been kept secret.