Taliban Announce Brief Cease-Fire, Offering Afghans Hope for Lull in War
Posted June 9, 2018 7:40 p.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 24 hours in Afghanistan. More than 50, and possibly as many as 70, members of the Afghan security forces and pro-government militias were killed overnight in three provinces, 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 with 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.”
Overnight violence served as a reminder of how the deadly the war remains. In the Zawol district of western Herat province, the governor’s spokesman said 18 members of the Afghan army and police were killed in an overnight ambush Friday. In private, officials in southern Kandahar province said as many as 23 soldiers were killed in Shahwalikot district. The army, although confirming casualties, would not provide numbers. In the north, 11 members of the Afghan police were killed in Sar e Pul province and 25 members of a pro-government militia in Kunduz province.
Jarett Blanc, a former U.S. diplomat who was involved in earlier efforts to start a peace process with the Taliban, said the cease-fire provides an opportunity for both sides to demonstrate control over their armed forces.
“One problem you always get in insurgencies and negations is, ‘Who can I talk to? Who is in charge?'” Blanc said. “In Afghanistan, the Taliban genuinely doubt the government of Afghanistan’s ability to control the most important armed forces, which is ours.”
Conversations with diplomats and senior officials in Kabul suggest that the unilateral cease-fire announced by the government had not been coordinated with the Taliban or 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, 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. After the revelation, the Afghan government sought to convince the Trump administration to adopt a policy of marginalizing and isolating Pakistan over its support of the Taliban.
But some of the pressure the Trump administration exerted on Pakistan as part of its South Asia strategy was undermined by infighting and political bickering in the Afghan government. Before an expected midterm review, the effort has little to show a president who was reluctant to embrace it in the first place.
Increasingly, senior Afghan officials and Western diplomats in Kabul believe the United States is willing to take a direct role in peace talks with the Taliban. Pakistan remains a key component of that.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone with Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, a day before the cease-fire was announced. Bajwa is set to visit Kabul soon.
“We have asked for Pakistan’s assistance in facilitating a peace process, and we have sought to understand Pakistan’s own core security concerns and ensure that its interests are taken into account in any peace process,” said Lisa Curtis, who is in charge of Afghanistan and South Asia policy at the National Security Council. “The United States is ready to participate in the discussion, but we cannot serve as a substitute for the Afghan government and the Afghan people.”
Many saw the strong U.S. role in the Afghan government’s cease-fire announcement as an indication of a more hands-on approach. Senior members of the Afghan government did not know of plans for a cease-fire until a couple days before they were announced.
Blanc, the former diplomat, said the urgency to show Trump some progress is palpable.
“There is a deep concern amongst the Americans who want to see the American commitment to Afghanistan remain, that Trump is going to pull the plug,” Blanc said. “The idea that potentially someone is working to do something dramatic — no question about it. I would be shocked if that wasn’t somebody’s calculation, whoever is in the driver’s seat here.”