Can there be another, longer truce in Afghanistan?
Though the unprecedented cease-fire declared by the Taliban lasted just three days (June 15-17), its impact was significant as war-weary Afghans, for the first time in 17 years, did not have to worry about bomb explosions as they celebrated Eid Al-Fitr. Daesh continued to pose a threat, but the Taliban is the dominant armed group in Afghanistan.
The cease-fire made Afghans so happy that some said it was like a dream come true. They wished it lasted longer, or better still forever. There was not the usual uncertainty as the faithful celebrated Eid. Though the Taliban had said the cease-fire would apply to Afghan security forces only, not US-led foreign troops, it did not carry out any attacks during Eid. Taliban fighters were in a holiday mood as they visited families and friends to celebrate Eid together.
There were unbelievable scenes of Taliban fighters mingling with Afghan soldiers, cops and government officials during Eid celebrations across the country. Some of these happy scenes were captured on videos that quickly went viral and contributed to the feel-good atmosphere generated by the cease-fire.
Hopes were raised that peace was finally achievable, though there is no indication that another truce is possible, or that prospects for talks to end the war have increased. In a country that has experienced conflict for nearly four decades, particularly since the 2001 US-led invasion, Afghans consider even one day of calm a blessing. Like all good things, however, the cease-fire had to come to an end.
By June 18, Taliban fighters received orders to return to their positions and resume fighting. Attacks against Afghan security forces were reported soon after. The most serious happened on June 21 when Afghan officials in Badghis province, bordering Turkmenistan, reported the deaths of 30 security personnel in Taliban attacks on two checkpoints. They claimed that Taliban fighters used the cease-fire to do reconnaissance of the area and make preparations for the attack.
Such attacks would put President Ashraf Ghani under pressure to reconsider his announcement of extending his unilateral one-week cease-fire by another 10 days. His government has faced criticism for exposing security forces to risk by declaring one-sided cease-fires. Afghanistan could suffer more violence, which would harden the position of the two sides and make peacemaking difficult.
While refusing to extend the cease-fire, the Taliban reiterated its demand that all US-led foreign forces should withdraw from Afghanistan. It demanded direct peace talks with the US instead of the “powerless” Afghan government. The US insists that the Taliban talk to Kabul, as it is careful not to hurt the sensitivities of the Afghan ruling elite, which wants to remain in control of the so-called Afghan-led and owned peace process.
By observing the cease-fire, the Taliban proved that the group is united and disciplined despite claims by opponents that it is suffering from factionalism.
Though the Taliban had once in the past ceased fighting in one district in Helmand province, and had observed temporary truces in some provinces to allow polio vaccination of children to proceed unhindered, this was the first time that a countrywide cease-fire had been declared and strictly observed.
There was concern that it may not hold, but to everyone’s surprise there were no violations. The Taliban had excluded NATO forces from the cease-fire, but the latter abided by its word not to launch attacks.
The Taliban leadership responded positively to the Afghan government’s truce declaration, as the call had originally come from an impressive gathering of some 2,500 clerics in Kabul. Still, the Taliban tried to put a spin on its cease-fire decision by arguing that it was made to enable Afghans to celebrate Eid in peace.
It argued that by observing the cease-fire, it proved that the group is united and disciplined despite claims by opponents that it is suffering from factionalism. The Taliban interpreted the Afghan nation’s happiness over the cease-fire as support for its demand that foreign forces leave so an Islamic government can be installed.
The group claimed that the truce decision was taken by its leadership without any direction from an outside power. The cease-fire was limited to three days and excluded foreign forces, even though the Taliban had been urged to agree to a longer, all-inclusive one. This was against the backdrop of media reports that Pakistan, upon a request from the US, played a role in persuading the Taliban to accept the cease-fire.
A matter of concern for the group’s leadership was the abandon with which its fighters entered urban centers and agreed to be photographed with Afghan officials and security personnel. A stern warning was issued to Taliban commanders to take note of this wayward behavior and ensure their fighters do not repeat the mistake. It was a reminder that the Taliban needs to keep its fighters battle-ready to achieve its ambitious objectives.
— Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani political and security analyst. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar.