KABUL: US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on Wednesday hailed the Taliban and Afghan government’s decision to observe a truce during the upcoming Eid Al-Adha festival.
And experts said the cease-fire could pave the way for the start of long-awaited peace talks between the two sides.
“We welcome the Taliban announcement of an Eid cease-fire and the Afghan government’s reciprocal announcement … Our hope is this Eid brings all Afghans together in understanding and mutual respect and one step closer to a sustainable peace,” Khalilzad, who brokered a deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in February, said in a tweet.
The agreement stipulated the departure of all foreign troops from Afghanistan by next spring.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Taliban ordered its fighters “not to carry out any kind of attacks against the enemy” during the three days and nights of a major festival observed by Muslims across the world which is expected to start on Friday, adding that they would “retaliate strongly” only if attacked.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s embattled government, which has faced increasing attacks by the Taliban amid a US drawdown, immediately responded with a positive note.
“The Afghan government has taken all necessary steps to show its commitment to the peace process and calls on the Taliban to show commitment too. The Afghan people are tired of war, and it must end,” Ghani’s chief spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said, adding that the government welcomed the move but that the “Afghan people wanted a lasting cease-fire.”
The Eid truce has revived hopes for the start of the twice-delayed intra-Afghan talks, which have been derailed by disputes between the Taliban and the government, specifically over Kabul’s failure to release all 5,000 Taliban inmates – as part of the February deal – and the insurgents’ refusal to halt attacks on local forces.
Last week, government officials said the escalation of Taliban attacks might damage the prospect of peace talks, blaming the militants for stepping up strikes since the Qatar accord.
On Tuesday, speaking at an event in Kabul, Ghani said apart from the loss of civilian lives, 3,560 Afghan forces personnel had been killed and nearly 6,800 others wounded in Taliban attacks in the past five months.
The Taliban’s decision to halt attacks during Eid came soon after Ghani said the swap of prisoners – despite opposition from the government – would be completed and direct negotiations with the Taliban would start in a week.
A few days before that, the Taliban had said that the negotiations would begin after Eid, while Khalilzad this week confirmed the reports by saying that the intra-Afghan talks had “never been so close.”
Under the Qatar deal, Washington has already pulled out thousands of troops and vacated some bases in the east and southern parts of Afghanistan.
Similar to some former and current US military and civil officials, Ghani has spoken against what he calls a hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan where Washington had engaged in 19 years of war – the most protracted conflict in US history – after overthrowing the Taliban from power in 2001.
Secluded from the Qatar talks, Ghani’s administration had vehemently opposed any agreement made on its behalf, particularly over the prisoner swap program. It demanded that any negotiations with the Taliban “be led and owned” by his government.
Analysts said that with US President Donald Trump’s administration increasing pressure and withdrawing forces, the Afghan government had little choice but to cooperate in the prisoner swap deal.
“US pressure brought Ghani to release the remaining Taliban prisoners and push from other parts of the world and at home to start intra-Afghan talks. In my mind this is not his decision, this is the result of the pressure that is on him from home, the international community, especially by the US,” Nasratullah Haqpal, a political analyst on regional affairs, told Arab News.
He added that with US elections approaching, Trump would use the start of the intra-Afghan talks and withdrawal of troops as a poll campaign topic, adding that “the start of negotiations will be a complicated process.”
Zubair Shafiqi, another analyst from Kabul, said: “Local frustration, growing poverty, rising crime, insecurity, and internal fighting over the distribution of power between Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah (Ghani’s election rival and now head of the peace council), are other factors that pushed Ghani to free remaining Taliban and promise to start talks after Eid.”