The Taliban’s announcement Saturday of a temporary cease-fire did more than offer hope in war-weary Afghanistan for a quiet Eid al-Fitr, one of the most important holidays in the Islamic year.
It also added momentum — however tenuous — to efforts to launch a peace process that could finally end nearly 17 years of fighting.
Two days after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared an eight-day pause in hostilities against the Taliban beginning June 12, at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, the insurgent group made a reciprocal pledge to cease fighting government forces for three of those days.
The decision was made “in order to make Eid days and nights happy for the people of Afghanistan,” the group said in a statement.
The Taliban said that the cease-fire later this month would not apply to U.S.-led NATO forces and that it would continue to defend itself against attacks. The group continued offensive operations in the hours before the announcement too, with Afghan defense officials saying Saturday that Taliban attacks had killed 40 members of the security forces in northern and western Afghanistan in the preceding 24 hours.
We hope this will be the beginning of Afghan-led and Afghan-owned direct peace negotiations between the government and the Taliban.
But by the intractably violent standards of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s first cease-fire pledge was cause for hope, and the timing seemed to present an opening for talks to prolong the break in hostilities.
“That the Taliban chose their ‘unilateral’ cease-fire to coincide with the Afghan government’s announcement is a cautious step toward public cooperation with the government on peace,” said Ahmad Shuja, an Afghan analyst and editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Public Policy Review.
Many Afghans believe the government’s cease-fire pledge came at the urging of the United States, which is searching for a way out of the war after sending thousands more troops last year to bolster Afghan forces.
On Thursday, a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said the U.S. and its allies were “focused on … trying to find the right formula that enables us to reduce [military] operations, and that comes from a political settlement.”
A spokesman for the High Peace Council, the Afghan body tasked with handling outreach to insurgents, said the government welcomed the Taliban announcement.
“We hope this will be the beginning of Afghan-led and Afghan-owned direct peace negotiations between the government and the Taliban,” said the spokesman, Sayed Ehsan Taheri. “We hope trust is built on both sides for the extension of the cease-fire for peace talks and negotiations.”
The Taliban have long denied participating in official peace efforts, at least openly, and declined to comment on Ghani’s most recent offer, extended in February, to grant amnesty for militants who renounced violence and recognized the government’s authority.
The insurgent group’s shadowy leadership based in neighboring Pakistan — not wanting to be seen by their rank-and-file fighters as negotiating with the enemy — has publicly accused the government of not being serious about peace and of being a stooge of U.S.-led foreign forces.
Yet even as the Taliban have wrested more territory from the grip of the government — 35% of Afghans live in areas controlled or contested by insurgents, according to a recent report by the Pentagon inspector general — the growing toll of their attacks on civilians has weakened their lofty claims of aiming to liberate Afghans from what they describe as U.S. military occupation. Supporters of the Islamic State militant group also have carried out deadly attacks separate from the Taliban.
In recent months, a peaceful protest movement that sprang from Helmand province, the Taliban’s heartland, has been marching north and gathering support from Afghans of many provinces and ethnic communities in a call for talks between the government and insurgents.
Dubbed the Helmand Peace March, the strength of the protest caught both the government and the Taliban off guard. Their demands were echoed last week by the Afghan Ulema Council, a group of leading religious scholars who issued an edict in Kabul condemning the war and declaring suicide bombings as sins under Islam. (An Islamic State suicide bomber later attacked the gathering, killing at least seven people.)
“The Helmand Peace March is the most significant grass-roots peace effort to emerge from Taliban-held areas, a desperate cry for peace in a region ravaged by conflict,” Shuja said.
With growing anger over civilian casualties directed at both the Taliban and the government — especially following an airstrike by Afghan forces in April that reportedly killed dozens of civilians — the Helmand march “could give both sides a justification to engage in more confidence building measures around peace,” Shuja said.
Afghan military officials also were being cautiously optimistic. Gen. Muhammad Radmanish, defense ministry spokesman, said Afghan forces had carried out operations against militants on Saturday but military leaders were pleased the Taliban had responded to the government cease-fire.
“We hope that they’ll take the cease-fire deal to their fellow fighters and respect the Ulema’s decision, the people’s will and the country, as the government does,” Radmanish said.
Yet many remained skeptical. Retired Gen. Atiqullah Amarkhail dubbed the tit-for-tat announcements a “political game,” with each side trying to win public favor.
“The Taliban felt sidelined and worried about being isolated,” Amarkhail said.
Mahmoodullah, a 23-year-old university student in Kabul who goes by one name, said the first Taliban cease-fire in nearly two decades of fighting was praiseworthy, but said the pause in hostilities would collapse if Pakistan and other supporters of the Taliban did not crack down on the group.
“The government declared a cease-fire and got a positive response from the Taliban for the first time in 20 years,” Mahmoodullah said. “This shows that if the regional and international supporters of the Taliban would stop interfering, we’ll witness peace very soon.”
Special correspondent Faizy reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Bengali from Port Louis, Mauritius.
Shashank Bengali is South Asia correspondent for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @SBengali