In a move termed as an act of desperation by some analysts, President Ashraf Ghani offered a three-month ceasefire to the Taliban beginning Monday on the eve of religious festival Eidul Azha.
The Afghan President made the offer in a speech marking Afghanistan’s 99th Independence Day on August 19. However, he made it clear that the Afghan security forces would start observing the truce once the militants agreed and reciprocated.
The same view was expressed by aides to Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah who formed the national unity government with his electoral rival Ashraf Ghani through the mediation of the then US Secretary of State John Kelly after their disputed presidential election in 2014. They argued that the government didn’t want unilateral ceasefire with the Taliban as it would be meaningless unless and until both sides agree and abide by any such agreement.
This is the second time that the Afghan government has offered ceasefire to the Taliban. The first offer was made in June before the Eidul Fitr holidays. Unlike the second ceasefire offer which is conditional and dependent on its acceptance by the Taliban, the first one in June was unconditional. President Ghani’s first offer of ceasefire was described as bold and path-breaking as it was unconditional and was extended even though Taliban started launching attacks soon after the expiry of the three-day truce announced by the group.
The Taliban announcement of the three-day ceasefire for the Eidul Fitr holidays in June was unprecedented as this was the first time in the 17 year war that the militant group had formally ceased fighting even though it was for a brief period. Taliban Rahbari Shura, the highest decision-making body, announced the ceasefire without referring to President Ghani’s offer and by avoiding mention of its acceptance or rejection. However, Taliban refused to extend the ceasefire beyond the three-day limit despite calls by the Afghan government, religious scholars and civil society activists as well as sections of the international community.
Apart from being for a longer period of three months, President Ghani’s second ceasefire offer is rather courageous as it has come not long after the Taliban assault on Ghazni, the seventh largest city in Afghanistan and one of the most strategic due to its location on the major Kabul-Kandahar highway at a distance of about 120 kilometres from the Afghan capital. Though most Afghans still appear to want ceasefire and peace talks with Taliban, it is possible the high percentages of support have dropped due to the rise in Taliban attacks, particularly the major ones like the August 10 night-time assault on Ghazni. The government-appointed High Peace Council, which was set up to promote reconciliation and hold peace talks with the armed groups such as Taliban, said its findings showed that the Afghan people wanted a permanent ceasefire with the Taliban.
It is also a fact that many Afghans, particularly those opposed to the unity government of President Ghani and CEO Dr Abdullah, don’t want any ceasefire with Taliban. Amrullah Saleh, the former chief of the Afghan intelligence agency, NDS, led a protest in Kabul against the government’s new offer of ceasefire. Amrullah Saleh argued that Taliban fighters didn’t deserve a truce as in a matter of one week they had murdered 1,000 Afghan security personnel and civilians. Other Afghans, including lawmakers, noted that Taliban only bring death and destruction and the blood of thousands of people shed by the group can neither be forgotten nor forgiven.
To show their opposition to the ceasefire proposal, some Afghans even declared they won’t allow Taliban fighters to enter government-held areas, including cities such as Kabul, as was the case in June during the Eidul Fitr holidays. On that occasion, unusual scenes of Taliban fighters mingling with Afghan soldiers, government officials and civilians in certain cities and taking selfies went viral on the social media and created hopes for peace finally returning to Afghanistan.
Taliban leadership was angered by such scenes and statements were issued by the Rahbari Shura and top Taliban figures such as late supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar’s son Mulla Mohammad Yaqoob instructing their fighters to refrain from this kind of behaviour in future. In fact, the repetition of such situations could be one of the reasons Taliban may not agree to the Eid ceasefire. Or even if the Taliban leadership directs its fighters to stop fighting during the Eidul Azha holidays without announcing a formal ceasefire, they would be told not to go to government-held areas and avoid mixing with Afghan soldiers, cops and officials.
In view of such strong opposition by sections of the Afghan population, the Afghan government this time made the ceasefire offer conditional. The government had held consultations with religious scholars, political parties and civil society groups before finalising its plans for offering ceasefire and peace talks to the Taliban.
Despite the domestic opposition, President Ghani’s move received widespread international support. Both the US and Nato strongly backed the proposal with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on a visit to Pakistan to meet officials in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s newly elected government, calling on the Taliban to agree to the ceasefire. The UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto also welcomed the peace offer while calling for a negotiated end to the Afghan conflict. Britain, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were among the countries that also welcomed the Afghan President’s ceasefire offer.
The US-led Nato forces had announced in June that they would abide by the Afghan government’s offer of ceasefire. However, Taliban had made it clear their ceasefire would apply to the Afghan forces only and the foreigners would continue to be targetted. This time it seems the Nato military commanders would again go along with the Afghan government’s conditional ceasefire offer. In fact, the Afghan government and the Nato forces work in close coordination as they are fighting common enemies such as the Taliban and the Islamic State, also known as Daesh and not part of any ceasefire proposal. Rather, the Daesh is seen as a spoiler in case progress is made in negotiating peace with the Taliban.
Until August 20, Taliban had neither accepted nor rejected President Ghani’s offer of ceasefire. A Taliban statement quoting their supreme leader, Shaikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, said Afghan soldiers in their custody would be freed on the happy occasion of Eidul Azha, but the release wasn’t linked to the government’s ceasefire offer.