BACKGROUND: Afghanistan has seen unprecedented violence this year – even supposedly tightly guarded neighborhoods in Kabul have come under repeated attack from the Taliban and its affiliated Haqqani Network, as well as the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Afghan branch of the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Under these circumstances, President Ghani offered the Taliban “unconditional talks” on February 28, offering the Taliban recognition as a political party, a ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners, and permission to set up an office in Kabul.
Unlike in the past, the Taliban did not reject the offer immediately. They remained silent for several weeks, which analysts attributed to ongoing discussions within the group on whether or not to accept Ghani’s olive branch. In late April, while announcing the start of their annual “spring offensive,” the Taliban finally rejected the government’s offer to hold talks, describing it as a “conspiracy” to divert public attention “from the illegitimate foreign occupation of the country.”
Yet Ghani announced a unilateral ceasefire on June 7, coinciding with the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. His offer excluded other militant groups, such as ISKP. This time the Taliban announced a three-day truce against the Afghan police and soldiers, for the first time since their ouster from power in late 2001. Their fighters, however, would continue their attacks on the U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan.
The first day of the Taliban’s ceasefire saw unprecedented scenes of Eid celebrations in Afghanistan, with Taliban fighters embracing Afghan soldiers and taking selfies with civilians. On the second day, Ghani announced that his government would extend the ceasefire for an additional 10 days. However, later the same day, a suicide attack on a gathering of civilians, security forces and Taliban militants at an Eid celebration in Nangarhar killed at least 25 people. On the final day of the Taliban’s three-day truce, another suicide attack in Nangarhar killed fifteen people and injured 45. Both attacks have been attributed to ISKP.
Within hours of the second attack, the Taliban announced that they would not extend the ceasefire. “Our fighters will now resume their operations across the country against the foreign invaders and their internal puppets,” its spokesperson said.
IMPLICATIONS: Those skeptical of a political and negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict will argue that the Taliban reaffirmed their commitment to violence by ending the ceasefire even before it could take root. Indeed, the Taliban carried out a major attack on the security forces just hours before their ceasefire took effect and ended it at the first sign of trouble.
Still, the ceasefire was a giant step for the Taliban, which have been in a state of continuous combat throughout the 24 years since their emergence. Consequently, upholding a ceasefire, albeit for a very short period, was hugely significant and perhaps even confusing for the organization. After the suicide attacks at Nangarhar, the Taliban slipped into their default mode, i.e. fighting. The Taliban leadership likely decided to end the truce fearing a revolt from commanders who opposed the ceasefire in the first place.
Expecting the Taliban to participate in talks or even extend the ceasefire at the present juncture is unrealistic; they are currently in a resurgent mode and gaining ground, and probably believe that victory is possible on the battlefield and within its grasp. A ceasefire offer from the government will likely be more productive when the Taliban are on the defensive.
Although those in the Afghan government and the international community who favor talks with the Taliban will be disappointed with their failure to extend the truce, this is not the end of the road. A peace process is a long and arduous process with periods of strife punctuated by ceasefires. The Taliban’s announcement of a ceasefire was a breakthrough, and they could become more amenable to such ceasefires, perhaps for longer periods, in the future.
Several factors, foreign and domestic, seemingly contributed to the ceasefire. Pakistani media has claimed that Pakistan and China “played a key role in brokering the ceasefire deal.” Although none of the main actors in the conflict has confirmed these claims, China has facilitated talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban as well as between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In December last year, the Chinese, Pakistani and Afghan governments jointly called on the Taliban to engage in talks. Ghani’s offer followed soon thereafter. If the Pakistani media reports are true, the ceasefires were the first tangible results of China’s efforts as a peace broker in Afghanistan.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s suspension of US$ 900 million in security aid to Pakistan earlier this year could also have prompted the Pakistani military to nudge the Taliban to announce the ceasefire, so that the U.S. would resume the aid. Despite their different approaches, there is scope for the U.S. and China to coordinate their efforts in Afghanistan.
International conflict resolution efforts are rarely successful in the absence of a favorable domestic situation, and growing public sentiment in favor of peace also pushed the Afghan government and the Taliban to announce ceasefires. In recent months, Afghanistan has witnessed scores of street demonstrations critical of both the Ghani government and the Taliban, and demanding peace. Indeed, Helmand province, often described as the Taliban’s “southern heartland,” has been the epicenter of powerful protests. Activists even marched from Helmand to Kabul to rally support for their cause.
Several parliamentarians have accused Ghani of announcing the ceasefire without consulting them. Amrullah Saleh, the former chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and a strong critic of Ghani, opposed the ceasefire offer as it would enable Taliban fighters to infiltrate cities for future attacks. If this proves correct in the coming weeks, Ghani’s critics will stand vindicated and will weaken Ghani’s already slipping hold on power.
The recent experience will likely prompt internal contradictions also within the Taliban, whose leadership was seemingly caught off-guard by the hunger for normalcy among its rank and file. The bonhomie between Taliban fighters, security forces and civilians has reportedly annoyed the leadership. For many Taliban fighters, the recent ceasefire was an eye-opener – they experienced “peace” and the joys of civilian life for the first time. This could weaken the grip of hardliners within the Taliban.
Since early 2015, clashes between the Taliban and the ISKP have grown in frequency and ferocity. Although the ISKP was initially able to win over a few disgruntled Taliban commanders and fighters, gaining ground in Nangarhar and Farah provinces, the Taliban has since dislodged the ISKP from Farah and confined it to a few districts in Nangarhar. However, the ISKP has continued to carry out high-profile attacks in Kabul, a matter of serious concern to the Taliban as this could eat into their support from friendly foreign governments and intelligence agencies funding Islamist extremism. Eliminating the ISKP is therefore a priority for both the Taliban and the Afghan government. The two ISKP attacks during the recent ceasefire, killing both Taliban fighters and Afghan security forces, reminded the government and the Taliban that they share a common enemy, which opens space for future collaboration.
CONCLUSIONS: The recent ceasefires provide useful insights into the Afghan conflict. The Taliban have signaled that they are not averse to ceasefires per se, and that a better-timed government initiative could persuade them to reciprocate. External actors can at best support a ceasefire and talks; requiring a better co-ordination of external efforts. Yet favorable domestic conditions are key to building a sustainable peace. The recent experience underscores the role that the Afghan public can play in pushing the conflicting actors to announce a ceasefire. It shows the importance of strategically building peace constituencies among the masses as well as the usefulness of a bottom-up approach to peacebuilding.
Although disappointing, the Taliban’s refusal to extend the ceasefire does not spell the end of the peace process. The Ghani government should persist with its efforts to get the Taliban to the negotiating table. The recent ceasefires have likely incentivized changes within the Taliban. Many of its fighters, who participated in the Eid celebrations, seemed weary of the endless fighting and keen to return to civilian life. Far from being a blunder, Ghani’s ceasefire has opened up space for a peace process in Afghanistan.
Image source: By: DFID-UK Department for International Development (Afghan President Ashraf Ghani) via Wikimedia Commons, accessed on 6.26. 2018