Afghanistan announces temporary ceasefire with the Taliban

Afghanistan’s President has announced a temporary ceasefire with the Taliban during Muslim festival Eid al-Fitr later this month.

In a video message Thursday, Ashraf Ghani said that all Afghan security forces would be instructed to stop offensive operations on Afghan insurgents between June 12 and June 21, the period this year in which Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.

“ISIS, Al Qaida and other international terrorist networks are excluded from this ceasefire,” Ghani said, adding that details of the ceasefire would be made public next week.

“This ceasefire is an opportunity for Taliban to introspect that their violent campaign is not winning them hearts and minds, but further alienating the #Afghan people from their cause,” Ghani added on Twitter.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the announcement, saying it demonstrated the Afghan government’s commitment to peace and would give the Afghan people a chance to celebrate the holiday in peace.

US will respect the ceasefire

“In support of the Afghan government’s initiative, NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and US forces in Afghanistan will respect the ceasefire, as it applies to the Taliban,” Pompeo said in a statement Thursday. “It does not apply to ISIS and al-Qa’ida, nor does it prohibit operations to defend Afghan and Coalition forces from attack.”

In a statement, General John Nicholson, commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan, described the ceasefire as “another bold initiative for peace” and said US forces would honor it.

The Taliban has not yet commented.

Pakistan, which exerts strong influence on Afghanistan’s Taliban, was apparently heavily engaged prior to this announcement, according to US officials. Pompeo spoke Wednesday night with Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Qamar Bajwa, according to the State Department.

US officials say that through Pakistani back channels and other mechanisms, the Taliban had expressed interest in the pause in hostilities.

“I think the fact that the Taliban have not yet rejected the offer…indicates they may be prepared to entertain” it, a senior State Department official told reporters Thursday. “We will have to wait and see how they respond.”

A US defense official said the Haqqani network, an offshoot of the Taliban that is based in Pakistan, will not be targeted if it abides by the ceasefire.

The 10-day temporary ceasefire comes at a time when there aren’t likely to be many military operations because of the Muslim holiday.

The decision came after a group of Islamic clerics from across the country met this week and recommended a ceasefire, according to Reuters.

But not all members of Ghani’s government are on board. “From a military prospect, it is not a good move,” former army general Atiqullah Amarkhel told Reuters. “It will give the enemy the opportunity to prepare itself for more attacks.”

He also said he doubted that the Taliban would adhere to the ceasefire.

Rumors of peace talks

Thursday’s announcement comes after an uptick in violence in Afghanistan, despite reports in March that suggested some factions of the Taliban had expressed interest in pursuing peace talks with the Afghan government.

Fourteen people including a district governor were killed in a Taliban attack in Afghanistan’s southeastern Ghazni province on April 12. At least another 14 were killed after an explosion at a mosque in eastern Afghanistan on May 6, but the Taliban denied involvement.

Ghani first spoke about the possibility of a ceasefire with the militant Islamist group in February, when he announced that the Afghan government was willing to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political party as part of a potential agreement.

“We’re ready to restart talks about peace with Pakistan again and forget bitter experiences of the past and start a new chapter,” he said.

Taliban strengthens its hold

The Taliban has been waging a bitter fight in Afghanistan with the ultimate goal of ruling the country and imposing its strict interpretation of Islamic law. The group controlled Afghanistan until 2001, when it was overthrown by the US-led coalition that invaded the country following the 9/11 attacks.

In recent years, a resurgent Taliban has taken control of significant swaths of the country and terrorized citizens and foreigners alike. Brazen terror attacks have even shaken the resolve of those who live in the heavily secured capital, Kabul, and raised questions over the Afghan government’s ability to protect the country.

A report by the US inspector general last month showed that the number of Afghan security personnel, who are tasked with defending the war-ravaged country from a continuing insurgency, has dropped by 10% in a year, a strong indication that a multi-billion dollar training program funded by the US is failing.

US military data released to CNN in January indicated that the Taliban strengthened its hold over the country in the second half of 2017, with 14% of Afghan districts under the control or influence of the Taliban or other insurgents. In November 2015, insurgents influenced just 7% of the country.