Eid Ceasefire: Where does it take Afghanistan to?

On May 23, the Taliban declared a three-day ceasefire for the Eid Al-Fitr celebrations.  In their statement, Taliban instructed its fighters to take special measures for the safety of their compatriots and not to carry out any offensive operations against Afghan security forces. Taliban fighters were instructed to not enter the Afghan-controlled areas. Only if the government forces were to take action or enter the Taliban-controlled areas, would the group members retaliate and defend themselves.

President Ashraf Ghani responded to the call for ceasefire in a generous manner. In his official Eid message, which he delivered at the Presidential Palace, Ghani welcomed the Taliban’s announcement. He said the Afghan security and defence forces will fully comply with the ceasefire and take control.

Just last week, attacks at the maternity hospital in Kabul and then at the funeral ceremony in Nangarhar province, provoked the president to take action. After the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) blamed the Taliban for the attacks, Ghani ordered security forces to switch into “offensive mode.” Security forces had intensified their operations in the “insecure areas” in western Afghanistan, assured the Ministry of Interior.

But with just the call for the Eid truce, Ghani made it clear that he too, was willing to accept the gesture. “As a responsible government we take one more step forward — I announce that I will expedite the Taliban prisoner releases,” he said in his address, vowing to release up to 2,000 prisoners and asking Taliban to reciprocate in kind.

As if this was not enough, Ghani acknowledged publicly, that the Taliban ceasefire did not expose the group’s weaknesses. “Some circles have instilled into the Taliban that accepting a ceasefire will weaken them; and in case they observe a cease-fire for a long period of time, they will lose their political influence/force.” That is not the case, Ghani pointed out. “I want to clarify that the Taliban are a reality of the Afghan society. Where the Taliban can prove this political influence is the negotiation table, not the battlefield.”

Ghani ended his message by reiterating that a “stable Afghanistan will lead to a stable region.”

War or peace? A question without answers

Although the Eid ceasefire has held, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted about attacks on the group’s militants in the Khwahan district of Badakhshan province. They also said they were not responsible for the shelling of civilian houses in Alishing district in Laghman. The Taliban has accused the Afghan government of violating the ceasefire.

Others, have raised questions about the government’s generosity and called it short-sightedness in the long term peace negotiations. Aref Rahmani, a representative of Ghazni people at the Lower House of Parliament, asked: “Isn’t the release of 2,000 prisoners just for three days of ceasefire too much?”

He went on to point that the Taliban prisoners had largely been convicted of serious crimes by the NDS and were serving long prison terms. Will releasing them pave the way for peace? “Wouldn’t these dangerous prisoners return to the battlefields and warm the battlefield?” asked the politician.

There seems to be many similar views since the situation in Afghanistan has become a game of quick victories and losses. In the midst of the U.S.-brokered intra-Afghan peace talks, every move is being scrutinised to understand the subtext and the long game.

Historically, the Taliban has violated ceasefire and continued violence in the past. Until just a few days before Eid, most Afghan provinces were gearing for a fresh wave of suicide bombings, mass shootings and bombings. Taliban’s attacks were peaking and even the UN and the U.S. had stepped in to condemn them on occasion. The situation had not been in the group’s favour. But then they announced the ceasefire and immediately won a lot of national and global goodwill. This action immediately put them in a positive light, so to speak. The Afghan government, on the other hand, has simply been reacting to Taliban’s actions till now. They have been shaky, and their political stance has not been clearly defined. They do not have an upper hand in the negotiations yet.

If the Taliban today, decided to launch a full-scale offensive, the government too will send the security forces out. As soon as the Taliban fighters retreat, the government will also take a defensive stance on grounds of not putting more citizens at risk. This has shown that the military strategy of the Afghan government is determined by the Taliban. The Afghan government though argues that they have done their part and always kept channels of communication open to negotiate peace, as seen by the establishment of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR). However, the question remains if the government has done enough for their “watan” (nation)? At this stage, the question is also, who decides what is enough – the external states and spectators, or the citizens of Afghanistan? When a deal is brokered by the U.S., who would benefit the most, keeping in mind that their leader is Donald Trump? These questions will remain unanswered for now.

Zackaria Noori contributed reporting.

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