On June 7, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made the surprising announcement of a ceasefire with the Taliban, to be effective from June 12-19. It was a bold decision but fraught with risk. It was risky in a sense that if the ceasefire was not reciprocated, it could badly undermine the government and particularly Ghani’s position vis-à-vis the Taliban as well as internal opposition, which still thinks that the Taliban should be militarily defeated. It was so bold a move that it has not been tried in the last 16 years. However, the ceasefire did have the potential of mounting pressure on the Taliban, particularly from a public craving peace.
Two days after Ghani’s announcement, the Taliban announced that they would cease all offensives against “domestic opposition forces” for three days. The Taliban said they would “keep attacking… international forces” while the Afghan government had already made clear it would strike al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The Taliban announcement of reciprocation and what happened during the first two days of Eid gave the government a chance to extend their ceasefire. In the announcement of the extension of the ceasefire, Ghani touched upon an important issue, which the Taliban have been demanding directly or indirectly since they regrouped in 2005: the presence of international forces on Afghan soil. Ghani added, “We are ready to discuss the role, existence, and future of the international forces.” This was immediately supported by the U.S. State Department, which issued a statement saying that “The United States is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions.”
During the three-day ceasefire, armed fighters including mid-level commanders of the Taliban flocked to district and province centers across the country where, among others, they met and talked with district and provincial governors. The public wholeheartedly welcomed and applauded them. They chanted and took selfies with each other. On one occasion, the interior minister of the government met, talked, and took pictures with the same Taliban who were — before the ceasefire and after the ceasefire — trying to kill each other.
On the first day of Eid, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, a suicide attacker targeted a gathering of the Taliban, police, and civilians that killed 25 people. The following day, the Taliban warned their members to avoid mingling with local people, including government officials, apparently to avert other similar attacks. However, this was alternatively viewed as an effort to keep Taliban fighters from getting too close to those they’d soon resume fighting against. Nevertheless, on the third and last day of the ceasefire, many Taliban joined gatherings of local people and government officials, including soldiers.
What happened before and during Eid was unprecedented, but not necessarily unexpected. In February 2018, Ghani offered unconditional negotiations to the Taliban, an offer which was neither rejected nor accepted. The lack of outright rejection was a positive sign, although the Taliban later rejected an invitation by Uzbekistan to host talks with the Afghan government.
In May 2018, prominent Islamic scholars from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia met in Jakarta to explore ways to persuade the Taliban to the negotiation table with the Afghan government. Most importantly, more than 2,000 Afghan religious scholars gathered in Kabul in early June where they issued a fatwa (religious edict) denouncing suicide bombers and requesting a ceasefire.
Ghani has attempted to re-establish a functional and friendly relationship with Pakistan, which is thought to have leverage over the Taliban. In addition, after curbing financial aid and issuing harsh criticisms, the United States is also seeking to normalize its relations with Pakistan. On the eve of Eid, highly wanted Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan leader Mullah Fazlullah was killed in a drone strike in eastern Afghanistan. Ghani did not waste any time in calling both the president and chief of army staff of Pakistan.
Furthermore, the Afghan government has also attempted to use China’s influence for the same end. China is seen as an impartial but powerful player by the Taliban. China can also encourage Pakistan given their multi-billion dollar trade and so-called all-weather relationship. China also has a growing stake in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan due to its natural resources and proximity to Xinjiang.
Given these three unprecedented points: the ceasefire by the Afghan government; reciprocation by the Taliban, and agreement by the United States to “participate” in discussions, it appears that political will is strengthening and momentum building among directly and indirectly involved parties.
Finally, looking into the nature of the conflict, this triangle is more mutually inclusive; the absence of any player rends any incomplete deal a failure. This seems to be the reason that the United States used the term “participate,” which indicates that the U.S is a part of the conflict, but not the core part. Although the Taliban, more outwardly, insist that they will only talk with the United States, it looks highly likely that the belligerents — the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the United States — will start negotiations together soon. The process appears to be underway already.
Hazrat Bahar is a Ph.D. student at Shanghai University and tweeting @hazratbahar