As the Afghan reconciliation process advances toward a deal for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan that may likely pave way for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the militia’s leadership is still reluctant to end hostilities by declaring an all-encompassing ceasefire.
Last week, a document billed as a draft agreement was leaked to media in Kabul. Key points include the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the release of some 13,000 Taliban prisoners over the course of two months, assurances from the Taliban that Afghan soil will not be used by terrorists for staging attacks against any other country, and the start of talks with the Afghan government, which the Taliban have so far refused to sit down with.
Left unaddressed so far is a ceasefire: a commitment that the Taliban will stop attacking Afghan security forces and public places alongside putting an end to attacks on U.S. troops. And such an end to hostilities is exactly what the average Afghan looks forward to. Last year was the deadliest yet for civilians in the 18-year-old war, with 3,804 dead and another 7,000 wounded.
The cessation of hostilities, however, seems to be a tricky subject with the Taliban leadership. Judging by their own statements and those of U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, one may assume that a complete ceasefire with the Afghan government, if it comes at all, lies at the far end of the road leading to the final peace agreement.
It was expected that the Taliban would announce a temporary end to fighting on the Muslim holy festival of Eid as a gesture of goodwill. However, the group continued to launch attacks against Afghan security forces despite the high hopes for an approaching settlement. The Taliban reluctance to declare a ceasefire, though, is understandable for several reasons.
First, many Taliban militants did not return to join the fighting after the first ceasefire with the Afghan government over a year ago. That was the first time since the overthrow of Taliban regime that the militants freely mixed with their compatriots. They received hugs, posed for selfies, and some were even presented with flowers by common citizens in the streets of Kabul and other major cities. Fearing a repetition of the same experience, Taliban leaders will not come to a complete ceasefire until they get what they want from an expected peace deal.
Second, the majority of the Taliban foot soldiers and their mid-ranking commanders have been brainwashed by ideologues. Over the years, they have been told they are performing a “sacred” duty by targeting Afghan security forces and Afghan officials. Applying the brakes to their “jihad” spree and ordering them to disarm may force many among the hardliners to defect to other groups, especially the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Taliban’s main competitor and adversary in Afghanistan.
Third, announcing a ceasefire without getting their preferred deal may also send a signal of weakness to the Taliban adversaries not only on the battlefield — such as the ISKP — but also in the political sphere.
Besides being engaged in bloody fighting with the ISKP in recent past, the Taliban have a history of fighting with the then-Northern Alliance as well as the Shia-Hazara community in the 1990s. The Taliban’s strength lies in their monopoly over violence, be that targeting the Afghan security forces or civilians. A ceasefire will take away that monopoly, and the advantage may shift to their ISKP adversary, a group whose agenda, unlike that of the Taliban, expands beyond the geographical borders of Afghanistan.
On a more basic level, it is precisely the Taliban’s violence and callous attacks that forced the United States and the Afghan government to give them more concessions at the negotiating table. One major reason for the Taliban not announcing a ceasefire, then, is not to lose the position of strength. Once they disarm their soldiers, the Taliban leadership will not draw more concessions at the negotiating table from their Afghan counterparts.
Fourth, a ceasefire may also cost the Taliban their foreign backing. Militarily, Taliban regional backers see the militia as a strategic partner to secure their interests in Afghanistan through their fighting power. Once the fighting is stopped, the Taliban will lose importance for their backers.
Fifth, and equally important, is ensuring the continuous flow of funding for insurgent operations. The militia gathers huge sums of money from local taxation, protection money from poppy farmers and drug dealers, as well as transactions from their sympathizers abroad, mostly Gulf countries, to run their operations. Once the Taliban put an end to the so-called holy war by entering into a ceasefire agreement and hand over areas under their control to the Afghan government, funds will cease to fill their coffers. None of the Taliban leadership is willing to let the huge sums of money go without being fully settled down in the seat of power in Kabul with maximum resources in their hands.
Sixth, over the years, the Taliban knack for fighting and carrying out complex operations have humbled the Afghan security forces in the remote districts, if not in the cities. The Taliban propaganda machine effectively highlights their victories, albeit in the remotest parts of Afghanistan, over the ill-equipped and ill-trained Afghan forces to impress the common Afghans. The Taliban’s terror tactics have not only sapped the trust of common Afghans in the strength of their government and security forces, but also affected the troops’ fighting capability. Calling a ceasefire, from the Taliban perspective, may provide breathing space that lets the Afghan government and its security forces review their strategies and regain their strength.
Finally, revenge-seeking is not uncommon in Afghan society, despite a genuine desire for lasting peace. The Taliban fear of revenge by the victims of their violence over the past 18 years is another factor keeping the militia’s leadership from accepting a permanent ceasefire.
Besides committing atrocities against the security forces and common Afghans, the Taliban also targeted powerful men and warlords during the past 18 years. Since the same people have gained strength, thanks to widespread corruption, since the Taliban’s removal from power, Taliban leaders may not escape revenge once their foot soldiers stop fighting.
For skeptical observers, the Taliban’s unwillingness to call a ceasefire is a trick to strengthen their grip over power once the U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan. But a different look may also reveal the fear factor that keeps the militia’s leadership from disengaging their fighters. More efforts with trust building may help achieve lasting peace in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan.
In a more promising sign, without announcing it, the Taliban in practice observed a ceasefire on August 11 and 12, the two days of the Muslim holy festival of Eid. The leadership had directed the militants to “protect” the Afghan people during Eid. But they stopped short of publicly calling it a ceasefire.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.