A ceasefire isn’t easy for the Taliban leadership
Predictably, without any incentive or compulsion to engage with the Afghan government at this time, the Taliban turned down President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of a ceasefire to coincide with the start of the holy month of Ramadan earlier this month.
In fact, despite ongoing Taliban-US peace talks in Qatar giving rise to hopes that the insurgent group might not undertake its ‘spring offensive’ this year, they officially launched it in April.
President Ghani made the fresh ceasefire offer in response to the recommendations made by the consultative loya jirga, a grand assembly of 3,200 Afghan politicians, tribal and religious elders and other prominent figures, that met late last month in Kabul to finalize the roadmap for peace in the country. He also announced the release of 175 Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. He made it clear however, that the ceasefire could not be one-sided so the Taliban must abide by it to make it work.
The loya jirga demanded an immediate and permanent ceasefire, a central role for the Afghan government in the peace process, the protection of women’s rights, the exchange of prisoners and the opening of a Taliban office in Afghanistan.
As expected, the proposal for the ceasefire was rejected by the Taliban and they argued that waging holy war, or jihad, during Ramadan had “even more rewards.” Having already termed the thousands of loya jirga members allies of the Afghan government, it was obvious the Taliban were’t going to be accepting any proposals made by the gathering.
Having already termed the thousands of loya jirga members allies of the Afghan government, it was obvious the Taliban were’t going to be accepting any proposals made by the gathering.
This isn’t the first time that President Ghani had proposed a ceasefire to the Taliban, who have repeatedly spurned the offers. The only exception was the unprecedented three-day ceasefire that both sides fully observed over the Eid Al-Fitr holidays in June 2018 — the first ceasefire in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war in October 2001. Unprecedented scenes were witnessed as Taliban fighters crossed the front-lines to enter towns and cities, embracing soldiers, cops and civilians and posing for selfies. It raised expectations of a longer ceasefire leading to peace talks. However, the Taliban refused to extend or agree to another ceasefire during subsequent religious holidays.
The Afghan President had also declared a ceasefire in August 2018 soon after his government lost the historic city of Ghazni to the Taliban and recaptured it five days later with the support of US forces. He had offered a provisional three-month ceasefire until November 2018. But this offer too had no takers.
It hasn’t been easy for the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire. The one time they accepted the ceasefire on the occasion of Eid last June wasn’t a happy experience for the leadership as it was upset because of Taliban fighters mixing freely with Afghan security personnel and expressing their happiness so openly.
Certain Taliban leaders, including deputy chief Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of late Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, issued audio messages reprimanding their fighters for violating discipline and asking them to refrain from such behavior in the future. Fearing a repeat of such festive scenes and mindful of the Afghan government's claim that ordinary Taliban fighters were keen to stop the fighting, the Taliban leadership has avoided another ceasefire.
Taliban leaders also cannot go against the wishes of their military commanders, who are reportedly opposed to a ceasefire unless the group is able to achieve something tangible in the peace talks. One such achievement would be a deal with the US outlining a timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.
It is not surprising that this is the foremost Taliban demand. It would be akin to a Taliban victory if the US and its Nato allies agreed to pull their troops out. At this point in time, therefore, the Taliban may very well agree to a ceasefire. Though Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy negotiating with the Taliban, has been pushing for a permanent ceasefire and a Taliban commitment to end the war, it is much more likely the Taliban will accept a temporary truce and wait for the implementation of the peace agreement in view of the mistrust between the two sides.
As religious holidays provide the best occasion to enforce a ceasefire, the coming Eid Al-Fitr holiday in the first week of June will be considered an opportunity by the Ghani government to appeal to the Taliban to accept a truce, even a temporary one, at a time when most fighters, tired and worn-out, prefer to go home to celebrate with their families.