Partial truce begins in Afghanistan, boosting peace hopes

The US will withdraw about half of the 12,000-13,000 troops currently in Afghanistan if the truce leads to reduction of violence. (File/AFP)
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Updated 22 February 2020

Partial truce begins in Afghanistan, boosting peace hopes

  • The truce is a major step towards withdrawing US troops after more than 18 years
  • US has been in talks with the Taliban for more than a year to secure a deal

KABUL: Afghans woke up to a week-long partial truce Saturday after the Taliban, the US and local forces all agreed to a lull that could be a major turning point in the long conflict.
If the so-called “reduction in violence” holds, it will be a major step toward withdrawing US troops after more than 18 years — and launching Afghanistan into an uncertain future.
“Afghans are tired of war,” Bismillah Watandost, a senior member of the grassroots People’s Peace Movement of Afghanistan, told AFP, calling on citizens to march and “demand an end to this tragic war.”
Many Afghans on Facebook were hopeful. “It’s a golden opportunity for Afghanistan to bring peace,” one, Abu Mahmood, wrote.
Both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Taliban issued statements on Friday saying they had agreed to sign an accord on February 29 in Doha, following the one-week partial truce.
“Upon a successful implementation of this understanding, signing of the US-Taliban agreement is expected to move forward,” Pompeo said, adding that talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government would “start soon thereafter.”
Afghanistan’s National Security Council spokesman Javed Faisal and Taliban sources said a “reduction in violence” between US, Taliban and Afghan security forces had been agreed.
The United States has been in talks with the Taliban for more than a year to secure a deal in which it would pull out thousands of troops in return for Taliban security guarantees and a promise to hold peace talks with the government in Kabul.
A reduction in violence would show the Taliban can control their forces and demonstrate good faith ahead of any signing, which would see the Pentagon withdraw about half of the 12,000-13,000 troops currently in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban must demonstrate their commitment to a meaningful reduction in violence,” US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Twitter.
“Should the Taliban reject the path of peace, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our Afghan partners,” he added.
A partial truce could also give a much-needed respite to civilians, who have long borne the brunt of the bloody war. The UN said last year that more than 100,000 people have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan in the last decade.
However details of what exactly such a truce will look like have remained scant.
In southern Kandahar province, seen as the Taliban heartland, one insurgent told AFP he had received orders to stand down.
However another Taliban commander there said he had only been ordered to refrain from attacking major cities and highways.
Any truce comes fraught with danger, and analysts warn the attempt to stem Afghanistan’s bloodshed is laced with complications and could fail at any time.
Worse still, they say warring parties could exploit a lull to reconfigure their forces and secure a battlefield advantage.
Since the US invasion in 2001 there has only been one other pause in the fighting — a surprise three-day cease-fire between the Taliban and Kabul marking the religious festival of Eid in 2018.
Afghans responded jubilantly, with Taliban fighters and security forces hugging and posing for selfies in previously unimaginable scenes around the country.
Civilians also flocked to greet the insurgents as they entered urban areas that they usually visit only to attack, including the capital Kabul, for ice cream and more selfies.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Friday Afghan security forces would remain “on active defense status” during the week.
In a statement, the Taliban said warring parties would “create a suitable security situation” ahead of a deal signing.
The Taliban’s political spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, separately tweeted that the agreement would see “all” foreign forces leave Afghanistan.
But for now at least, the United States wants to leave troops in Afghanistan on a counter-terrorism mission to fight militia such as Daesh.
Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai said the move signaled a change in thinking for both the Taliban and the United States after years of fighting.
“Both sides have shown their commitment to sign the peace deal, and it’s a big development,” he said.
The United States and the Taliban have been tantalizingly close to a deal before, only to see President Donald Trump nix it at the eleventh hour in September.
The attempt to stem Afghanistan’s bloodshed is laced with complications, including the fear that competing forces could exploit a lull to secure a battlefield advantage.
Since the US-led invasion after the September 11, 2001 attacks, America has spent more than $1 trillion in fighting and rebuilding in Afghanistan.
About 2,400 US soldiers have been killed, along with unknown tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians.


Mali holds election despite coronavirus and insurgency

Updated 29 March 2020

Mali holds election despite coronavirus and insurgency

  • The coronavirus pandemic has posed a further threat to the vote but authorities in the West African nation have insisted it will go ahead
  • Polls opened on Sunday and turnout in the capital Bamako appeared low, a Reuters witness said

BAMAKO: Mali held its long-delayed parliamentary election on Sunday despite an insurgency in its central and northern regions, concerns about coronavirus and the recent kidnapping of the main opposition leader.

The election, originally scheduled for 2018, has been postponed twice because of intensifying violence in parts of Mali where the government struggles to suppress jihadist groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

The coronavirus pandemic has posed a further threat to the vote but authorities in the West African nation have insisted it will go ahead, promising to enforce additional hygiene measures to protect Mali's 7.6 million voters.

"The government will do everything to make sure this is the case," President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said in the run-up to the election.
Mali had confirmed 20 cases of coronavirus as of Sunday morning.

Polls opened on Sunday at 0800 and turnout in the capital Bamako appeared low, a Reuters witness said.

There was no queue at one polling station, which allowed voters to cast their ballot while keeping the recommended distance from each other. Handwashing facilities were meant to be available, but the kits arrived too late for early voters.

"I voted without a problem, but the hygiene kit against coronavirus wasn't there," said 30-year-old driver Ibrahim Konare. "The priority for the new parliament should be the fight against insecurity and the eradication of coronavirus."

It was not clear how voting was going in the large areas of central and northern Mali that are effectively lawless and used by the jihadists as a base for attacks in Mali and into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.

Mali's main opposition leader Soumaila Cisse was ambushed last week while on the campaign trail in the northern region of Timbuktu. The attackers killed Cisse's bodyguard and took Cisse and six members of his delegation hostage. They have not been seen since.

The election will select 147 lawmakers for the national assembly, which has not had a mandate since 2018 because of the electoral delays.
Polling stations close at 1800 GMT with results due in the coming days. A second round is scheduled for April 19 in constituencies where no candidate wins a majority.

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