Afghanistan's President, Ashraf Ghani speaks during the integration ceremony of TAPI pipeline in Herat city, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Feb. 23, 2018.

Afghanistan's President, Ashraf Ghani speaks during the integration ceremony of TAPI pipeline in Herat city, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. AP Photo/Hamed Sarfarazi

With Ceasefire, Afghan President Offers ‘An Opportunity for the Taliban’

Ashraf Ghani has ordered his forces to stand down for a week, but are the insurgents interested?

It's been rare, over the past 17 years of conflict in Afghanistan, to see any particularly bold movements toward peace. So Ashraf Ghani's announcement Thursday that he would observe a weeklong ceasefire with the Taliban was a dramatic departure from the pattern, even if only for a week. And the gesture follows up the Afghan leader’s unconditional offer of talks with the Taliban in February. In neither case, so far, has the Taliban responded, but both offers hint at the tantalizing prospect of change in a long-stalemated conflict.

“This ceasefire is an opportunity for the Taliban to introspect that their violent campaign is not winning them hearts and minds but further alienating the Afghan people from their cause,” Ghani said in his announcement.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan will abide by the ceasefire, General John Nicholson, who leads the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan, said in a statement. He added that his forces will continue to fight ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other groups. Still, as The New York Times reported, Ghani’s announcement “was sure to rattle [Afghan] military units, which have been pinned down by the Taliban and which, over 17 years of consistent fighting, have not given much thought to how they might carry out a cease-fire.” The newspaper reported that American military officers only got word of the truce hours before it was announced.

Speaking Thursday at the U.S. Institute for Peace, Lisa Curtis, who is senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, said Ghani’s offer was a “clear demonstration of the Afghan government’s desire for a genuine peace process.” She said she hoped the Taliban would accept the offer and cease attacks, adding that if the group didn’t match Ghani’s announcement with its own ceasefire, it would demonstrate “which party bears primary responsibility … for perpetuating this” war.

There are reasons to be skeptical about the prospects of peace. For one, as Atiqullah Amarkhel, a former Afghan army general, told Reuters, the ceasefire would give the Taliban an opportunity to regroup; attacks by the Taliban typically intensify during Ramadan. Secondly, Ghani’s offer of unconditional talks with the Taliban, with a path toward the group’s political rehabilitation, was widely seen as a bold move by the Afghan government. But the Taliban itself was circumspect about publicly reacting to it—though Nicholson said last week that the group had engaged in secret talks with the Afghan government in Pakistan, an assertion the Taliban denied. Perhaps most importantly, however, the Taliban says it views the Afghan government as illegitimate and as a Western puppet, and will talk only with the U.S., whose invasion of the country in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 resulted in the Taliban’s ouster. And, the group has noted, the military force that is doing the most damage to its fighters is not the Afghan government’s, but the U.S.-led NATO forces. Hence the importance of Nicholson’s assurance that U.S. forces will abide by the ceasefire.

Barnett Rubin, who is an expert on the region at NYU, called Ghani’s offer serious, but added on Twitter: “From the Taliban point of view, he is asking for a ceasefire while the US is still ‘occupying’ Afghanistan, so it is hard for them to accept, but they may come under pressure from both people and Pakistan to observe.” Or as Laurel Miller, who served as a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Obama administration, said Thursday at USIP:  “To claim that ending the war predominantly requires Afghans talking to Afghans, without discussing a U.S. withdrawal … flies in the face of reality.”

The conflict in Afghanistan is at something of an impasse. About 65 percent of the Afghan population lives under the government’s control while about 12 percent lives under Taliban rule, according to the Pentagon’s inspector general. The rest lives in areas that are contested. But the U.S. military’s support of Afghan forces means the Taliban can never truly achieve a military victory in the country—even if it retains the ability to carry out attacks, seemingly at will, on the heart of the Afghan state. The Taliban might want to try and wait it out—after all, President Trump hasn’t hidden his frustration about the 17-year-long presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan—but there is little indication that the 14,000 U.S. troops in the country will leave any time before a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Nor is it clear that the Taliban retains much public support. Since Ghani’s offer, Afghans have marched publicly calling for a reconciliation. For many Afghans, the post-Taliban era has been one of relative, if uneven, prosperity, but one interspersed with brutal attacks by the Taliban and other groups. However one might want to label the Taliban, the group’s leadership is not politically clueless. Nor is it immune to international pressure, for instance from its benefactors in Islamabad.

Ghani’s announcement came a day after Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, spoke to Qamar Bajwa, Pakistan’s chief of army. A statement from the U.S. State Department said, among other things, they discussed “the need for political reconciliation in Afghanistan.” Pakistan, which is wary of an unfriendly Afghanistan to its west and unfriendly India to its east, has previously been viewed as a spoiler in Afghan peace efforts given its support for the Taliban. But it is under tremendous U.S. pressure and, practically, would prefer a situation in which the Taliban is part of the Afghan political process, and hence able to safeguard Islamabad’s regional interests, than outside it.

Ultimately, though, the Taliban, which has remained mostly ignored olive branches from Ghani, will have to decide how much longer it will remain silent. Ghani’s government may be weak and perceived as corrupt, and he may have limited control over the country. But as long as the Afghan government retains international support, he and whoever follows him as president will always have an edge over the Taliban if it chooses to continue fighting. And, given the record of peace processes in other countries, dialogue is merely the first step in a long process toward any political settlement in a country that has known little peace in its recent history.