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Cease-Fire Test Looms Large Over Afghan Talks

Afghan families gather at the graves of their relatives, adorned with their pictures on the outskirts of Kabul, on September 14.
Afghan families gather at the graves of their relatives, adorned with their pictures on the outskirts of Kabul, on September 14.

As delegations of Afghan society and the hard-line Taliban Islamist movement decide the agenda of expected lengthy talks over their country’s future political system, the issue of a cease-fire between their combatants looms large over the peace process.

While the Afghan government has called for an immediate cease-fire, the Taliban appears noncommittal. The group insists discussions about reducing or ceasing the violence that claims scores of Afghan lives daily should be a part of talks at a later point in the peace process.

Hameed Hakimi, a research associate with the Chatham House think tank in London, says the Afghan government and the Taliban have divergent interests regarding the cease-fire.

“For the Afghan government, it will show a tangible achievement,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website, explaining that the cessation or significant reduction of violence would represent an immediate improvement for the daily lives of an estimated 35 million Afghans. “It will decrease pressure on the overstretched Afghan defense and security forces,” he added.

“The Taliban, however, can gain more from the talks if they can keep the violence up and the number of attacks on the Afghan government,” he noted. “It also plays to advance the Taliban claim, which is unverified and factually problematic, that they control 70 percent of Afghanistan.”

This attitude was clear at the inauguration of long-delayed intra-Afghan talks on September 12.

“We demand the announcement of a humanitarian cease-fire,” Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, told the meeting, which was attended by Taliban leaders and diplomats from around the world. “Such a cease-fire will result in sending humanitarian and development aid to all parts of Afghanistan.”

Earlier, Abdullah had suggested the Afghan government would be willing to release more jailed Taliban fighters in exchange for a truce. His demand of a “humanitarian cease-fire” indicated Kabul was likely bracing for significant bargaining over a permanent cease-fire.

But deputy Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar did not respond to the demand.

“The agreement we signed with the United States in February stipulated that discussions over a cease-fire will be part of intra-Afghan negotiations,” Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told Radio Free Afghanistan in Doha. Almost all Taliban figures have confirmed that an armistice will be a topic on the agenda, which is still being hashed out in preliminary meetings between the two sides.

In Kabul, however, Afghan security officials have seen no immediate decrease in violence. “High levels of violence continue,” Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said on September 13. He said that in the 24 hours following the inauguration of the Doha talks, Afghan security forces faced 24 Taliban attacks across 19 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

“The Afghan defense and security forces are defending themselves against these attacks,” he added.

Some of the most intense of these clashes took place near the northeastern strategic city of Kunduz, where at least six police officers were killed in Taliban attacks over the weekend. Reuters reported that in a little publicized offensive, the Taliban attempted to overrun Kunduz late last month. The insurgents briefly overran the city of 270,000 in 2015. The fall of Kunduz, the capital of a province by the same name, would be a significant blow to the Afghan government, which controls the country’s major population centers.

Hakimi says the Taliban is unlikely to give up violence, its key point of leverage, at the beginning of peace talks. “For the vast majority of Taliban fighters and senior elements who believe they should stop fighting only when they have ‘won’ the war, delaying agreement to any cease-fire helps [maintain] Taliban unity among the hard-liners and those who are aware that a military win for them is impossible,” he noted.

The Afghan government, on the other hand, could quickly milk political leverage out of a truce. “It can help the Afghan government’s case for any concessions in talks with the segments of society, especially urbanite Afghans, who oppose any return of the Taliban to power,” Hakimi said.

Andrew Watkins, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, also sees a military motive behind Kabul’s push for a cease-fire. "The Afghan government needs a cease-fire because without current levels of U.S. support, it would very likely continue to lose ground to the Taliban," he told the AFP.

Hakimi says that in the absence of a tangible Taliban “win” in Doha, outside pressure could push the Islamist group toward a cessation of hostilities.

“We demand violence be reduced and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire to be reached as soon as possible,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for Afghan reconciliation, told Ariana News, a private Afghan television station on September 13.

During the past two years, Afghans have welcomed the three brief cease-fires between the government and the Taliban. Many are now eagerly awaiting news of a more lasting peace.

“War, explosions, and suicide do not bring anything,” noted Azizullah, a resident of Kabul. “If the Taliban want peace, first they should announce a cease-fire.”