Top U.S. officials have hailed a three-day cease-fire proposed by the Taliban and agreed by the Afghan government, raising hopes that the long-delayed intra-Afghan peace talks could begin next week.
The two foes announced a halt in hostilities for the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday starting on July 31, as the United States presses for the start of long-awaited talks.
The announcements come as U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is trying to revive peace talks with visits to Pakistan and the Afghan capital, Kabul, as well as Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office.
"We welcome the Taliban announcement of an Eid cease-fire and the Afghan government's reciprocal announcement," Khalilzad said on Twitter on July 29.
"Our hope is this Eid brings all Afghans together in understanding & mutual respect and one step closer to a sustainable peace."
The top U.S. diplomat in Kabul, Ross Wilson, also voiced hope that the two sides would move quickly to the negotiating table, saying Afghans "deserve to celebrate the holiday in peace."
"I look forward to both sides fulfilling their commitments and moving quickly to intra-Afghan negotiations," tweeted Wilson, who is charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
The United States and the Taliban struck an agreement in February intended to pave the way for intra-Afghan peace talks between the militants and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul to end nearly 18 years of war.
Although the Taliban has refrained from attacking U.S. and NATO forces, militants continue to stage near daily attacks on Afghan security forces.
But in a July 28 statement, the militants announced the conditional three-day cease-fire.
“All mujahedin (Taliban fighters) are instructed not to carry out any operation against the enemy during the three days and nights of Eid,” the Taliban said in a July 28 statement, adding that if the Taliban is attacked, it should “respond strongly.”
The Afghan government said it had ordered its security forces to observe the cease-fire.
However, a major hurdle in launching intra-Afghan talks is the completion of prisoner exchanges.
Both the Afghan government and the Taliban have suggested that direct talks may finally occur after Eid al-Adha, provided the prisoner swap has been completed.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on July 28 that peace talks with the Taliban could begin "in a week's time," following a prisoner exchange.
"To demonstrate the government's commitment to peace, the Islamic republic will soon complete the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners," Ghani said at the presidential palace.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted that the militants would complete the release of government prisoners by Eid as a "goodwill gesture".
"The other side should also complete the release process of all the 5,000 prisoners" so peace talks can begin, he wrote.
Under the U.S.-Taliban deal, Kabul was to release around 5,000 Taliban in exchange for the militants freeing 1,000 government and military personnel.
To date, Kabul has freed about 4,000 militants and the Taliban nearly 800 government forces. The Taliban has accused Afghan security forces of rearresting insurgents who had been released.
Ghani urged the Taliban to agree to a "permanent and comprehensive cease-fire" during any peace talks. He said Taliban attacks have killed 3,560 government forces and wounded 6,781 others since the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed in February.
Ghani's spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, told the media that Kabul would observe the cease-fire, but cautioned it did not go far enough.
"The people of Afghanistan demand a lasting cease-fire and the start of direct talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan," Sediqqi said.