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Stepping Stone

by AFP

Farshad Usyan—AFP

Analysts say Afghan ceasefire with Taliban could be precursor to lasting peace talks

A successful ceasefire between Afghan security forces and the Taliban starting next week could help lay the groundwork for talks to end the nearly 17-year war, analysts said Saturday, but warned a peace deal was still a long way off.

After previous efforts to end the conflict stalled, the Taliban’s surprise decision to suspend fighting for the first time could be a “stepping stone” in the protracted process, a Western analyst in Kabul told AFP on the condition of anonymity.

The Taliban said Saturday its fighters would stop attacking Afghan security forces for the first three days of Eid, the holiday capping the Muslim holy month of Ramzan, in a move largely welcomed by war-weary Afghans.

The announcement came two days after the Afghan government’s own unexpected decision to halt hostilities against the militants for a week. “This mutual ceasefire, if successful, can possibly inspire or encourage future, more substantial steps towards peacemaking,” Borhan Osman, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told AFP. “Fighting has been the integral feature that has characterized the Taliban since the movement was born. A break from it, although very brief, represents an important departure from its modus operandi.”

The Western analyst said a move by both sides to respect the ceasefire—which is not guaranteed—would send a signal that “we can do this.” It would also show that the Taliban leadership is able to control its fighters. The ceasefire could help build trust between the government and the Taliban, and provide “a very good stepping stone for further interaction,” the analyst told AFP.

President Ashraf Ghani’s ceasefire declaration on Thursday came on the heels of a fatwa issued by Afghanistan’s top clerics branding suicide attacks “haram.” It also followed the Pentagon’s announcement that senior Taliban officials had been negotiating with Afghan authorities on a possible ceasefire.

Afghan political analyst Haroon Mir said the Taliban’s reciprocal, albeit shorter, ceasefire was “positive” for the Afghan people, but he cautioned that significant hurdles to peace remained. “The question now is, is the U.S. willing to accept negotiations with the Taliban?” Mir said.

Before Ghani’s peace talks offer to the Taliban in February, which the group ignored, the militants had issued a letter calling on the United States to negotiate directly with them. Washington refused.

Despite the ceasefire, fighting on the battlefield is likely to continue. Both sides have vowed to retaliate if attacked and the Taliban’s ceasefire does not extend to U.S.-led NATO forces.

U.S. Forces said they would step up the fight against the Islamic State group during the ceasefire. There also are concerns that the Taliban’s brutal arm, the Haqqani Network, suspected of being behind many of the recent attacks in Kabul claimed by I.S., could launch more assaults on behalf of the rival group. “It’s a wait and watch,” a foreign diplomat in Kabul told AFP. “I don’t think the Haqqani Network will be on board [with the ceasefire]. I wouldn’t be surprised if some incidents happen and are claimed by Daesh,” he said.

Hours before Saturday’s announcement, Taliban militants launched two separate assaults on Afghan security forces in the western province of Herat and the northern province of Kunduz, killing at least 36 soldiers and police, officials said. The group also claimed responsibility for an attack on an Afghan military base in the southern province of Kandahar.

One Western diplomat said he was “cautiously positive” about the Taliban announcement. “My sense is we have invested far more wishful thinking into this than we are likely to see,” he said, adding the group traditionally winds down attacks over Eid.

Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. said the Taliban had no incentive to stop fighting and it was “unreasonable to think that this brief truce can be a prelude to a reconciliation process.” But he said a ceasefire would at least give war-weary Afghans some respite from decades of violence.

Civilians have paid a disproportionate price in casualties as a result of the conflict. More than 10,000 civilians were killed or wounded in 2017, down nine percent from the previous year, U.N. figures show. But casualties from suicide bombings and attacks were up 17 percent.

“Given the horrific toll that conflict has taken in Afghanistan, any lull in fighting, even if only for 72 hours, is a good thing,” Kugelman said.

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