Afghanistan’s stuttering peace process has received fresh impetus with the announcement of an Eid ceasefire, and a government pledge to complete the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a pre-condition for direct talks.
US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, in Kabul as part of a regional push to get talks back on track, has also suggested the ceasefire could be extended if the militant fighters are released by Friday, local media reported.
The Taliban offer of a three-day halt to fighting over the Muslim holiday of Eid came as Afghan authorities promised to complete the release of 5000 militant prisoners.
That pledge had been made unilaterally by US negotiators working on a withdrawal deal for their own troops, which was signed in February and has already seen thousands of American soldiers return home.
A prisoner exchange was meant to pave the way for talks between Afghan factions on a lasting political settlement for the country. But Kabul initially refused to comply, frustrated that it had not been consulted about the fate of militants it held in custody, at a time of intense fighting on the ground.
In March, after the US government and international allies recognised Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s re-election in a contested presidential poll, he offered a compromise of limited releases ahead of talks.
Then this week he promised to complete 5,000, although Afghan officials still hope the United States might be able to persuade militants to give way on demands for 200 individuals accused of the most serious crimes, the New York Times reported.
The same day, the Taliban offered a three-day ceasefire for the holiday of Eid, which falls over the weekend. Ghani’s spokesman welcomed it as a “significant step”, and said he had ordered troops to observe the break in hostilities.
The break in fighting comes after months of intense violence on the ground. Donald Trump’s push to end America’s war in Afghanistan has done little to resolve a deeply entrenched domestic conflict that is now decades old.
Fighting has been intense even with, or perhaps because of, the possibility of peace talks in the near future. Civilians, as always have been the losers.
A United Nations report into civilian losses in the country this year, released as the ceasefire was announced, found that casualties caused by both government and Taliban forces had held steady from last year, despite an earlier brief ceasefire and weeklong reduction in Taliban violence as part of efforts to move towards peace talks.
Although overall casualties have dropped, that reduction is due to fewer military operations by both international forces, and the local Islamic State operation.
“At a time when the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban have a historic opportunity to come together at the negotiating table for peace talks, the tragic reality is that the fighting continues inflicting terrible harm to civilians every day,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN’s Special Representative for Afghanistan.
“I urge the parties … to take decisive action to stop the carnage and get to the negotiating table.”
Ghani’s spokesman said that the government was keen for peace talks to start. Afghans want “a permanent ceasefire and imminent start of direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban”, Sediq Sediqqi said on Twitter.
If the latest developments do lead to talks, any meetings are likely to get tangled up in debates about issues like the agenda, before any of the many substantive areas of difference can even be approached.
But it would still be a key step. Critics have long questioned whether the Taliban are sincere about peace negotiations with an Afghan government they denounce as puppets, or have just agreed to them as a ploy to get foreign forces to leave the country. Face to face attempts to negotiate may be the only way to find out.