The tragedy of the Afghan war has been that it has several villains but not many heroes. However, June 2018 was different. The three-day Eid Ceasefire Agreement that allowed the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSFs) and the Afghan Taliban to pray and celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr — the religious festival marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan — together with the general public was unprecedented. Despite its short-lived nature, the Eid-truce has revived modest hopes of jumpstarting the on-off peace process. It was an important confidence building measure and has the potential to pave the way for larger peace negotiations.
Following these developments, the US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Alice Wells visited Pakistan to further explore the possibility of resuming the Afghan peace talks. Parliamentary elections in Afghanistan are due on October 20 and efforts are underway to reach a breakthrough before that. Ahead of Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, these developments have brought the Afghan peace process to a crossroads. If a breakthrough is not achieved before the elections, then all stakeholders will have to wait for conclusion of the elections and engage with the newly-elected Afghan government. However, this is fraught with multiple risks. Holding peaceful elections and ensuring a smooth power transition in Afghanistan can be a contentious and long-drawn-out process. The opportunity created by the Eid Ceasefire agreement hence should not be squandered.
First, the three-day truce was a purely Afghan-initiated, led and owned process. Symbolically, it has opened the imaginative space for peace and it will give confidence to the National Unity Government (NUG) and the Afghan Taliban that — despite all odds — peace is achievable, provided the political will and sincerity are there. For the first time in 17 years, the war-weary Afghans have experienced peace in the middle of the peak fighting season. President Ashraf Ghani’s bold diplomatic move of offering a unilateral ceasefire to the Afghan Taliban and his willingness to discuss the presence of US troops in Afghanistan has put the onus on the Afghan Taliban to reciprocate.
Second, the Eid-ceasefire is the first publicly acknowledged Confidence Building Measure (CBM) between the NUG and the Taliban. It has ended years of bad blood and animosity and will facilitate future peace talks. The euphoric manner with which the general public in Afghanistan — including the common Taliban commanders and fighters — welcomed the peace initiative showed that people are war-weary and hungry for peace. Though, the Afghan Taliban did not extend the ceasefire, the temporary lull in violence has created a grassroots constituency for peace. Now, this peace constituency needs to be further strengthened and expanded. The Eid-truce coincided with the entry of the Helmand Peace Marchers into Kabul who travelled over 750 km in the sweltering heat demanding peace and the end of hostilities. The Taliban fighters who celebrated Eid in a peaceful environment with their families will create a bottom up pressure on the Taliban’s executive council to reconsider its approach of fighting endlessly.
The thaw in the Afghanistan-Pakistan relations prior to restoration of Afghan peace talks is a positive sign as well.
Third, the three-day ceasefire has proved to the US, NUG and other regional stakeholders that if the Taliban’s executive council signed an agreement, other associated insurgent factions will abide by it. The ceasefire has removed doubts and confusion about the organizational coherence of the Afghan Taliban. In 2015, the former Taliban chief Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor failed to create a consensus among the different insurgent factions to initiate peace talks. The Taliban field commanders and fighters were opposed to peace talks while the Taliban’s executive council feared that negotiations could divide the insurgent movement. Despite his reputation as a political negotiator, Mansoor hence failed to initiate peace talks.
Finally, now that the psychological barrier of reaching a pause in violence has been achieved, the debate will inevitability turn towards the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The time and manner in which the US will exit from Afghanistan will determine the future trajectory of war and peace in the country. President Ghani’s willingness to discuss the timeframe of the US exit from Afghanistan indicates that the endgame narrative of the Afghan conflict has matured enough to confront the elephant in the room. Encouraged by the success of the Eid ceasefire agreement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has indicated that the Trump administration is ready to discuss with the Taliban the role of the US and international forces in peace talks: “The United States is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions.”
Since the launch of the Trump administration’s new Afghan policy that gave more powers to US military commanders in Afghanistan, the situation has turned from bad to worse. Intensified airstrikes have done little to nothing to reverse the momentum of the Taliban’s battlefield advantage and territorial gains. The Afghan Taliban now controls over 40 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. By eliminating Mullah Fazlullah — Pakistan’s most wanted terrorist — in a drone attack in eastern Kunar province, the US is once again banking on Pakistan to pull it out of the Afghan quagmire. On June 22, US Defence Secretary James Mattis acknowledged the role of US forces in neutralizing Fazlullah and urged Pakistan to help in the Afghan peace process.
The thaw in the Afghanistan-Pakistan relations prior to restoration of Afghan peace talks is a positive sign as well. The recent high-powered trip of Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to Kabul and the subsequent visits of Afghanistan’s Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak, National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar, and intelligence chief Masoum Stanikzai, show the revival of the working relationship between the two countries. Earlier, the creation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan joint working groups and the restraint shown from both sides from unnecessarily criticizing each other publicly has also helped to create an enabling environment to restart the peace process. Pakistan’s military leadership has been cautious in its assurances to Kabul and has only pledged to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table without taking any responsibility of the outcome.
Despite the Afghan Taliban’s territorial gains and intensified US airstrikes, the Afghan conflict remains deadlocked. Neither the US nor the Taliban are in a position to impose a military solution. Through their armed struggle, the Taliban have not only obtained a seat on the negotiation table and received political recognition from regional countries, but they have also compelled Kabul and Washington DC to accept them as a legitimate stakeholder of the Afghan conflict. The purpose of the insurgency is to create favourable political conditions to reach a settlement through negotiations. Beyond tactical gains, both parties would not gain much from fighting. Therefore, seizing the opportunity created by the Eid–truce is essential.