The Current

'A lot can be done' to build on success of 3-day ceasefire in Afghanistan

A three-day ceasefire to mark the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr offered a ray of hope in the bloody war between the Afghan military, U.S. forces and the Taliban.

After a short-lived ceasefire, violence in Afghanistan came back 'like a thunderclap'

Men hug each other after Eid al-Fitr prayers outside of Shah-e-Dushamshera mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 15, 2018. The Taliban had announced a three-day ceasefire. (Massoud Hossaini/The Associated Press)

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In the first six months of 2018, the UN reported a record 1,700 civilian deaths in the bloody war between the Afghanistan military, U.S. forces and the Taliban.

But a new report published by International Crisis Group, a non-profit, says the success of a three-day ceasefire to mark the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr last month offered a ray of hope in the conflict.

"They [now] know you can have a negotiation between two sides: the U.S.-backed government on the one hand and the Taliban on the other. That's an enormously exciting thing," Graeme Smith, a consultant for the International Crisis Group and author of The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, told The Current

Smith spoke to The Current's guest host Meghan Williams about how the ceasefire came to be and why it may facilitate lasting peace in the region. 

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a ceremony in Herat city, west of Kabul, Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban followed his lead in announcing a three-day ceasefire, a first for the group, over the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. (Hamed Sarfarazi/Associated Press)

What was your reaction when you saw the ceasefire take hold?

It was absolutely astounding. I've been in and out of Afghanistan since 2005 and every year it's been like this treadmill of escalating violence. Things kept getting worse and worse. To see something go right for a change was just amazing. It brought tears to my eyes.

And what was it that made this particular ceasefire come about?

We understand that there was a meeting between [Afghanistan] President Ashraf Ghani and the outgoing senior U.S. general in Afghanistan, General Nicholson, in May. After that conversation Ghani went back to his people and said, "Look, we're going to declare a ceasefire over the Eid holiday" — an annual religious holiday where traditionally people are supposed to forgive and forget, bridge enmities. Nicholson apparently went back to the U.S. administration and coordinated with the American side.

The Taliban, as we understand, were kind of caught flat footed. They'd spent years saying the Americans are just a war machine in Afghanistan. "They want to kill and they can't do anything else." And so here, you have this olive branch, and that was a bit of a challenge to the Taliban. They had to have some emergency meetings and some internal discussions and came out pretty quickly [in agreement.]

The rare ceasefire allowed people on opposite sides of the conflict to reconnect. (Massoud Hossaini/The Associated Press)

Did the violence cease completely during those three days?

No, [not] completely. Different people count violent incidents in different ways. But basically, in an ordinary three-day period in the middle of fighting season you should expect hundreds of violent incidents to occur across the country — explosions, assassinations, armed clashes. During the ceasefire period it was down to single digits. And a fair bit of [that] was actually criminal activity or people being injured in celebratory fire.

The biggest violent incidents had nothing to do with the Taliban. They were committed by the local affiliate of the Islamic State or ISIS, which has a small presence in eastern Afghanistan.

What brought this ceasefire to an end if it was so successful?

Well, that's an interesting story. President Ghani went public as soon as you saw the success of the ceasefire and said, "Look, we want to extend this for the sake of the people of Afghanistan."

That apparently sparked some debate within the Taliban. Some Taliban [members] said, "Yeah, let's take this opportunity to stop fighting." And apparently some of the more senior Taliban, especially the ones living in Pakistan, disagreed and called for a resumption of the violence. And so, on the evening of the third day at sunset, it was like a thunderclap. All of a sudden the violence came back.

Some of the Taliban commanders that my colleague, Borhan Osman, who was the lead author of this report, was talking to said that the Taliban felt that if they didn't continue fighting that they would never achieve their main political aims: removing foreign troops from Afghanistan and creating a more Islamic system of government.

Afghan Taliban militants stand with residents on the outskirts of Jalalabad in June to celebrate ceasefire on the second day of Eid. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)

What that could mean for the future of Afghanistan?

I think that there is a lot that can be done right now to build on the success of the ceasefire and we understand senior people in the Afghan government, the American government and I think some Taliban, have had their minds changed by the experience because now they understand who they need to talk to to switch off the violence. They know you can have a negotiation between two sides: the U.S.-backed government on the one hand and the Taliban on the other. That's an enormously exciting thing.

The American government in particular is ready, finally, after years of refusing to do so — to make some kind of formal outreach to the Taliban as a way of breaking the ice and trying to kickstart some kind of peace negotiation.

The Taliban wants to talk with the withdrawal of American troops. And there are things that the Americans would be interested in talking to the Taliban about as well because the Americans are interested in making sure that foreign fighters and international militants don't regain a foothold in Afghanistan as they did before 2001. [The Taliban] is fighting ISIS every day up there in the mountains in eastern Afghanistan, sweating it out in bloody battles against basically international terrorists. 

What about the Afghan government?

Well, the Afghan government is sort of the end-goal in some way. You're trying to persuade the Taliban to finally open the door to talks with the Afghan government because the Taliban know that they can't rule all of Afghanistan. And so they're going to have to talk to whoever's in Kabul.

There's a lot to talk about, and I think they could reach some common ground.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

This Q&A was edited for length and clarity. Segment produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal, Pacinthe Mattar and Jessica Linzey.