by International Crisis Group
For three days over the Eid al-Fitr holiday, Afghanistan witnessed an historic ceasefire by the main parties to its decades-long and ever bloodier conflict. A steep drop in violence brought a brief sense of normalcy to Afghans exhausted by war and prompted countrywide festivities. The truce proved there is a strong domestic constituency for peace. It also revealed coherence in the chain of command among both the Afghan security forces and the Taliban, as unit leaders, though often taken aback by the order to stop fighting, overwhelmingly complied. All sides should seize the opening to move toward peace. President Ashraf Ghani already has offered unconditional talks with the Taliban. The U.S. government, which reports suggest is now ready to speak directly to insurgent leaders, should empower an envoy to do so and should make clear, including publicly, that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan would be on the table were a peace deal broadly acceptable in Afghan society signed between insurgents and the Afghan government. The Taliban should enter peace talks with President Ghani’s government.
The Eid truce led to a dramatic reduction in bloodshed. There were two notable exceptions, both of them strikes claimed by the small Islamic State (ISIS) branch in Afghanistan. These attacks did little to dampen celebrations, however. Government and Taliban fighters hugged each other, took selfies, sang and danced together, and exchanged flowers and gifts. As they reconciled, albeit temporarily, they often were mobbed by cheering crowds of flag-waving civilians. Tens of thousands of Afghans crossed battle lines to visit friends and kin. The merriment was restrained in the north and other places where fear of the Taliban is greatest. But most of the country, particularly areas that suffer the worst violence, saw scenes of joy and optimism unknown for years.
The Taliban resumed fighting after Eid, despite an offer by President Ghani to extend the ceasefire. But though short-lived, the truce was instructive for future peace efforts. The outburst of celebration showed the depth of most Afghans’ yearning for an end to the war. Government and Taliban foot soldiers and commanders could be heard expressing their appreciation for the respite from battle. Their intermingling went some way toward debunking the notion that the war is defined by an insurmountable ideological divide. The Taliban’s internal deliberations on the truce revealed a lobby for peace and compromise within the movement itself.
Most crucially, the ceasefire showed that leaders on both sides can enforce an order. While neither prepared their forces for the truce, both – the Afghan government and the U.S. and other international forces, on the one hand, and the Taliban, on the other – showed impressive discipline. Both refrained from exploiting a moment of vulnerability with surprise attacks. A three-day truce during Eid is, of course, a far cry from a political settlement involving major compromises with enemies. Still, the coherence of both sides during the detente, especially in an insurgency often portrayed as fractured, augurs well for future peace talks.
Progress toward such talks has long been deadlocked. Successive Afghan governments have expressed their willingness to speak to insurgent leaders. Most recently, President Ghani offered to do so without preconditions – a bold step, given that some of his top officials only recently dismissed the Taliban as a disparate bunch of terrorists. The Taliban, however, have always insisted on direct talks with the U.S., which they view as their primary foe. In the past, the U.S. has rejected the idea that it is a party to the conflict, believing that Afghans should resolve their differences themselves, and has refused to discuss the question of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. But that stance appears to have evolved. U.S. officials’ statements, media reports and Crisis Group’s own research suggest that Washington is ready to take the important and welcome step of speaking directly to the Taliban and putting the issue of a U.S. troop withdrawal on the table. All sides should build on the momentum created by the Eid ceasefire and these latest developments:
- The U.S. should open a formal channel to the Taliban leadership. Washington could empower an envoy to speak directly with counterparts in the Taliban’s political office in Doha, as well as Kabul and regional capitals. The U.S. also should explicitly put the withdrawal of U.S. and other international forces on the table, including in public statements. It should, however, make clear that an agreement on the nature of and timeline for such a drawdown would be part of, or contingent upon, a settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government that is broadly acceptable in Afghan society.
- The Taliban leadership should accept talks with the Afghan government. If the ceasefire illustrated the Taliban’s coherence, it showed, too, that President Ghani controls the Afghan forces against which the Taliban is mostly engaged in day-to-day fighting and which suffer far more casualties than their U.S. counterparts. Taliban leaders would also have to recognize that any agreement for international forces’ withdrawal hinges on a wider peace deal, likely including national and local power-sharing arrangements, security sector reform and a process for rewriting the Afghan constitution.
- All sides could take confidence-building steps including, potentially, further ceasefires, prisoner exchanges or greater transparency in coordination between Kabul and insurgents in delivering basic services in Taliban-controlled areas. All parties should maintain the more measured tone they adopted in their rhetoric during the ceasefire.
The Eid truce has shown war-weary Afghans, including combatants, what peace might bring. It comes alongside other signs of movement, first President Ghani’s offer of unconditional talks with the Taliban and then signs that Washington is willing to speak directly to Taliban leaders and broach the troop withdrawal issue. Direct U.S.-Taliban talks are no panacea. The Taliban may still reject engagement with Kabul, at least initially, and even if it accepts intra-Afghan talks, such talks would mark only the start of a long and difficult road toward a settlement amenable to all major Afghan factions and broader Afghan society. But the U.S. speaking directly to the Taliban is the best bet for getting to those negotiations and kickstarting a long-overdue peace process.
This is an executive summary of a new report from the International Crisis Group.