AFP: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared a provisional three-month ceasefire with the Taliban in a televised broadcast Sunday, a move welcomed by Washington but yet to receive a reply from the militants themselves.
The announcement followed a bloody week of fighting across Afghanistan which saw the Taliban launch a massive assault against the provincial capital Ghazni.
Anticipation had been mounting ahead of Ghani’s speech following mixed signals from the presidential palace over whether the government would offer a fresh truce — following a brief, unprecedented ceasefire earlier in June.
That three day pause in the fighting saw thousands of insurgents pour into cities across Afghanistan to celebrate.
“I once again announce a ceasefire from tomorrow until the prophet’s birthday provided that the Taliban reciprocate,” said Ghani, referring to the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday which Afghanistan celebrates on November 21.
Ghani said his administration removed “all obstacles” to peace with the announcement following consultations with religious scholars, political parties and civil society groups. But he said the truce would hold only if the insurgents reciprocated.
“We call on the leadership of the Taliban to welcome the wishes of Afghans for a long lasting and real peace, and we urge them to get ready for peace talks based on Islamic values and principles,” he said, in an announcement as Afghans celebrated their independence day.
– ‘Time for peace’ –
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed Ghani’s announcement and called on the Taliban to participate.
“We remain ready to support, facilitate, and participate in direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban,” he said in a statement. “There are no obstacles to talks. It is time for peace.”
NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg tweeted: “I encourage the Taliban to demonstrate their concern for Afghans by respecting it.”
Ghani’s announcement was also swiftly welcomed in neighbouring Pakistan, which has long been accused of fostering links with the Taliban’s leadership and providing sanctuary to its fighters.
However the offer drew mixed responses among Afghans, with some slamming the idea of welcoming Taliban fighters back into their cities to eat ice cream and pose for selfies like they had during the three-day ceasefire over the Eid holiday in June.
“We should not be begging for peace with the Taliban. I promise, if I see any Taliban eating ice cream in Kabul, I will hit him with a stone,” wrote Facebook user Rahman Ahmadi.
Others seemed more optimistic if the deal ensured an end to fighting.
“Now it is up to the Taliban to make this best ever opportunity for peace & security in Afghanistan,” tweeted analyst M. Shafiq Hamdam.
– Desperation? –
The June ceasefire — the first such truce in the country since the 2001 US invasion — spurred hopes that a new path was opening for possible peace talks in the country to the end the nearly 17-year-old war.
But violence has surged in the weeks since as talk of a new ceasefire continued.
The days-long fight for Ghazni, which concluded on Wednesday killed hundreds and saw Taliban fighters ransack the provincial capital, torching buildings and destroying infrastructure.
That battle coincided with blistering attacks on government installations across the country. Analysts have suggested the Taliban were seeking to demonstrate strength ahead of any possible talks.
Ghani did not mention any cease in fighting with the Islamic State group, which has expanded since it first emerged in the region in 2014 and was not included in the June ceasfire, or any of the other militant groups plaguing Afghanistan.
Kabul-based analyst Haroon Mir said the move might be perceived as an act of desperation by the government following mounting battlefield pressure from insurgents.
“I doubt the Taliban would reciprocate given their past stance and recent gains on the ground,” said Mir.
Afghan security forces, beset by killings, desertions and low morale, have taken staggering losses since US-led NATO combat forces pulled out at the end of 2014.
But it is ordinary Afghans who have borne the brunt of the violence in the grinding conflict, especially in Kabul, which the United Nations has said is the deadliest place for civilians in the country.
The Taliban did not immediately respond to the offer but in a message from its leader published over the weekend to mark the upcoming Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha the group continued to push for direct talks with the US.
Washington has repeatedly refused, saying negotiations must be Afghan-led.
Last month, however, Taliban representatives met US officials for talks in Qatar, though little is known about the details of the meeting.