Afghanistan is, for the first time since 2002, expecting to have virtually assured peace on Eidul Fitr after Taliban militants reciprocated Afghan government’s unilateral offer for a ceasefire, albeit for a much shorter duration than originally proposed.
Whether it is three days or seven days, it must be remembered that this is no mean achievement. It is a historic occasion because it is happening for the first time since the latest Afghan conflict started in 2002 after the Taliban regime was toppled through a US-led military intervention. It is something not only for Afghans to celebrate, but also for others involved in peace efforts. At least from what I see, it is the now defunct Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and US quietly at work and perhaps in a more substantive way than the shows they put up in Islamabad and Kabul in 2016.
It is a real Eid gift. Afghans must have heaved a huge sigh of relief. Last month’s figures from the battlefield are just one indication of how intense the fighting has been. It is reported that 500 Afghan security forces lost their lives in May, whereas nearly 300 Taliban were killed and 200 civilians also died in the violence. The United Nations had earlier warned that this year could be bloodier.
The next questions are about the sustainability of this peace initiative and whether the positivity generated by these reciprocal gestures would lead to a bigger peace effort
The ceasefire offer, undoubtedly a bold initiative by Ghani’s government and equally appreciable step by Taliban to reciprocate it, was made possible after weeks and weeks of hectic behind-the-scenes negotiations and secret meetings. Pakistan, some claim, played a key role with China acting in support. And it was probably agreed in the process that Pakistani contributions would be registered before the truce offer was made and accepted.
This acknowledgements played out like this: ISPR Director General Major General Asif Ghafoor held a press conference in which he said: “Whatever leverages Pakistan has, although those have reduced, we will use them for peace in Afghanistan.” The next day, Lisa Curtis, an official with US National Security Council looking after South and Central Asia, said, “We have asked for Pakistan’s assistance in facilitating a peace process.”
Then came the ceasefire and Pakistan’s foreign office followed up with welcoming it. “We particularly support all Afghan-owned and Afghan-led efforts aimed at bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan,” it said in a statement. Chinese, we know, operate quietly and have been coordinating their Afghan policy operations with Pakistan.
Now that this has happened, the next questions are about the sustainability of this peace initiative and whether the positivity generated by these reciprocal gestures would lead to a bigger peace effort. The next possible step would possibly be the prisoner swap. Taliban have already hinted at their intention to release some of the government men in their captivity and Ghani government is also thinking about setting free some Taliban fighters. Reciprocation by Ghani government, if it happens, would build on the positivity generated by ceasefire.
There is lot of optimism in Afghanistan about the process, at least at the official level.
“We hope that they will be committed to implement their announcement and the ceasefire. The government of Afghanistan is hopeful that this process will become a long term process and will result in a sustainable peace in Afghanistan,” said Haroon Chakhansoori, the deputy chief of staff and spokesperson to the Afghan president.
Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Dr Omar Zakhilwal was also very upbeat about the ceasefire. “Encouraging and important step towards prospects for peace. Hope the pleasure of shedding no Afghan blood in Eid becomes so overwhelming that rest of the year is also declared as Afghan Eid,” he tweeted.
Then there are sceptics as well, but they too expect that the move would ultimately help take Afghanistan towards peace. Afghan Outlook in its editorial wrote: “Many Afghans may not consider this initiative effective, but if we analyse it from the political perspective, even if this ceasefire in Afghanistan quickly collapses — as most analysts expect it to — it could have an immense impact on the conflict in the country.”
The situation is somehow also reminiscent of the bonhomie that followed the Muree talks between Afghan government and Taliban leaders, which were hosted by Pakistan and observed by China and US. President Ghani had, in his Eid message after Murree talks, praised Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader who was dead but no one except a few militant leaders knew about it, for backing the talks.
It is, therefore, hoped that the progress this time is genuine and spoilers do not get a chance to torpedo it. The reality, however, remains that the success of this initiative would depend on the role of various stakeholders and how seriously they intend to seize this opportunity and turn it into a basis for a longer ceasefire and peace resolution of the protracted conflict.
The writer is a free-lance journalist based in Islamabad