Three Days of Peace: A Blueprint for Stability in Afghanistan
On June 7th, 2018, the government of Afghanistan announced a unilateral ceasefire was to occur between the 12th and 19th of June for Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday marking the end of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting. The measure was adopted for the first time in four decades of fighting, instability, and unrest. Shortly thereafter, the Taliban agreed to implement a three-day unilateral ceasefire from the 15th until the 17th of June. During the overlapping days between the two ceasefires, the 15th through the 17th, the two sides honored their commitments, halting violence for the first time in 17 years. According to the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Mr. Tadamichi Yamamoto, “Many Afghans reacted with jubilation [to the ceasefire and compliance]. Local government authorities invited the Taliban to lay down their arms and enter cities to visit their families. Some Afghan soldiers visited Taliban-controlled areas. Social media was inundated with photos of Taliban fighters embracing Afghan security forces.” Though respect for the three-day ceasefire was progress and represented a desire to end the bloodshed, the peace was brief. The Afghan government called for an extension of the ceasefire by ten days to build on the Eid peace. Unfortunately, the Taliban declined the offer and returned to arms.
3,000 Islamic scholars from around the world gathered in Kabul days prior to the armistice, imploring the government to implement a permanent ceasefire in the name of what they described as Islam’s peaceful values. “Islamic scholars convened in Kabul and issued a fatwa reminding us that the quest for peace is a commandment of Allah and a national imperative,” said Afghanistan’s President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. It showed the power and influence wielded by religious scholars around violent conflicts driven by sectarian, religious, and political divisions. The days that followed the ceasefire announcement provided a glimpse into a new Afghanistan. One of compassion, courage, and strength, an Afghanistan tired of war and hungry for peace. The international community welcomed the Taliban and Afghan government ceasefire as a step toward dialogue, peace, and reconciliation.
What lessons were learned from the ceasefire by the Afghanistan government and international observers who closely watched the events unfold? Many argued previously that achieving security, dialogue and reconciliation was near impossible given the fragmentation that’s characterized Afghanistan. According to the country’s president, “The widespread jubilation across our country demonstrates the strength of the Afghan identity.” While dialogue and peace between the Taliban and civilians is possible, reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government is a more ambitious goal. If the Afghan government is unwilling to make concessions regarding the Taliban’s political representation in the Afghan government or on the issue of US military involvement, progress through current measures is unlikely to succeed. And unfortunately, such concessions are unlikely given external opposition to an Afghanistan with increased Taliban influence.
The ceasefire demonstrates that the people of Afghanistan are tired of war. They are willing to do anything to precipitate its end. Civilians welcomed Taliban leadership and fighters warmly. Many Taliban approached the ceasefire in a reciprocal manner. According to the Afghan President, “The cease-fire also showed that imagination and a quest for inclusion are more potent than bullets and bombs. Had we not followed the will and wisdom of the Afghan people and taken this first step toward peace, the stalemate that prevented us from speaking to and accepting each other would not have been broken.” It is crucial that the Taliban, the international community, and the government of Afghanistan learn from the Eid peace and apply its lessons to bring about lasting peace in the future.
In June of 2018, the United States Department of Defense released a report describing US efforts to “enhance security and stability in Afghanistan” between December 1st of 2017 and May 31st of 2018. The report described changes in US policy given political, diplomatic, and military developments there. Afghan military and diplomatic efforts changed following US President Trump’s August 21st, 2017 announcement of new U.S. strategy for South Asia. Per the above-referenced statement, the US’s transition away from a time-based approach in Afghanistan “…sowed new doubt in the Taliban, as fighters and leadership recognized the US’s commitment to Afghanistan and to transforming the ANDSF (Afghan National Security Forces) into a lethal force capable of defending its homeland.” If the Taliban and its fighters accept that they can’t fight the US out of Afghanistan then they will value an alternate, peaceful path forward via dialogue and negotiations.
As of May 2018, the Taliban continued to receive outside support for training, and equipment from countries including Pakistan, Iran, and Russia. Such nations must be reminded that by supporting the Taliban they are fueling the conflict and making peace unattainable. The US and its partners must continue to disrupt and dismantle Taliban supply-lines, weakening the group, and driving it to a negotiation. Disrupting finances and destroying military resources supplied to the Taliban is as important as kinetic fighting. Per the above-referenced US DOD report, “We [the United States] continue to welcome any partner who supports a Kabul-led peace process without further destabilization of Afghanistan.”
Afghan President Ghani invited the Taliban to peace negotiations without preconditions. The February decision corresponded with heightened US military pressure, increased ANDSF capacity, and renewed confidence in the Afghan government led President Ghani. Openings for peace, like this post-Eid affair, have occurred only a few times during the war and the opportunity should not be squandered. It is unlikely the Taliban and the Afghan government will find similar opportunities in their future. The pressure is on the Taliban: it could end violence in exchange for heightened political influence. The United States and other armed forces in Afghanistan are a fact the Taliban must accept. It should recognize that the only path toward reduced foreign military intervention lies in negotiation.
According to the US Department of Defense, “The Afghan government now pursues a political settlement with the Taliban using a two-pronged approach that emphasizes increased military pressure to open the door for meaningful peace negotiations with reconcilable factions of the Taliban.” Further, it is claimed in the same report that, “The Afghan government is aware that the offer alone is not enough; it must be matched by a carefully crafted plan for negotiating peace, and for reintegrating Taliban fighters into civil society.”
According to President Ashraf Ghani, “Half of Afghanistan’s population — around 33 million — is young enough to have never seen a day of peace. The milestones of their young lives have been marked by loss and violence. For 38 years now, peace in my country has remained a dream, a prayer on our lips.” The Afghan people deserve to live in peace and tranquility. Future generations of Afghans should be able to enjoy the culture, history, and natural beauty that makes their country extraordinary. “For three days,” President Ghani said, “it made no difference whether you were a Talib or an Afghan soldier; a woman or a man; a Tajik, a Pashtun or a Hazara. For three days, Afghans were united and elated by the possibility of peace. We rediscovered tolerance and acceptance within.” Only through a willingness to dialogue in a spirit of compromise will the Taliban and the Afghan government deliver a peaceful Afghanistan to those who call the country home.