Afghans call for permanent ceasefire ahead of peace talks

The Taliban and Afghan government announced an Eid ceasefire on Tuesday

FILE PHOTO: Afghan National Army officers stand guard at the site of a blast in Ghazni province, Afghanistan May 18, 2020. REUTERS/Mustafa Andaleb/File Photo
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Afghans on Wednesday welcomed a three-day ceasefire but demanded it be made permanent, after the government and the Taliban said they would observe a truce that could kickstart peace talks as soon as next week.

The foes on Tuesday announced a temporary stoppage in Afghanistan's war, marking only the third official pause in nearly 19 years. It is slated to start on Friday and run for the duration of the Eid Al Adha Muslim festival.

Ali, a shopkeeper in Kabul who only gave one name, said three days was not enough.

"We want peace forever," he said. "We have the right to live in peace like other countries, we want our country to develop. We are all – old and young – tired of this war."

The Taliban – who over the years have steadfastly dismissed government calls for ceasefires and upped violence even after signing a deal with the US – announced they would down weapons for Eid after President Ashraf Ghani signalled progress in a contentious prisoner exchange.

"To demonstrate the government's commitment to peace, the Islamic Republic will soon complete the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners," Mr Ghani said, referring to the number of insurgent inmates the government originally pledged to free under the auspices of a US-Taliban deal agreed in February.

The swap is a crucial step to talks starting. Mr Ghani said negotiations could begin next week once the exchange was finished.

His spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said that Kabul would observe the ceasefire, but cautioned it did not go far enough.

"The people of Afghanistan demand a lasting ceasefire and the start of direct talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan," Mr Sediqqi said.

Fawzia Koofi, a prominent women's rights campaigner and member of the Afghan government's negotiating team, said on Twitter she was "hoping for a lasting and permanent ceasefire".

Ahmad Jawed Ahmady, a civil engineer, said he hoped for an enduring ceasefire and "peace forever".

Top US officials also hailed developments, including special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who was expected to meet government officials in Kabul on Wednesday.

The Taliban indicated last week they are also prepared to negotiate after Eid.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's spokesman for military operations, said insurgents must "refrain from carrying out any operation against the enemy during the three days and nights of Eid Al Adha so ... our countrymen would spend the Eid with confidence and joy."

The latest truce is only the third of its kind, with other ceasefires in June 2018 and May this year to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Those ceasefires prompted widespread relief across Afghanistan but were short-lived, with the insurgents returning to the fight straight afterwards to resume near-daily attacks.

The US-Taliban deal, signed in Doha on February 29, stated that the militants and Kabul should start direct peace talks on March 10, following the prisoner swap.

But that date passed amid political disarray in Kabul and disagreements over the exchange, with Afghan authorities saying some released Taliban inmates were returning to the battlefield.

Highlighting the toll on civilian and military forces in the months since the deal, Mr Ghani said more than 3,500 Afghan troops had been killed.

He said 775 civilians had also been killed and another 1,609 wounded since the deal.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has blamed the Taliban for the bulk of civilian casualties during the first half of 2020.

Observers say the recent bloodshed highlights the Taliban's determination to push for broad control in Afghanistan, and underscores how little the US can do to stop them.

The US-Taliban deal "was not designed to bring peace to Afghanistan, but to facilitate a face-saving exit of US forces and engagement from Afghanistan", said Nishank Motwani, deputy director at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.

"The Taliban fundamentally believe that victory is theirs."